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Latest health and behavior news and advice from the veterinarians at Tufts University.

Features March 2013 Issue

The Benefits of Fostering a Dog

Taking care of a shelter dog for a while doesn’t just help the dog. You get something out of it, too.

Diamond Dave was a wreck. The sweet Chihuahua had been surrendered by his family to a shelter in Methuen, Massachusetts, when they were moving; their new landlord didn’t allow dogs. Poor Dave was so timid and scared that “he just kept huddling in the corner of his cage,” says Michael Keiley, director of the shelter, a facility under the auspices of the Massachusetts Society for the Protection of Animals (MSPCA) called the Noble Family Animal Care and Adoption Center. “He didn’t want to walk or interact with people,” adds Mr. Keiley.

Before he could relax in a home environment, Diamond Dave was filled with fear.

That’s why the shelter sent him to foster care until someone wanted to adopt him. He needed to be out of that environment in order to become relaxed enough to eat consistently and for his true temperament to come through.

Foster care for sheltered dogs is a win-win-win, says Emily McCobb, DVM, Director of the Shelter Medicine Program at Tufts’s Center for Animals and Public Policy.

“From the shelter’s perspective,” she comments, “it’s good because it frees up space in the shelter for another animal. Also, the shelter can get more information about the dog’s behavior to get a good match with an adopter. By learning how the dog does in a home environment, perhaps with kids or cats, it can make sure to pair the dog with the right family for the long term.”

For the dog, Dr. McCobb says, foster care is a way out of the shelter environment. “It’s always less stressful in a home than an institution,” she points out. “A dog will be provided with more individual attention in someone’s home.”

But the foster person benefits, too, she says, and not just because he will feel good performing a community service. “Fostering a dog can be a nice way to have an interaction with an animal without signing on for a long-term commitment.” Maybe you’re between dogs — a beloved canine pal has died — and you’re not ready to choose a new one as a permanent family member but would enjoy the canine comfort a temporary visitor would provide. Or perhaps you travel on a seasonal basis and can’t have a dog year-round but want to be able to enjoy the companionship a dog offers during those months that you are at home. Or you’ve never had a dog (probably not the case if you’re reading this newsletter) and would like to see if dog ownership is for you. If you already do have a dog of your own, fostering another one can provide companionship for your pet without your having to commit to taking care of two dogs for a number of years (although some pet dogs would be made more unhappy by losing a new friend than by gaining some temporary companionship — it is not always better to have loved and lost, and you have to judge your dog’s feelings on that one).

Potential fosterers should note that different shelters have different rules for a fostered dog interacting with a dog who lives in the home permanently. In some cases, at least at first, shelters want foster dogs kept separately from the family dog.

Consider that for any number of reasons, a dog who needs foster care may not be quite ready for outright adoption and therefore cannot be considered an appropriate playmate for dogs and other pets who are already acclimated to living with a family.

“A foster dog frequently has an unknown history,” says Dr. McCobb. “Nothing may be known about the animal from before it arrived at the shelter, and you don’t want to put your own dogs, or other pets, at risk. The newly arrived animal might be anxious or aggressive,” perhaps because of fear that comes from lack of exposure to all the goings-on in a home.

You also don’t want to potentially introduce disease from shelter dogs to your pet dog. Any communicable illness that may have been making its way through the shelter can make your own dog sick. Then, too, sometimes foster dogs simply need a lot of individual attention. Maybe an animal is recovering from surgery and requires physical therapy, or has other special needs. Such requirements would mean that the dog would not bring the companionship your own dog might expect.

Thus, in some cases, if you’re going to foster a dog and already have one, ideally, you want a home large enough to easily and comfortably keep the two dogs in separate spaces. Some people crate a foster dog in a room made unavailable to the pet dog.

At his foster home, Dave became a different dog, calm and comfortable.

Those points noted, Mr. Keiley says that a lot of fostered dogs keep company with the family’s pet dog “right from the beginning,” largely because the shelter does a lot of screening up front. “We can usually get a good sense at the shelter of the dog’s temperament,” he notes, making it possible to get a good handle on whether a shelter dog and a pet dog will be able to keep each other company. Also, he points out, “we can test the two dogs together by asking the family to bring in their dog from home before they take a foster dog. Here, in a neutral environment, we can get a strong sense of whether it will work out.”

Shelters make other assessments, too. “Sometimes,” Mr. Keiley says, “homes with kids are fine, sometimes not. Same with cats. Also, some dogs do best with families that are home all the time, while others are okay with a household that works away from home.”

One critical point Mr. Keiley notes is that “we don’t foster just to foster. With dogs, as opposed to cats and other animals, we don’t like to create more transition than is necessary. If we think a dog can go from the shelter directly to an adopter, that’s the best thing. Cats can be fostered to free up space and then adapt back at the shelter. Dogs, not so much. They learn a new home system and get comfortable with it, so we want to get them into a permanent home as soon as possible. Only if we need to assess their behavior in a home setting to match them up with the right family, or if they need to be in a home because they can’t adjust to the shelter environment or need special care to get over an illness, do we try to place them in foster care — typically for a month or two.”

The ins and outs of canine foster care

Usually, there’s an agreement, or contract, signed between the foster care provider and the shelter. It might stipulate, for instance, that the shelter will provide all the needed supplies, including not just food and any necessary medications but also bowls for water and kibble, leash, and collar. If a dog has a special attachment to a particular toy or blanket, the shelter will often provide that, too. In addition, veterinary staff affiliated with the shelter will take care of all medical needs; there will be no out-of-pocket costs for health care.

Foster care providers, for their part, will need to sign off on grooming and medicating fostered dogs as needed and, in some cases, carrying out training programs according to the shelter’s standards. They must also agree to ensure the safety of the fostered animal, perhaps by keeping it on leash at all times when the dog is outdoors. They will be asked, too, to report observations about behavior, health, or general temperament. Of course, all of their own animals, dogs and cats included, have to be up to date on vaccinations and healthy. Foster care for a dog will not work if the family pet has, say, a compromised immune system.

The emotional pull

Anyone considering fostering a dog should not underestimate the emotional commitment required, in addition to the emotional pull. Fostering a dog in need can be an incredibly rewarding experience, but it’s extremely easy, as any dog lover knows, to fall in love with a dog that has come to live with you, even for a short time. And it can be hard to see that dog leave your home for his new forever home. Perhaps that’s why there are so many “foster failures,” as they are known in the business, meaning that the foster family is the family that ends up adopting the dog. There’s nothing wrong with that, Mr. Keiley says. It happens “fairly often.”

There’s also fostering with the intention to adopt from the get-go. A lot of shelters will allow a family to take home a dog on a trial basis and see if it works out with the people in the household as well as any animals who might already live there.

Adoption by the foster home is not what happened with Dave. His foster family, including their pit bull, “got him out of his shell by working on environmental enrichment, giving him different toys, having him meet new people, and simply playing with him,” Mr. Keiley says. A month and a half later, he was adopted by a single woman whose dog had died three months earlier. She has three grown children who come to visit with their own dogs, and Dave is getting more and more used to interacting with them. Having suffered his own losses, he is adjusting beautifully to the fact that life can take wonderful turns. n

If you are interested in potentially fostering a dog, contact your local shelter. Some shelters, or rescues, work entirely through foster care. They don’t have a brick-and-mortar building, so all of their animals are looked after by dedicated people in their own homes.

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