In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was working at the Marin Humane Society (MHS) in Novato, California, fostering was a very occasional thing. Every once in a while an animal in need would touch the heart of a shelter worker who offered to take that dog or cat home to help her through a bout of upper respiratory infection, or some other temporary medical issue. Occasionally someone would foster a pregnant mom until she could have her babies, or foster a litter of puppies or kittens until they were old enough to be placed, but in those days, with euthanasia rates in the U.S. at an all time high (18 to 20 million homeless dogs and cats euthanized at shelters every year), it seemed to make little sense to save unborn puppies, or to allocate many of our limited resources to save dogs who had medical problems. Dogs with behavioral problems were rarely fostered. Resources were always scarce, and there were inevitably always more healthy dogs in the shelter’s kennels to take the place of sick ones, or those who were behaviorally challenged.
I fostered several dogs and a few cats over the 20 years I was at MHS. Most memorable for me was Mandy, a seven-year-old spayed female tri-color Collie, who was surrendered by her owner because she was incontinent. In addition, she was seriously overweight, badly matted, and had infected burns on the insides of her hind legs where the urine had soaked through her mats to the skin.
A piece of my heart will forever rest at the Marin Humane Society. Photo: Paul Miller
I had Rough Collies (Lassie Collies) throughout my childhood, and am still drawn to them to this day. My heart went out to Mandy, and I offered to foster her. Our shelter vet treated the urine burns and provided medication for her incontinence. I took her home; she walked into my house and lay down on the floor like she had lived there all her life. She never left my family. A “foster failure,” as some call it when a foster parent ends up adopting a foster charge. I prefer to call it a foster success.
We have fostered numerous other shelter animals since those days. It was one of the things that kept me sane and allowed me to work at a shelter for two decades—knowing that, from time to time, I was able to make a difference to at least one of the many.
These days fostering is no longer an occasional intervention—it’s a booming industry. With national euthanasia numbers down to a relatively low (but still too high) three to four million dogs and cats per year, it makes sense to work harder to save as many as possible. While the admirable goal of a real no-kill society is still some distance off, there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Every dog who goes to a responsible foster home from a responsible shelter or rescue group makes that light shine a little bit brighter.
My hope is that this book will help to brighten that light even more by providing foster parents, shelters and rescues with a resource to create more foster successes, whether adopted by the fosterer or placed in some other lifelong loving home. Along with exceptional fostering efforts, this will require a societal mind shift toward greater regulation of breeding and retail sales of dogs—especially from puppy mills and Internet brokers—so the supply no longer outweighs the demand. I would love for all of us to see, in our lifetime, a world where every dog and cat born is valued, loved and cared for to old age. It’s the least we can do for the animal companions who share our homes and our hearts.
A Fostering Overview
Squid was the cutest seven-week-old puppy you could ever imagine—probably a Jack Russell Terrier mix, white and tan with a rakish brown spot over his left ear and another covering his left eye. He was also on the euthanasia list at our local animal shelter. He had failed his assessment for aggression. Shelter staff asked me if I would work with him under the shelter’s Gold Paw behavioral foster care partnership program. After spending a little time with him, I agreed. I felt his frustration-aggression and lack of impulse control would be easily modifiable behaviors, especially given his young age, adorable appearance, and the fact that that he had the potential to be highly adoptable. Time would tell.
Foster pup Squid, slated for euthanasia at our local shelter until he was accepted into the Gold Paw foster program.
What, exactly, is fostering?
An online dictionary defines fostering as:
- to promote the growth or development of; further; encourage
- to bring up, raise, or rear, as a foster child
- to care for or cherish.
All three of those definitions apply to the world of canine fostering. More specifically, with animal fostering we are usually referring to an animal from a shelter or rescue group—perhaps originally a stray, perhaps surrendered by an owner, or perhaps a victim from an animal neglect or cruelty case. Shelters often seek out foster homes for pup pies who are too young to thrive in a shelter environment, dogs who have medical or behavioral needs that are better met outside a shelter, or simply because they have too many dogs for the available kennel space in the shelter. Even pregnant females may need fostering!
In any case, the purpose of fostering is to look for alternatives to euthanasia, increase the live-release rate, and thereby reduce the number of animals who die at shelters due to homelessness. Many rescue groups are unsheltered (meaning they have no one place to house dogs), and rely primarily on foster homes to do their good work. Sometimes these groups end up paying to board dogs at kennels when foster homes are in short supply.
Fostering implies a limited time commitment, a temporary arrangement in which a person agrees to house and take care of the dog until a permanent home can be found. Fostering is not the same as adopting, where a person agrees to take ownership of the dog on a permanent basis. Of course, sometimes the person agreeing to foster the dog ends up adopting the dog!
Yet another foster opportunity exists for dogs belonging to military personnel who must go overseas and cannot take their beloved canine companions with them. In the past many of those dogs were sadly rehomed. Today, a growing number of our troops are comforted knowing that responsible fosterers are caring for their dogs, and they will be greeting with tail wags and loving wet kisses when they return home.
In this book we will focus on what can be termed a “formal” fostering arrangement between a shelter or a rescue group and the person who agrees to foster the dog. However, “informal” fostering arrangements happen all the time as well. A relative might ask you to care for a dog for a couple of months while she travels abroad. You might pick up a stray dog and house him for a couple weeks while attempting to locate the owner. In these latter cases there is no formal arrangement, but what you do in terms of caring for the dog and introducing him to your own dogs and/or human family is pretty much the same.
