What to know, do, and ask before you foster a dog

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re either a dog parent, a dog lover, or both.

Of course, just because someone loves dogs doesn’t necessarily mean they’re ready or even interested in adopting. However, it may mean they’re a fit to foster a dog.

If this sounds like you, or if you’ve been considering becoming a dog foster parent, this post is designed to help you decide if fostering a dog is a fit. We cover everything from questions to ask yourself, what to look for in a rescue organization, and what it means to “foster fail.”

How to know if fostering a dog is right for you

The past few years have seen a spike in dog fostering and adoptions. It seems more time at home has opened more people’s minds to the possibility (not to mention the love) of a furry friend in their midst.

As explained by Humane Canada, this evolution in animal services towards a more community-centered approach has tremendous potential benefits for organizations, fosters, and dogs alike. In 2020, shelter intakes were at a record low; this means more animals were welcomed in by people willing to provide the necessary support until these dogs found their forever families. And, as anyone who has spent time with dogs knows, the support definitely runs both ways.

Benefits aside, how do you decide whether or not to foster a dog? Even if the commitment is smaller than a full-blown adoption, becoming a dog foster still comes with requirements and responsibilities.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut formula to decide if fostering a dog is right for you, but the best advice we can give is to listen to your gut. Gut checks can (and should) happen at any stage of the process—even after meeting your prospective foster. No matter the reason, if it doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts.

If it’s a timing issue and you can’t yet comfortably and confidently care for a dog in need, that’s okay. Ask your local shelter to stay on their “foster roster” for a time when your gut tells you to go for it.

The benefits of fostering a dog

We could go on and on about the benefits of choosing to foster a dog, but we’ve narrowed it down to four:

  1. Mutual love. Fostering a dog is a selfless act of love. After all, you’re choosing to nurture a dog’s needs knowing full well that the dog may only be in your care for a few weeks, a few months, or—in the case of foster fails (more on this in a minute)—forever. Even if it takes your foster dog time to warm up, they can feel the love you give.
  2. Mutual health. Researchers have found that fostering a dog can improve health outcomes of both you as the foster parent and your dog. The time you both spend together can decrease stress and loneliness, known contributors to a variety of physical and mental ailments.
  3. Better chance of adoption. Because foster dogs tend to have lower stress levels and are better socialized, they have more “shelf appeal” to potential adopters. The time you invest in training your foster dog is time well spent.
  4. Fewer dogs turned away from shelters. Capacity is an ongoing issue for many shelters and rescue organizations; they simply don’t have the space they need to accommodate the animals that are either found or surrendered. By fostering a dog, you make room for another animal to receive the care it deserves.

Interview with a foster fail

Stuart - Foster a dog - Waggle Mail

More often than not, when you foster a dog you expect that when the time comes, you’ll wish them well as they head off to their forever home. But when that forever home turns out to be your home, that is endearingly called a foster fail.

Failing tends to get a bad rap, but in this case, we respectfully disagree. When you know, you know. A few of our team members are proud foster fails, as are some of our subscribers. We asked Stuart (dog dad to Waggle Mail member Duke) about his foster experience:

Did you foster dogs before Duke? How would you describe the experience?

I fostered a few dogs before foster failing with Duke. Every dog I’ve fostered has been through Second Chance Animal Rescue Society (SCARS for short); they’re a really great, well-run organization in Edmonton, Canada.

Every dog fostering experience I’ve had has been positive and rewarding. I was—and still am—amazed at how quickly you form a bond with your foster dog, and how adaptable dogs are to new people and spaces.

What led you to foster failing with Duke?

Duke was the dog I couldn’t let go of; I felt nauseous at the thought of not having him in my life. I’d had dogs before, so I kind of knew what I was getting into. At first, I wasn’t sure I was ready for that level of commitment again, but what’s great about fostering a dog is that you can see firsthand how a dog does or doesn’t integrate with your family and your lifestyle. With Duke it was an instant match.

What do you wish you’d known before becoming a dog foster parent?

Honestly, I wish I’d started sooner. I didn’t realize how flexible and supportive the system was. There are resources available for financial support, transportation coordination, access to behavioural experts… just about anything you could possibly need.

I held off on fostering dogs for a long time because I was afraid of falling in love with them and not being able to say goodbye when they were adopted. I won’t lie: it’s definitely not easy, but it’s worth it to know you’ve been part of that dog’s journey to finding a forever home.

What do you love most about Duke?

Am I allowed to say everything? He brings such positive energy to my life. If it weren’t for fostering, I might never have found him.

What’s the number one question you think someone considering fostering a dog should ask?

I guess that depends on who they’re asking.

If they’re asking themselves, I’d say: do you have what it takes to give a foster dog up? I found it helped me to remember that my foster dogs were headed to homes full of the love and attention they deserve. If adoption isn’t an option for you, make sure you’re setting clear boundaries for yourself.

