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The Guide to Becoming an Effective and Loving Foster Dog Parent

Opening up your heart and home to a foster dog is a rewarding and noble deed. By taking him in, you’re saving his life. Millions of dogs die in shelters every year because facilities simply run out of space and resources. Plus, shelter life can be stressful and downright scary for dogs; there are constantly new smells and sounds all around them, not to mention the countless strange dogs and people. A loving foster home is far more ideal for a rescued pup, and rescue organizations are constantly in need of them.

This guide is for anyone thinking of becoming a foster dog parent, those who already are, and those who may decide to become one further in the future. It will help you figure out if dog fostering is right for you and help you get prepared as the time comes. It will illustrate the amazing changes you’ll bring to your foster dog’s life and provide insight into fostering dogs with behavioral and emotional disabilities. Finally, it will debunk common misconceptions about fostering and provide resources to get you started in dog fostering in your community.

Foster Dog Parent: Are You Right for the Job?

Dog fostering isn’t just for diehard animal lovers or current pet owners. It’s for anyone! If you love animals but don’t want to own one full-time, or if you want your own pets to have more experience socializing with dogs, fostering is a great option. You’ll be helping save a life and give a rescued pooch a better shot at getting adopted.

Fostering is also a more flexible option than adoption. It’s temporary, and you can choose how you do it. Perhaps you prefer to foster special needs dogs, or maybe only puppy litters during puppy season. Many rescue organizations will work to accommodate your requests as long as you ask early and give them plenty of notice about any changes.

So are you right for the job? The biggest question to ask yourself is whether or not you can provide a safe and loving environment with adequate attention and interaction. A good foster dog parent has great patience and understanding. It requires a special kind of love and compassion; while it’s crucial to provide the most loving and nurturing home possible to your foster, his forever home is out there waiting for him.

Though a fenced yard is certainly ideal for foster dog homes, many shelters and rescue organizations don't require it and are even open to foster apartments. It is important to make sure he’ll have a designated space, usually with a crate. This should be a quiet, calm area where he can decompress and relax when he’s feeling over-stimulated, complete with items to soothe him like chew bones and goody-stuffed toys.

A proper foster home will also go through a certain level of dog-proofing:

  • Clear out small and sharp objects like paper clips, nails, staples, needles, and rubber bands from low tables and floors

  • Move electrical cords out of reach, or even cover them with PVC pipe, to prevent chewing

  • Keep washer and dryer units closed (and always check that they’re empty before using)

  • Cover trash cans to keep out curious noses

  • Install childproof latches for cabinets where toxic cleaning supplies and medications are kept

  • Keep toilet lids closed (safety latches optional)

  • Keep all houseplants out of reach

It’s also vital to get down to a dog’s eye-level to look for safety hazards you may have missed, including small holes, tight spaces between furniture, and escape opportunities in your backyard fence (if you have one). Never underestimate a dog’s size versus a space; they’ll surprise you, and even if they don’t make a great escape, they could seriously injure themselves trying.

Keep in mind that right now may not be the right time to foster. If anyone in your household is dealing with allergies, health issues, career instability, or financial woes, now is probably not the best time to foster. Or if your family simply has an overloaded schedule and adding another responsibility would create even more stress, foster at a less-hectic time. Bringing a foster dog into a stressful environment is not only taxing for you, it’s counterproductive to his recovery and training.

How to Get Educated Before Your Foster Dog Comes to Stay

Most foster organizations will provide all foster families with proper training, but there are plenty of outside resources as well.

The American Kennel Club has an online database with extensive information on almost every dog breed, including general health information, exercise needs, and temperament. It’s a great way to figure out what breeds would be right for your family — for example, bringing an extremely active breed into a relatively sedentary home would be a poor match. It’s also a fantastic resource to gain insight into what you might expect after you’ve been assigned a foster.

This resource from the Anti-Cruelty Society has downloadable personality profile guides for foster pets. These can give you a good idea of what kinds of behaviors to keep an eye out for and which will be important to keep notes on, like interactions with children, fears, reactions when frightened, favorite activities, interactions with other animals, and favorite toys. There are also links to articles on tackling improper attention-seeking behavior, preventing animal bites, and socializing dogs with other creatures.

If you’re a total newbie to the pet game, check out this resource from the ASPCA. It’s got tips on general dog care, nutrition and grooming information, as well as common behavior issues. It’s important to know potential problems ahead of time, not to mention to understand why they occur in the first place.

There are countless dog training videos on YouTube for specific commands and issues, but you may want to consult with your shelter before committing to any one regimen. Some shelters prefer their foster dogs to be trained a certain way with a specific method, so find out if yours has any requirements.

Why Foster? All the Ways You'll Change Your Foster Dog's Life - and Your Own

Most importantly: You’re saving your foster dog’s life! And it doesn’t stop there. Foster families play a vital role in a rescued pooch’s journey because they are often the first to find out about his unique personality and teach him basic house manners. Fostering keeps dogs out of shelters where they’re under extremely stressful conditions dominated by loud noise and strange smells. The love and warmth of a foster family can make a world of difference. In fact, foster dogs are often better socialized and less stressed than shelter dogs, and they have a lower chance of getting sick.

And it’s not just your foster pet that will benefit. Your own pets will learn more social skills and potentially gain a playmate, plus you can gain experience in training all kinds of dogs. If you’re considering adopting an additional pet or maybe your first pet ever, fostering is a great way to give you an idea of the time commitments and monetary requirements. (But be sure not to see it as a “trial adoption” for your foster — his forever family is looking for him!)

