What if every dog person fostered just one dog?
Think about that for a minute. What would happen?
First of all, a lot of people would end up adopting that one dog.
Swell! What a great outcome.
Nala, the first of the two fosters we couldn’t give up.
Outcome #2: Some people would send their foster off to an adopter, as planned. But they’d miss her and regret it. They’d immediately go out and adopt a new rescue they wouldn’t have to give away. Also swell!
The third thing that would happen? That’s a little fantasy of mine. Some would discover, like we did, that this is outrageously rewarding, and they’d open their house up again and again.
I’d love to make it easier for you to foster that first dog by answering the most common questions. While you’ll get the best, most detailed information from your own local rescues and shelters, I can explain the broad outlines. Different groups, of course, have different approaches. I’ve worked with a handful of organizations, and what follows is based on my experiences with them.
Where do your foster dogs come from?
Most of my fosters are originally from underfunded rural public shelters. Because they have neither a wealth of adopters nor the funding for ongoing care, those places have few good choices. Euthanasia rates of healthy, adoptable animals are still alarmingly high. Increasingly, though, those shelters work with private rescue groups to get their animals a “freedom ride” to a more populated area, where their chance of finding a home grows exponentially.
For example, the group I’ve worked with most often is Homeward Trails Animal Rescue, based outside of Washington, DC, which has relationships with perhaps a dozen different shelters in rural parts of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.
Here’s a typical scenario: Homeward Trails works with their shelter partner to assess which animals to “pull.” Once they decide, Homeward Trails puts out the word to their foster-home network. That’s where people like me come in: If the timing’s right, the fit looks great, or if I just see a face I can’t resist, I’ll let them know I’m open. Anywhere from a day to a week later, our family is meeting our new pup(s).
How do the dogs actually get to you?
You would be amazed at the giant network of volunteers who give so much of their time to move these dogs. The more established, well-resourced rescues might own a van for transport, but many rely on a group of volunteers who offer to drive dogs from point A to point B. Saturday after Saturday, they will load up their own vehicles with crates of dogs, then drive two hours to a rendezvous in a parking lot of a Denny’s or a Holiday Inn. After a quick hello, a second volunteer takes the dogs on the next leg of the journey. Different dogs will “get off” at different spots. One route may go all the way from, say, Georgia to Maine, or Tennessee to Connecticut. It is beautifully organized. Typically there are printed schedules and ETA updates via text. There are folders, vet records, and if appropriate, dewormers, vaccinations, and flea preventatives. Eventually, I go out to my pickup spot and drive home with a crate full of cute. (Smelly, but cute.)
Driving home after picking up Sawyer, Scout, and Sasha.
What do you do when they first get to your house?
Most of the time my puppy fosters have been in a shelter for a few days or more, and that often means they are shockingly stinky. The long car ride in a crate where at least some littermates relieve themselves does not help that situation.
Therefore, the first order of business is a bath in our upstairs tub, where we have the all-important spray-handle attachment. Also critical: a mat for traction, since slipping in that tub adds exponentially to the panic factor for these guys. Most pups are nervous during that bath, but every now and then you get one whose reaction says, OMG — this is amazing.We bathe one pup at a time, go through a giant stack of towels, dry everybody off as well as we possibly can so nobody gets a chill, and then cuddle them for a nice long nap in front of the gas fireplace in our rec room, which doubles as the puppy den.
I love to have all hands on deck for that first bath. This is Grace and Claire, years ago, helping with Brownie, Cheesecake, and Coffee Cake.
What if my dogs don’t get along with the foster dog?
The vast majority of people who foster have their own resident dogs. What I’ve learned — mostly from the private Facebook groups designed specifically to help fosters share information and help one another — is that every dog is different, every pack is different, every household is different. Some households don’t let adult fosters and residents mingle at all. Others go very slowly in introducing fosters to their own pack. Crates and gates and smart management can make that all work out just fine.
Eli and Nala meeting mama Kinsey.
Then there are fosters like us. We typically have a new mama-dog foster happily mingling with our pack — including our cat — within hours. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I never would have thought it possible. But we have brought a dozen displaced nursing moms — surely one of the trickiest subset of dogs? — onto this property with their pups. Every single one was asking to hang out with our dogs within hours. Mind you, we are very careful. We set a clear, happy, calm-and-controlled tone; we go one at a time; we have somebody on leash at first; and we watch for all the right signals. I am constantly aware of hot-button issues (food, toys, doors, overexcitement, and so on), and I keep a close eye to be sure we’re reading things right.
For us, it has always been the case that an adult foster ends up being a fun friend for our pack. There’s typically more energized play than usual, and it’s a win-win.
What if the puppies drive my dog crazy?
