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Foster Parenting 101: How to Be the Best Caregiver to Your Guest Pets

All the steps you can take.

by Courtney E. Smith
October 14, 2022
Man with beard and wearing glasses and a grey hat sitting outside petting the head of his old foster dog
Manu Prats / Stocksy

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

During the darkest, most anxiety-ridden days at the beginning of the pandemic, something magical happened: people cleaned out the shelters. As shelter-in-place orders overtook most of the country, many pets found themselves in the homes of people who were newly working from home and had the time to foster. 

Unfortunately, as we return to the office and get back to more hectic lives, animals have been losing out. Shelters nationwide have overflowed and issued pleas for fosters. In Dallas, a series of distemper infections have impacted the city shelters and the SPCA. In Los Angeles, pets face inhuman conditions as the shelters grow more overcrowded. The stories are similar in Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, Missouri, and the Mississippi coast. Best Friends Animal Society warned earlier in the year that we are in a national animal shelter crisis, with over 100,000 more animals in shelters awaiting new homes than there were the prior year. The organization attributes the increase to existing understaffing and to omicron, which is having another wave with the BA.4 and BA.5 variants.

Fostering is one of the best ways to help shelters through this crisis and help the animals by giving them a more relaxed environment while they wait to be adopted. It also helps by setting the animal up for success in a home environment where they're more likely to thrive.

Interview the Rescue Organization

Yes, you can interview them. Experiences and resources with various orgs will differ. Some can give you the necessary supplies, including food, and will provide medical treatment as required. Others expect fosters to take it all on themselves.

Some have staff on hand who can help you, from foster coordinators to behavior specialists to adoption experts, while others are more shoestring. If you’re unsure how to work with a dog with behavior issues or what the best strategy for promoting your foster on social media might be, you can tap into the org’s team for help. Organizations also have different levels of involvement for fosters in the adoption process — ask if you’ll get to interview potential adopters or have a say in the process. 

Choose a Foster Who Matches Your Lifestyle

Before you bring any dog, cat, or another animal home, do some research to familiarize yourself with the exercise needs of breeds and different ages. Think about if you feel equipped for a long-term foster who could be with you for months because of various characteristics that make them less adoptable or if you’d like to dip your toe in with a dog who is likely to get adopted quickly. Rescues frequently have dogs with all sorts of needs. You could foster a dog on exercise restriction while completing a course of heartworm before going up for adoption, and your primary job is to make them comfortable and calm.

Puppies and kittens can be a staying-up-all-night project, while a senior pet who takes longer to adopt will also spend all day and night sleeping. Some dogs need a yard and multiple walks a day to get their energy out, while others do fine in an apartment and only need chew toys and snuggles to be happy. Commit to the activity level you can keep up with so you and your foster will be happy with the arrangement.

Keep the Rule of Three in Mind

Any animal you foster will need some time to settle in. Keep this timeline in mind for the average dog. Allow the animal three days to calm down. In this time, they’ll still be scared, unsure, overwhelmed, and might possibly even shut down. They won’t be as interested in food or water. And they may test boundaries to find out the house’s rules. Give them space, understanding, and the most tempting food and treats you’ve got. 

In three weeks, you’ll see your foster relaxing, settling down in their environment, and getting into the routine, and this is when you’ll start to see their real personality shine through. It’s also when behavior issues might show up, so keep an eye out and start working with them right away. 

Then, in three months — which is most of a long-term foster — your foster will finally be completely comfortable in your home. You will have built trust and a bond with each other, and your foster will be secure and have adapted to your routine completely. 

Foster Failing Can Be the Goal of Fostering

Many use fostering as a test run with an animal before adopting them. And plenty more go into fostering without intending to adopt, and then foster fail. If you’ve got other pets, it’s good to make sure everyone gets along and can get on the same routine. Finding out if committing to a pet after a trial run is smart and prevents surrendering the animal down the line. But do think about continuing to foster even if you do foster fail. It will mean a lot to all the animals after your new pet.

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Author Courtney E. Smith on a beach

Courtney E. Smith

Courtney is a freelance writer and podcaster whose work has appeared in Esquire, Pitchfork, Eater, and more. Her prior work includes working as an editor and music critic for Refinery29 and CBS Radio. And she's the author of the essay collection Record Collecting for Girls. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her rescue dog, Casey, where they volunteer together with the SPCA’s foster program.