To truly provide these dogs benefits for the future, it’s important for foster families to work with their dogs on house manners, especially because shelter life may have caused some stress issues. Common behavioral issues like barking, destructive chewing, digging, territory marking, separation anxiety, and leash-pulling can be challenging but fixable. If these behaviors occur, ask yourself a few questions about your foster dog:

  • Is he getting enough exercise?

  • If you have no other dogs, are you providing him outlets to be social (like the dog park)?

  • Are you and your family interacting and playing with him on a regular basis?

  • Is he being left alone and un-stimulated for long periods of time?

  • Does he have a safe place with a bed and his own toys?

  • Is he acting up at specific times, such as when you leave your house for work?

Answering these questions can give you some insight into what the real problem is and how to improve it.

Shelter life can also lead to a regression in potty training, so get him on a regular schedule as quickly as possible. Introduce him to his toileting areaas soon as you bring him home. Spend plenty of time letting him get to know the area so he will eventually relieve himself. Make it routine to go outside often so you can figure out his schedule, then eliminate trips as you can.

Have patience with any new pet that enters your home. Dogs learn desired behavior through positive reinforcement: rewarding good behavior and ignoring undesired behavior. Never yell at or physically punish your foster dog. Not only can it worsen current issues, it can also create brand new ones. Many of these dogs haven’t been in an organized loving home in months (if ever) and may not remember or know all the rules.

Special Cases: Fostering Dogs with Behavioral and Emotional Disabilities

There are many reasons a dog may end up at a rescue shelter, and one of them could be that he comes from an abusive home. If you foster a formerly abused dog, put yourself in his position: if almost every human you’d come into contact with had ignored or mistreated you, you’d be suspicious and nervous around them, too. Though not every dog you foster will suffer from a broken home life and its resulting behavioral and emotional tolls, it is these dogs that most desperately need good foster homes.

Living in a repressive environment can cause a dog to develop defense mechanisms that make him feel safe. Common misbehaviors displayed by once-abused dogs include:

  • A lack of housetraining. Abusive former owners may have left their dog for days at a time with no proper potty set-up. Other dogs may have spent their whole lives outside and don’t understand the concept of indoors versus outdoors. Other times, he may have attempted to cue you but you simply didn’t understand. Extra compassion and patience can help you remedy this confusion.

  • Territorialism with food. It’s possible that your foster dog was once malnourished due to underfeeding or competing with others for limited resources. It can lead to an association of other people and animals around his dish with having his food stolen. It will make him anxious to protect it.

  • Biting when seemingly cornered. Your dog may feel threatened because in the past, being approached this way led to abuse. He might be used to being outside and having endless escape routes, which can make him even more anxious. The fact is, he simply isn’t used to people approach him with affection.

Your rescue dog may need to learn to trust humans again, and that is why your role is so important. Your role as foster dog parent is to be his first consistent source of love and understanding. Show him he has nothing to fear from you, even when he does something unwanted. A nervous bladder is only made worse by yelling, so instead work to reinforce his proper potty behaviors. Nervous chewing can be easily avoided by providing chew bones and rawhides.

Treats, bits of food, clickers and toys are all potential training aids for your foster pup. Discuss with your shelter whether or not he’ll need special tools to accommodate for any physical limitations. And don’t forget to clean with enzymatic cleaners to thoroughly remove odors.

Debunking the Myths About Dog Fostering

There are many misconceptions out there about dog fostering. Let’s set the record straight.

  • Myth: Fostering is very expensive. Actually, fostering is usually very close to free! Food is usually donated or provided along with a few toys and treats to get you started. Healthcare expenses like medications and veterinary visits are almost always covered by the fostering organization. Your biggest expenses will be time and love!

  • Myth: Shelter dogs are in there because there’s something wrong with them.There’s a misconception that shelter dogs were all once strays or returned due to aggression and thus all have emotional problems. On the contrary, plenty of dogs wind up at shelters because they were given up by families who could no longer afford a pet, or who were not properly prepared for the dog they adopted. If you do choose to foster a dog rescued from an abusive situation, you’ll be granting him an irreplaceable chance at life and your shelter will provide you with plenty of training and resources.

  • Myth: Shelter dogs have diseases.Though kennel cough can be relatively common, shelter dogs are provided with routine medical care like the DHPP shot and rabies vaccinations. They’re also treated regularly for fleas, ticks, and worms.

  • Myth: You can’t take breaks between fosters.While there is no specific rule on time between fosters, it certainly doesn’t hurt to take a little time off in-between. Enjoy sleeping in on weekends without worrying about a potty accident, or take that vacation you had to postpone. Don’t feel guilty about giving yourself a break — it’s important your foster dog feels wanted and not burdensome. When you’re ready to dive back in you’ll know it.

  • Myth: Your emotional attachment becomes too great to be able to part with your foster dog.Though it can certainly be difficult, it isn’t impossible to say goodbye to your foster. It’s truly gratifying to know he’s found a loving forever home. When possible, it can be helpful to be the one to unite your foster with his new family and see the joy that ensues. You might even consider exchanging emails to receive updates and photos! And, while it’s sad to let go of one pup, you’ll soon be opening your home to another dog in need and saving yet another life. Is there a greater possible reward than that?

Fostering a dog is an experience everyone should consider. It’s an extremely rewarding chance to not only save a life, but to also dramatically improve it. Check out this shelter search engine to help you find a rescue organization near you and begin an unforgettable journey. And don’t forget that you can foster all kinds of animals in addition to dogs, from cats to rabbits to reptiles!

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