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Should You Take an Adoptable Pet for a Test Drive?

Some animal rescues allow trial runs for interested adopters. Get the scoop on how foster-to-adopt programs work.

by Jodi Helmer
April 8, 2022
Man wearing pink headphones playing with dog on sofa with plants and a painting in the background
Studio Marmellata / Stocksy

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After an extensive meet-and-greet that included sloppy kisses, a game of fetch, and lots of cuddles, you are in love. But you also have questions: Will this adorable hound mix sleep through the night? Make a good running partner? Howl at the neighbors? Get along with the resident cat? Adopting a pet is a long-term commitment, and you want to make sure you get it right. That’s why shelters and rescue groups often allow trial adoptions (also called foster-to-adopt programs) to help interested adopters determine if the pet is the right fit for their homes and lifestyles.

“Foster-to-adopt also helps potential adopters who are unsure about adopting a dog — especially with puppies and people who are first time dog adopters — see if a dog is a good fit for them,” says Maddie Swab, dog foster manager for Austin Pets Alive! Below, more on how to get started with a trial adoption.

How do foster-to-adopt programs work?  

Ask your local shelter whether there is an established program. Remember, even when a shelter offers trial adoptions, not all animals are eligible. Most foster-to-adopt programs will require you to complete an adoption application, which can include information about your living situation, current pets and vet references. Once the shelter reviews and approves the application, you’ll be eligible to take a pet home on a trial basis. Some shelters charge adoption fees up front that can be refunded if the animal is returned within the trial period.

How long do trial adoptions last?

The timeframe to make a decision ranges from a week to a few months, depending on the shelter. Some shelters even offer weekend sleepovers. Austin Pets Alive! limits trial adoptions to one week for puppies but allows up to three weeks to allow prospective adopters to decide whether to adopt a dog with medical challenges. “Often, dogs who have medical or behavioral challenges benefit from their potential adopter getting the chance to see if the challenge is something they can work with in their home,” Swab explains.

How should I prepare for a trial adoption?

Make sure you have all the supplies your four-legged houseguest needs to feel safe and welcomed, including food, bowls, and a leash, collar or harness. You may also want to have a comfy bed and a few toys on hand to help them settle in. If you will be fostering-to-adopt a puppy or dog that is not housebroken, you should consider a crate or puppy pen. If a cat, a litter box and litter. Swab also encourages potential adopters with existing pets to schedule a meet-and-greet at the shelter to introduce pets where shelter staff can monitor interactions and offer pointers on welcoming a new pet, even temporarily.

What should I be looking for during the trial adoption?

Consider a trial adoption a working interview for the position of loving, four-legged companion. The process should let you know whether you want to bring the animal into your home on a full-time basis. 

Does the dog enjoy being in the center of the action when the kids are running around the house or do they hide from the activity and noise? Are your morning and evening walks enough to burn off their energy or do you need to hire a dog walker, or send them to doggie daycare, to satisfy their exercise and socialization needs? Is the cat a total snuggle bug or do they hiss when you try to show them affection? 

What do I need to remember?

It takes time for dogs and cats to adjust to a new environment, which means that their behavior on the first day — or even in the first week — may not be an indication of their true personalities. Swab advises giving pets time to decompress and letting them settle in at their own pace.

Shelter staff are there to act as a resource, so don’t be afraid to ask questions during the trial adoption, especially if you need more time to make a decision. “We will sometimes consider extending the foster-to-adopt period as needed to give that dog and the potential adopter the best chance to get to know each other and see if they’re a good fit for each other,” Swab adds.

What if it’s not a fit? 

Not all trial adoptions are success stories. If you discover that the dog or cat that has been bunking with you for several days isn’t the right fit for your family, don’t fret. Spending time in a home environment helps animals decompress, which is a bonus even when it doesn’t lead to an adoption. Trial adoptions also give adoption coordinators more information about pets, including insights into their behavior in a home environment, that can be beneficial when it comes to finding them the right forever family.

If your trial adoption goes well, encourage others to participate in similar programs. “Fosters, who provide temporary homes for puppies, dogs, kittens or cats, give shelter pets an opportunity to live in a home, instead of a kennel at a shelter,” she explains. “Some might call their foster-to-adopt pets ‘foster fails,’ but we think of them as ‘foster wins,’ as another dog or cat has found a loving home.”

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Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.