Unlike “informal” fostering situations, in many cases there will be some sort of written agreement between you and the shelter or rescue group detailing the responsibilities of both parties. You will want to know who you are dealing with and what you can expect from them in terms of guidance and financial support. And, of course, the organization will want to be convinced that you have the skills and desire to provide a good fostering home for the dog in question. We will cover these arrangements in more detail below and in the next chapter.
You foster because you care. You see it as a way you can make a difference in a world that sometimes doesn’t care enough. Perhaps you want to pay tribute to a past animal companion who is no longer with you. You may realize your lifestyle doesn’t allow for longtime commitments to a furry family member, but you are able to make a shorter-term commitment to a dog who might not otherwise have a chance. In the end, you do it because you care.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is: should you foster? A lot of factors play into a well-considered decision to become a canine foster parent. Here are some things you will want to give serious thought to prior to taking on the responsibility of fostering one or more dogs:
1. Disruption to your domestic tranquility. Some fosters, like Mandy, the Collie I describe in the Introduction, are no bother at all. They blend into the woodwork like they’ve always been there. More frequently, however, foster dogs are likely to come with lots of energy and a potential for behavior challenges. Remember that homeless dogs were given up for a reason—and the number one reason dogs are given up or not reclaimed is behavior. Your foster’s behavior may have been something her prior owner couldn’t live with. If you have dogs or other companion animals of your own, the presence of non-resident dogs can affect their quality of life, as well as yours. Make sure you are ready for the impact this may have on your lifestyle and serenity. (By the way—if your own dogs don’t do well with new dogs in their home, don’t even think about fostering dogs. If you have your heart set on fostering, consider other species that your dogs will tolerate well. If you have cats, use extreme caution when bringing a foster dog into your home, until you know your cats will be safe.)
2. Environmental factors. Where do you plan to keep your foster dog? Will he be crated at night? (Is he crate trained? Will he tolerate a crate? Can you crate train him?) Will he share your bedroom with your dogs and spouse? Your bed? (Generally not recommended for a foster, since his future forever home may not want him in the bed, and it might be a hard habit to change.) Where will he be during the day when no one is home? Can you take him to work with you? What if he is destructive? What if he barks a lot?
3. Family buy-in. It’s important that your entire family is on board with the fostering project. Anger or resentment over a canine intruder can fester and damage human relationships, and may result in actual abuse to the dog, if there are family members who are unhappy about fostering. You cannot assume they will get over it—the entire family needs to be positive about fostering before you bring a dog home.
4. Financial considerations. Some shelters and rescues will pay all expenses for your foster dog. Others will pay some, while some expect their foster parents to bear the entire financial burden of fostering. A tiny minority actually pay their foster homes a small weekly stipend. Make sure you are clear about finances before agreeing to foster—and make sure your own finances can weather the cost, if that’s the arrangement.
5. Know your limits. We still live in a world where there are many more dogs than there are homes. You could foster every single dog in your local animal shelter today, and there would be more tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. An increasing number of horrendous hoarder cases are reported in the news weekly, involving well-intentioned rescue groups and foster homes. Don’t let yourself become one of these. Know your limits, and have one or more people you love and trust lined up to let you know if they think you are going beyond reasonable limits. You really aren’t helping any dogs if you take on more than you can provide for.
The supply of homeless dogs is endless. You can’t take them all…know your limits!
6. Legal considerations. In today’s litigious world, legal considerations must be taken seriously. Does your chosen group’s insurance cover you as a volunteer if your foster dog bites someone, or causes some other accident or injury? (Hint—they should.) If not, does your homeowner’s insurance cover you? Are you being asked to foster a breed of dog that your insurance might exclude from coverage? Better to know the answers to these questions before there’s an incident, rather than find out afterward that you aren’t covered.
7. Record keeping. You may be required to keep records of your foster dog’s medical and behavioral history during the time he spends with you. (If you aren’t required to do so, you should, anyway. It will greatly facilitate the dog’s transition to his new home. More on this in Chapter 3.)
8. Foster failures. True foster failures are those where the dog doesn’t adapt well to his foster home, where the foster family doesn’t have the skills or patience to work with his behavior issues, or worse, where your foster ends up not being a good candidate for adoption. If it’s simply that your home is an unsuitable environment for that particular dog, then hopefully there’s another foster home available that is better suited for him, and another foster dog who is better suited for yours. If it becomes evident that the dog is not a good adoption candidate, either for medical or behavioral reasons, you will need to deal with the strong emotions that are inevitable—and normal—if euthanasia becomes the appropriate outcome for your foster. Even lifetime animal protection professionals struggle with the emotional issues of euthanasia. It’s not easy, nor should it be. You should only consider fostering if you are prepared to face this hopefully rare possibility. (More on this in Chapter 3.)
Who needs foster volunteers?
Almost every 501(c)3 non-profit animal shelter and rescue group now makes extensive use of foster homes, and many municipal (government-run) animal care and control programs do as well. You should easily be able to find a group in your area who needs the services of a good foster home. An online search for “dog, foster home, volunteer” will bring up a long list of such organizations anywhere in the country. You can also look in the yellow pages of your local telephone book (or online Yellow Pages) to find shelter and rescue groups who are looking for foster homes. It’s important to remember that your fostering experience needs to be a mutually satisfying one. Just like a job interview, you want to be sure your future foster “employer” will be a good fit in the areas of fostering philosophies, training and behavior modification tools and methods, emotional and financial support, and basic animal care.