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Fostering a dog—taking a dog into your home and providing it with shelter and care for a predetermined amount of time or until a forever home is found—is one of the most rewarding things a dog person can do. Our guide on how to foster a dog covers how to tell if you’re ready to foster, what to expect, preparing your home, and getting in touch with a rescue or shelter.
In other words, everything you need to know to become a foster dog parent, from a foster dog parent.
If you’re not familiar with how dog fostering works, you might be a little worried about the time commitment and emotional strain of caring for an unfamiliar dog and then letting it go.
Here’s how to tell if you’re ready to try fostering:
- You want to help transform a shelter dog into a pet, and help another family find the right dog for their home.
- You’ve been thinking about getting a dog but you’re not sure you’re ready for the lifelong emotional and financial commitment, and you want to get some practice while helping dogs in need.
- You want to give your current dog some canine companionship.
- You have space in your home and schedule to accommodate a temporary canine guest and give her the attention she needs.
If you nodded in understanding at more than one of the above reasons, you might be ready to foster!
Shelters typically foster out dogs who are too stressed out by the shelter environment or need more individual attention than the shelter can provide (including puppies who are too young to be adopted).
The most common reasons foster homes are needed are:
- The shelter is overcrowded, and placing dogs in foster care frees up space to save more dogs.
- The rescue group wants to learn more about a dog’s personality and behavior in a home setting.
- A young, energetic dog needs to learn some basic manners before being made available for adoption.
- A shy or timid dog needs a safe place to come out of her shell.
- A dog is recovering from illness or injury.
- A senior or sick dog needs loving hospice care.
- The rescue or shelter is being affected by a natural disaster, and a foster home is safer.
Of course, there are also foster-based rescue groups that don’t work out of a facility, but instead rely on foster homes to shelter and care for dogs.
For these groups, foster homes provide the necessary caregiving, training, and assessment to help dogs find forever homes, and are a vital aspect of their lifesaving work.
The main function of a foster home is to provide a safe, loving home environment. For the most part, this entails caring for your foster as you would care for your own dog: offering food, affection, socialization, and exercise to keep the dog happy and healthy.
As a doggy foster parent, you may also be asked to:
- Transport the dog to and from adoption events.
- Participate in obedience training at home and/or in classes.
- Report back to the shelter/rescue workers with information about the dog’s personality and behavior.
- Speak with potential adopters to tell them about your foster dog and help determine if they are a good match.
Your time and commitment level can vary depending on your schedule and the rescue group’s needs, and when you start fostering, the rescue will help match you with a dog that suits your lifestyle and home. First-time fosters can get their feet wet with “easier” dogs; the more invested and experienced in fostering you become, the more willing and able you may be to take on challenges.
No matter what kind of dogs you foster, all foster homes provide the valuable service of socializing a dog and getting to know its personality. Your relationship with the dog is key information in helping find its forever home.
You may wonder, do you get paid to foster animals? Keep in mind most rescues are working within a tight budget, and fostering is one of the most helpful and rewarding volunteer positions you can provide.
Foster programs prioritize the needs of the dog and try to make sure foster homes have all the resources they need to be successful, from food to leashes and a crate to veterinary care and training.
You won’t make any money fostering dogs, but you will be hugely rewarded in playtime, snuggles, and the indescribable feeling of knowing you are helping to save a life.
One of the greatest rewards of fostering is watching a rescue dog bloom into a pet, but of course, it’s not without its challenges. Foster dogs sometimes need to learn the basic rules of living in a house, including:
- Appropriate greeting behavior with humans
- Appropriate play behavior with other dogs
As you gain experience as a foster, you may be asked (or volunteer) to take on dogs with more challenging behavioral or medical needs, or even move into hospice care, which is challenging and rewarding in a completely different way.
Whatever your foster dog needs, remember that the shelter or rescue group is your ally and support network.
For many people, the biggest cost of fostering dogs is emotional. It can be hard to say goodbye to a dog after spending weeks or months caring for it, and may experience sadness or what rescue workers call “foster guilt.”
