How Does Dog Fostering Work? Plus Tips to Succeed · The Wildest

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Discover the Joys of Dog Fostering

Every dog needs a forever home, fostering helps dogs to find one.

by Rikke Jorgensen
August 9, 2020
A couple laying on their couch in a cozy looking living room with their large mixed breed foster dog
Demetr White / Stocksy
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Fostering animals is a lot like mountain climbing. Cool to think about and maybe post photos of on Instagram, but actually doing it? Um, maybe next year. Wait!

Fostering takes courage and strength of character. Opening your home and your heart to a dog only to part with him again weeks or months later can be emotionally challenging, much like getting to the peak of Everest. But foster volunteers do so much good for the animals they love and let go. Without them, animal shelters and adoption agency orgs can’t function. Here is everything you need to know about dog fostering.

So, how does fostering a dog work?

Fosters are volunteers who take dogs pulled from shelters and other desperate situations, such as death of an owner or abuse cases, into their own homes until they can be adopted into a permanent home.

“Fostering keeps animals out of shelters where communicable diseases can be common, especially for stressed pets,” says Eileen Bouressa, the executive director of Animal Compassion Network. “And housing dogs in private homes makes for happy, well-adjusted animals who make an easier transition into an adoptive home than they would coming straight out of a facility.”

The main goal of fostering a dog is to get them ready for adoption. Depending on the dog’s needs, a foster might provide them with space, patience, exercise, engagement, or direction. Establishing a routine, ensuring safety and security, and helping the dog acclimate to a new environment are essential parts of the fostering process. It’s worth noting that dogs from shelters are often stressed out, and their initial reactions can range from shutting down to reacting aggressively to various stimuli.

Dog fostering programs

Some in the animal rescue world see fostering as the way to a future where shelters are largely redundant. Beyond basic dog fostering, there are other foster-based programs that are utilized by rescue groups.

Foster and re-home

Rehoming programs are for people who need to re-home their own pet or a stray they have rescued so they can avoid surrendering the dog to a shelter. Some rescue groups will pay for spay/neuter, testing, vaccinations, microchipping, deworming, flea and heartworm prevention, and food and supplies, while helping to find the dog a new home.


Many rescue groups also run foster-to-adopt programs. Some people badly want a pet, yet find it hard to actually take the plunge. But when given the opportunity to temporarily foster a dog who has caught their eye, almost all jump at the chance. Frequently, the foster turns into an adoption.

Critics say foster-to-adopt programs turn dogs into returnable goods. Bouressa strongly disagrees. “It is a way to save more animals. Adopters get to know the dog and avoid the surprises that often lead to returns. Many continue to foster after they adopt because they see the difference they can make.”

Hospice fostering

Hospice fostering is a type of dog fostering where the foster caregiver provides a comfortable and loving home for an animal that is nearing the end of its life due to old age, illness, or other reasons. The focus here is to provide the animal with a peaceful and dignified end-of-life experience. A hospice foster works closely with the veterinarian and the rescue to provide the best possible care.

What are foster parents asked to do?

Each shelter or rescue organization has its own requirements, but these are common:

  • Provide food, water, and basic training.

  • Keep the dog on-leash when outside the home or yard.

  • Bring the pup to adoption events

  • Monitor the dog’s behavioral and physical health.

  • Report any problems to the shelter and/or transport the dog to a vet clinic.

Occasionally, foster parents are asked to help spread the word about the adoptable dog by inquiring with friends, posting on social media, or sending out emails. Rescue groups provide support for any reported health and behavior problems, but what if the dog has behavioral issues?

Dog rescuer and author of One Hundred Dogs and Counting, Cara Sue Achterberg writes extensively about fostering, and says that if you bring a dog home, behavioral problems are possible, but not as common as people fear. “A lot of times, you don’t know a dog has problematic behaviors until you’ve had them home a week or two,” she said. “I’ve fostered over 175 dogs now and I’ve only had two or three with truly problematic behaviors, and those behaviors were all manageable.”

And instead of focusing on the negative, figure out “what the dog can succeed at, what they like to do, and how you can help them shine.” That way, they’re more likely to be paired with the perfect adopter.

Bringing home a foster dog

Introduce the dog to their foster home slowly and don’t be afraid to use a crate as an isolation zone for a bit. “When you bring home a new foster dog, the first thing you need to do is what our rescue calls a ‘shut-down,’” she explains. “The dog needs a quiet place, usually a crate (for some dogs, it can be a small room), where they can relax and recover from living in a shelter and/or being abandoned and the stressful transport that brought them to us. This means providing a comfy bed, a few toys, regular meals, water, and calm walks. Giving a dog a few days, or a few weeks, if necessary, to reset is critical.”

Why do people become fosters?

“People become foster volunteers out of compassion for abused and abandoned animals. The same compassion, however, often derails the situation. For me, the only way to give up a pet is to meet and interview the adopters. Then — and this is what I urge everyone to do — I think about the next dog I can save. My role is to be a temporary safe haven,” says Bouressa.

It is this willingness to nurture, however briefly, that saves thousands of dogs — so that they can love and be loved for life. Animal rescue professionals dearly hope more people will embrace that outlook. After all, we do dogs a serious disservice if we love them so much we cannot bear to help save them.

Fostering FAQs

How long are dogs in foster homes?

There is no average length of stay for dogs within foster homes but between two weeks and three months is not unusual; it really depends on the organization, the dog and the situation.

Can I foster if I have a dog of my own?

Yes, you can foster dogs if you have a dog. Your own dog and the foster dog need to meet to make sure they get along.

Can I foster dogs if I have a cat?

Yes, you can foster dogs if you have a cat. You would consult with the shelter or rescue organization’s staff about a foster dog’s suitability and then supervise carefully.

Do I need specialist knowledge?

You do not need special skills to foster a dog. If you are familiar with basic training techniques, most organizations hope you will help your foster dog become more adoptable by practicing good manners with them. And some older or sick dogs need medications administered-the staff will show you how to do that.

How much time would I need to spend each day?

Again, it depends on the situation. Young, energetic dogs need lots of exercise and play; older dogs spend much of their time snoozing. Orphaned puppies or sick dogs can be very time-intensive guests. As a general rule, allow for two hours per day for walks, meals, play sessions and potty trips.

To become a foster parent, contact your local shelter or one of the rescue groups in your area.

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Rikke Jorgensen

Rikke Jorgensen is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

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