When you foster puppies who aren’t yet housebroken, keep them in a contained area to minimize mess and maximize safety. For that reason, it’s very easy to allow your resident dogs to ignore them entirely. If you happen to have dogs who are interested in pups, all the better. The dog-to-dog socialization skills the pups will pick up from a solid older dog are gold. All four of our dogs are trustworthy with puppies, and we frankly rely on them quite a bit to instill good manners. But not all adult dogs are ready for the constant onslaught of puppy enthusiasm, so making sure your adult dog can always opt away from the chaos is the simple key.
This is Eli with foster pup Sally. Not all adult dogs will tolerate puppies, but when they do, it’s bliss for the puppy. Even though our dogs are used to this, we make sure they always have a choice about whether to interact.
What about expenses?
People worry that it’ll be expensive to foster, but it doesn’t have to cost you a dime. Most rescue groups and shelters will supply you with food and equipment like crates, gates, bowls, collars, and leashes. (I buy food myself because it’s more convenient, and then I deduct it as a charitable contribution on our taxes.)
As for medical costs, those should be completely covered by your rescue as long as you follow the protocols. Meaning: You can’t just run your foster over to your own vet whenever you’re worried about something. In my case, the rescue group gives me puppy vaccinations, dewormer, and simple meds like antibiotics. They are experienced at dealing with common parasites and infections. If something outside the norm happens, I get approval for a vet visit and then head to one of the rescue-approved vets in the area who can bill the rescue directly.
What’s the most underrated dog-management trick?
I love a good gate.
So many of the challenges of puppyhood are solved by this one beautiful device. Depending on the issue of the moment — chewing, peeing, jumping, inter-dog-or-cat-or-kid mingling — the gates can be moved and adjusted. I used to have only basic utilitarian gates and pens, but since we always need some barrier or other, I’ve invested in pretty ones so that I won’t resent having them up. Controlling access with gates allows me to give foster pups more exposure and better socialization, rather than isolating them “away” where they can’t do much damage.
What about household destruction?
I would be remiss not to note that the biggest and most unpredictable cost of fostering — at least in my case — is household destruction. If I cared more, and/or if I had total control over every family member, this wouldn’t be an issue. However, when we get too relaxed, things get ruined. I’ve given up on our wooden kitchen chairs, the stiles of which are the ideal teething height and texture for any puppy. What I wasn’t ready for was the stealth destruction of my Birkenstocks, my new quilt, and my new ottoman all in the same weekend. If I were to actually replace those things, that total would be . . . oops, I am just not going to think about that. I believe my point is made. Food costs are nothing compared to potential household destruction if you aren’t careful. Again, this can be avoided with good management.
Am I a good candidate for fostering?
Asking if you’re a good candidate for fostering indicates that you’re likely a good candidate! It means you’re interested, but you take it seriously enough to know that it’s not always easy. There is such a wide variety of fostering experiences that I’d say most dog-lovers could find a situation that will work for them. For instance, sharing your couch with a happy, older, housebroken beagle is very different than rehabbing a giant resource-guarding rottweiler or letting a couple of puppies toddle around in your kitchen.
There are some key attributes that come in handy in every dog fostering situation, in my opinion:
· Some basic dog experience
· A love of problem-solving
· Keen observational skills
· An enjoyment of hanging out at home
What kind of dog is the easiest to foster?
Hands down, my suggestion for a first-time foster is to take a smaller dog who’s just been given up by an owner for a nonbehavioral reason, like allergies. In that case, you’d likely have a housebroken dog who’s used to living in a home. You’ll have plenty of info on whether the dog is good with people, with other dogs, with cats, or with whatever might matter in your home. You just pop the dog right into your house and enjoy them.
This can be especially ideal for anybody who has one energetic dog who is yearning for a playmate. You’re essentially giving your dog a weeks-long sleepover. Plus, your dog will probably go a long way toward helping the foster settle in quickly.
Darling one-year-old Belle was our easiest foster ever. Given up because of allergies, she was already housebroken, civilized, and so much fun.
What kind of dog might be too hard for me in the beginning?
Of course, I don’t want to stop you from reaching out to whatever dog most speaks to you, but some fosters are much more difficult than others. You want to lean on the rescue group to guide you. It’s wonderful when there is detailed information on an incoming dog. Sometimes, dogs have been at the originating shelter for a long time, and employees know their personalities and about any issues. Other dogs can be a mystery. If a dog has just arrived, has very little background info, and is giving off a very scared vibe, then it might be better to let that one go to a more experienced foster home.
What about fostering a puppy?
Fostering puppies can be an ideal introduction to the whole shebang. First of all, they’re puppies! Second: There’s little risk. Puppies won’t bite out of fear, escape out of skittishness, or fight with your resident dogs. For first-timers, I suggest fostering a pair of littermates who are about eight weeks old. They’ll be darling, happily containable in a pen, and amused by each other. They get adopted very quickly at this age, so your stint would likely be just a manageable week or two.