If you’re asking a rescue organization: what do you know about the dog’s history? This is by far the top question we received from potential adopters, and just about anyone who met Duke. Unfortunately, there’s often the assumption that foster dogs are abused, but some might just simply need a new home because of other circumstances. It helps to have as many details as possible in order to answer this much-asked question.

Questions to ask before fostering a dog

Speaking of questions… before we get into the logistics of bringing a foster dog into your home, there’s a lot of internal prep work and questioning that needs to happen.

To help you ready and steady yourself for this exciting adventure, we’ve rounded up our top questions to ask of yourself (and/or your family) and your chosen shelter or rescue organization.

Top questions to ask yourself before you foster a dog

  • Do I have the means (time, transportation, etc.) to foster a dog?
  • What size of pet can I handle? Breed?
  • How do I feel about fostering on short notice? For long stretches of time?
  • Could I deal with an animal that has medical and/or behavioural issues?

EXPERT TIP: If you’re having a hard time choosing a rescue organization, crowdsource your choice. Between friends, family, online reviews and, of course, your local veterinary clinic, you can make an informed decision about which foster programs are credible, supportive, and right for you.

Top questions to ask your rescue organization before you foster a dog

  • What do you know about my prospective foster dog (e.g., history, personality, energy levels, compatibility with children/animals, up-to-date medical records)?
  • What supplies are provided, and what am I required to purchase out of pocket?
  • What is the average stay in a foster home?
  • Who should I call with questions or concerns?
  • What is your adoption process?
  • What happens if I can no longer foster a dog?

If you’re happy and comfortable with the answers to these questions, congratulations—you’re ready to become a foster dog parent!

Fostering a dog in a house with other pets

EXPERT TIP: Sometimes your best bet for a strong first impression is to choose a neutral meeting place—usually somewhere outside the home. Grab your partner or a friend and take the dogs out on separate leashes, keeping a healthy distance as they walk side-by-side.

Let’s say Stuart decides to foster a dog again. There are two key actions you can take to make the introduction between your foster dog and any other animal already in your home as friction-free as possible:

  • Schedule a pre-foster meet-and-greet. Find out whether your rescue organization of choice allows for meet-and-greet sessions between pets. The sooner you can determine compatibility (keeping in mind animals sometimes take time to warm up to each other), the better.
  • Go slow. Once your foster dog has made the move into your home, don’t rush or force instant friendship with your permanent pets and make sure they have a safe space to escape. Friendly play fights between dogs are generally fine, but too much too soon can lead to aggressive, problematic behaviours (lunging, snapping, barking, or snarling). Let your dogs be the guide and keep an eye for positive cues like tail wags and play bows.

How to prepare your home to foster a dog

We’ve talked about prepping your pets ahead of your new foster dog’s arrival, but what about your home?

Before we address logistics, we first need to talk about decompression. Decompression is a period generally around 4 to 6 weeks when your dog needs to unwind and acclimate to their new environment. (This is true for any dog, but especially true for foster dogs that may have come from an unstable environment.)

The gentler you are with your foster dog during this sensitive period, the more successful your relationship will be. Dogs who don’t properly or completely decompress are at increased risk of aggression or, on the other side of the spectrum, fear.

EXPERT TIP: If you’re looking for the perfect, personalized ‘Welcome Home’ gift, treat them to a Waggle Mail dog subscription box. Based on the information you have/learn about your foster dog, we curate a collection of high-quality, high-value products specific to your dog’s need and breed (anything from Adaptil calming pheromones to healthy training treats and mental enrichment toys).products are some of our favourites), healthy training treats, and mental enrichment toys.

Here are a few ways to put your new foster dog at ease:

  • Let go of expectations. This one’s for you, foster parents. You might have a vision in your mind of a seamless move-in experience and sleep-filled nights, but it’s best to leave those expectations at the door and let what is, be.
  • Provide peace and quiet. The calmer your space (and the more personal space you provide), the easier it will be for your foster dog to adjust to their new home.
  • Consider crate training (if your foster dog isn’t already crate trained). Dogs love dens. Done correctly, your foster dog will learn their crate is a safe haven, a place they can retreat to for rest and relaxation.
  • Build positive associations. Keep healthy dog treats on hand to help your foster dog learn to positively associate the new smells, sounds, and sights of their new temporary space.
  • Get moving. Daily movement is good for everyone in your household, not only for physical health but as a way to bond as you explore the great outdoors together.

EXPERT TIP: If you’re fostering a puppy, make sure you have pee pads on hand as they may not be fully potty trained or may, during their decompression period, have the occasional anxiety-induced accident.

Once everyone in your household is up to speed on how to help your foster dog decompress, the next step is to create a foster-proof physical environment. Every dog is different, but some good rules of thumb (for the first few days at least) are to:

  • Roll up rugs
  • Put plants out of reach (even pet-safe plants, as some dogs may decide to go digging in the dirt)
  • Set up a designated space for your foster dog to sleep and eat

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