The important thing to remember is that fostering saves lives, and by letting your foster dog go to a forever home, you free up space for another dog in need.
In time, the saying goodbye part gets easier, and the feeling of helping a dog find its forever home gets addictive.
Taking in a foster dog requires some preparation, even if you already have dogs in your home. Foster dogs often come with very little to their name and need their own toys and other supplies to help them settle in and feel at home.
While many shelters and rescues receive donations of toys and other supplies, sometimes the needs are greater than the supply. Some good things to ask about or purchase to prepare for your furry guest are:
- A baby gate (For keeping your foster dog contained in a room or section of your home.)
- A dog bed (Many foster dogs come with a crate, but you may want them to have a comfortable place to lounge.)
- A dog brush (Important for dogs with frequent grooming needs.)
- Enzyme cleaners (A strange place + strange people can mean accidents)
- Bitter apple spray (To discourage inappropriate chewing)
- Dog toys (To avoid resource guarding with any existing dogs in your home. Ask the rescue about appropriate toys.)
- Training treats (We have a great guide on training treats)
The best thing is that these items can be purchased online and delivered to your door. Unfortunately, not everything about prepping for your foster dog is that easy.
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 curtains or drapes that can be chewed or pulled off the wall out of reach
- 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 (Or purchase a “dog-proof” trashcan)
- 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).
You’ll also want to check with the rescue or shelter about their rules for foster dogs. Some don’t allow you to let the dog free in your yard unsupervised, due to the flight risk foster dogs represent.
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.
There are many reasons a dog may end up at a rescue shelter, and one of them could be that they come from an abusive home. If you foster a formerly abused dog, put yourself in their 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 and its resulting behavioral and emotional toils, 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. 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 their dish with having their food stolen.
- Biting when seemingly cornered. Your dog may feel threatened because in the past, being approached this way led to abuse. They might be used to being outside and having endless escape routes, which can make them even more anxious. The fact is, they simply aren’t used to people approaching them 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 may be their first consistent source of love and understanding.
Show them they have nothing to fear from you, even when they do something unwanted. A nervous bladder is only made worse by yelling, so instead work to reinforce their proper potty behaviors.
Nervous chewing on inappropriate items can be easily avoided by providing long-lasting chews.
Treats, bits of food, clickers, and toys are all potential training aids for your foster pup. Discuss with your shelter whether or not they’ll need special tools to accommodate any physical limitations.
Why is fostering a dog so great? For starters, fostering is one of the most direct things you can do to save lives. Fostering:
- Makes room for other dogs in the shelter, freeing up space to help more dogs in need;
- Builds on your canine expertise;
- Gives you those warm, fuzzy feelings only volunteering can provide;
- Brings the fun and companionship of a dog into your life. There’s nothing like seeing a shelter dog blossom into a loving companion, and sending her off to a happy family who found their match thanks to you.
Of course, fostering comes with one big hazard that can also be one of its biggest rewards: you just might fall in love!
“Foster failures” abound in the dog rescue world, and I know because I am one myself: my dog Radar was supposed to be a temporary foster dog, but I soon realized I couldn’t imagine him belonging to anyone but me.
Okay, so you’ve read all the facts, you’ve decided you can handle the commitment, and you’re ready to try this fostering thing. The easiest way to get started fostering is to connect with a reputable rescue group. Petfinder and the ASPCA both have extensive lists of rescues and shelters looking for foster parents.
A simple web search of shelters and rescue groups in your area will get you started with a list, but don’t stop there: communicate with the facility, either through a video call or the phone, and try to talk to other foster parents that have worked with the organization before.
Facebook groups and other social media can be a big help determining if the group you’re considering is the right match for you.
Do your research! Dog fostering is a big commitment, and the best way to determine if it’s right for you is to talk to people who have experience.
Fostering can be challenging, but if you’re anything like me, once you get going, you won’t want to stop.