What about fostering a nursing litter?
For me, there’s nothing as rewarding as giving a poor mama dog a safe haven and a peaceful place to take care of her pups. However, it’s a complex undertaking! The youngest of pups are fragile, and things can head south frighteningly fast. Even if everything’s perfect in terms of health, there’s simply an enormous amount of round-the-clock care and cleanup. If you have keen observational skills, lots of dog know-how, and a willingness to dive in, though, I think it’s the most fun you can have in fostering.
How do you set up an area for a nursing litter?
It’s not imperative to have a perfect setup for a nursing litter, but it helps. For us, the key is our basement, which is a finished rec room with access to the yard. We’ve got a big old sectional couch in front of a giant TV, which is on top of a warm gas fireplace. It’s a nice place to hang out, which is critical because little puppies need to be around lots of people to get well socialized.
The far end of the room is for puppies, and that setup changes as the pups grow. Generally, I use long, adjustable, stand-alone gates to establish a little rectangle. When we have a mama dog, I like for her to be able to escape from her pups, so I use a leatherette stool as a kind of “gate” to the pen. She can easily hop over, but the pups cannot. On the floor inside the pen, I place a tarp covered with layers of newspaper.
At one end of the puppy den, I layer lots of blankets and towels for a comfy, 100-percent machine-washable dog bed. Because puppies sometimes find it hard to grip the newspaper, and I want to help them develop their muscles as they play, I’ll lay a towel in front of the bed area. The rest of the floor is just newspaper, and even tiny pups will instinctively go over there to do their business. I have just started experimenting with a litter box concept, filling the tray from the bottom of a crate with pine pellets, which cuts down on cleanup.
The puppy den, all ready. Rocket must see I’m nesting, and new ones are arriving.
What supplies do you need for a litter?
Here’s what I keep within arm’s reach:
· Stacks of newspapers
· Piles of fresh towels/blankets
· Trash bags and grocery/newspaper bags
· Paper towels
· Wipes of various kinds for hands, floor, puppies
· Food and water bowls
· Puppy kibble
· Puppy scale (if pups are newborn to four weeks)
· Nail clippers
· Pen and paper for health notes
What if I have a trip planned?
Fostering is typically an open-ended commitment: You have the dogs until they’re adopted. Feeling you can’t leave town at all until that point would knock many people out of the fostering pool. That’s where a good foster network comes in, so that you can “babysit” one another’s puppies. The rescue group you work with can hook you up at first, and after a while, you’ll build your own list of trusted subs.
Gilbert and Greer were pups I “babysat” for another foster when she went out of town.
What about diseases and parasites foster dogs could be carrying?
Of course, dogs can have diseases and parasites that are, well, yucky at best. Many can be transmitted to other animals and even humans. However, we’ve had 150-plus rescues through this house in eight years, and nobody in our pack — human, canine, or feline — has “caught” something as a result. That’s not to say we haven’t seen conditions that needed treatment or that could potentially spread. But there’s plenty of easy stuff we do to minimize our risk:
· Our own dogs and cats are, of course, on preventatives for worms, fleas, and ticks, and they’re up to date on all vaccinations.
· We wash our hands all the time. And I mean all the time.
· All fosters are thoroughly treated with appropriate dewormers and preventatives.
· I am obsessed with cleaning up poop immediately and completely.
· When I have a litter, I change their bedding several times a day. (Yes, that’s a lot of laundry.)
· If there’s something like kennel cough, I keep the foster separate from our dogs. It’s a pain, but worth it.
That’s not spaghetti. That’s what you sometimes see if you give a dewormer to a foster who has never been dewormed before. The upside: Think how much better the poor little guy feels now.
Who finds homes for foster dogs?
When you foster, your rescue group or shelter will use their resources to search for a good home. At minimum, each foster pup usually makes it onto the group’s website with a photo and a basic write-up. The bigger the name recognition and social media presence that group has, the bigger the pile of potential adopters.
For us, it helps that we live in the highly populated suburbs of Washington, DC, where on any given weekend, thousands of wonderful potential adopters are a half-hour drive from the visit that’ll seal the deal. Many of our local rescues host adoption events where you can bring your foster dog for a few hours to meet potential adopters.
If you’re farther from a population center, you and your rescue group will have to make the web do the work for you. Petfinder.com is a godsend to homeless animals everywhere. Founded in 1996, it now lists over three hundred thousand pets from fourteen thousand organizations.
But ... how do I say goodbye? Ah. The biggie.
I won't lie. It's hard. But soon enough, every time you check your phone, you'll find the happiest photos ever from an over-the-moon adopter who can't remember life without this dog. You'll realize it was meant to go this way. You'll smile. And then you'll reach out for your next foster.