Interested in Fostering? Protect Your Foster Dog – And Your Heart

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In the April 2020 issue, we published an article by WDJ Training Editor Pat Miller, CCBC-KA, CPDT-KA, about fostering dogs and puppies. Pat has often fostered dogs during her long career in both animal shelters and as a professional dog trainer, and she’s also the author of a great book on the topic, How to Foster Dogs: From Homeless to Homeward Bound.

In both the article we published and her book, Pat mentions some of the potential hazards of fostering for the foster provider, and offers questions that a person should ask before agreeing to foster for an organization that is new to them. I had to pull out that article, and review those questions in light of the experience that one of my friends is having right now as a foster provider for an organization that both of us were only vaguely familiar with. The part I wanted to review was this question, among a list of questions that Pat recommends a potential foster provider asks before taking a dog to foster:

* How does the adoption process work? Are you, the foster parent, allowed to be a part of that process? (The answer to this one should be “yes.”) Are potential adopters carefully screened? Do you get veto power if you think the prospective family is not appropriate for your foster? Are the dogs adopted directly from your home, or do they have to go back to a shelter or kennel?

There aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers to these questions – just answers that will help you decide if this is an organization you can work with.

I’ve been fostering for the same organization for a long time, my local shelter. I know and trust the manager of the shelter well, and she knows and trusts me. When I foster a litter of puppies for the shelter, I generally raise them to a certain age, and then they go to the shelter to get adopted; I don’t have any say in who gets to adopt them. I could have input, but by and large, I trust the shelter’s own screening process to ensure they all go to qualified homes. If I were more involved, it would just muck up and delay the process.

But when I foster an adolescent dog or a senior dog or a dog with health or behavior issues, I invariably have the dog for a longer period of time, and form some opinions about the kind of home and person where that dog should be placed in order to thrive and shine. In these cases, I almost always either promote the dog to my own network of friends (and their friends) and work to make sure that any prospective adopter is really suited to the dog and vice versa, or I work closely with the shelter to meet any potential adopter they find for the dog, and discuss what I know and have experienced about the dog with them.

A great foster provider

My good friend is currently fostering a dog with special medical needs. This is what we know: The dog, a little over a year old, came into the rescue with a broken leg. She had a limb-saving surgery that failed and needed to be repeated. She was briefly in a foster home that turned out to be unsuitable; she is young and playful and there was another young and playful dog in the household, and they wanted to play. The risk of her reinjuring the leg and necessitating the removal of the leg was high. So that foster person asked my friend if she could foster the dog post-surgery until she was healed and ready for placement. My friend agreed, as she has experience with rehabbing her own dog following ACL surgery and is currently working from home.

The dog is very sweet. She’s also very energetic and wants nothing more to do than run and play. She had to spend the first few weeks under the influence of calming medications and went outdoors only on a leash. She weighs around 50 pounds and is strong, and knows nothing about good leash manners (or much else), so my friend has been using a harness to walk her, and has been teaching her some basic good manners: to not pull, to wait at doors, sit and down on cue, etc.

My friend has also been working from home, so she can see how bored and restless the dog is, and she has endeavored to give the dog lots of enriching games and food puzzles to play with. She freezes bits of hot dog and cheese in blocks of ice and lets her enjoy them in a playpen on her shady lawn. She moves the playpen from one location to another during the day, giving the dog changes of scenery – because if she’s left outside for very long by herself, she barks and barks. My friend serves the dog all her meals in Kongs and slow feeders, for enrichment and stimulation.

And, of course, my friend has gotten very attached to the dog – but from the get-go, she has been steeling her heart against the idea of adopting the dog herself. She has an older dog who has had multiple lameness issues for years, and she misses having an utterly sound, healthy dog to take on long walks and hikes. She doesn’t want to hasten her own dog’s death, of course, but she also has been looking forward to the day she can adopt a young, 100% sound dog without medical issues or concerns.

So my friend has had the dog for over two months; she’s healed! She hasn’t heard one word from the rescue group, which is strange, but it sure seems like it’s time to make contact. My friend calls the person who recruited her for the fostering task, who is a co-founder of a local nonprofit animal rescue group, and who, presumably, was the legal owner of the dog. She was saying, hello! The dog is doing great, and what’s the plan for finding her a home?

Whoops! That person told my friend that it was another local group who really owns the dog. Oh boy. Okay.

A not-so-great rescue group

My friend calls that group – and it seems to be a minor surprise to them that the dog still exists. Okay, there is a pandemic going on; everyone is a bit stressed. Once they recover, they say someone will get back to my friend. There was someone a while back who was interested in the dog….

When my friend reports this to me, we are both perplexed. If the rescue group had someone who was interested in the dog months ago, why wasn’t that person hosting the dog during rehab? Maybe they work outside of the home and couldn’t provide enough supervision…. But then, why wouldn’t that person want to visit the dog during rehab? Or call and ask how she was doing occasionally? We are sort of mystified, and, of course, concerned.

The next day, a person calls my friend and says she met the dog some months back, when the dog first came into rescue, and she’s interested in adopting the dog. She starts asking my friend about the dog, and my friend describes her: She’s young, sweet, friendly, smart – and she needs some training. She is still learning not to pull on the leash … and the potential adopter starts telling her that this won’t be a problem; the dog obviously just needs some training with a choke chain or pinch collar. My friend is like, “Um, no, that’s really not necessary, it’s not severe or anything; I’m just telling you that she’s a young dog without training, and because she’s only been in physical recovery mode, I haven’t been doing that training. I’ve only been managing her behavior so she doesn’t get the zoomies and start running around!” The adopter insists that there are correction collars that will stop pulling without hurting the dog.

The discussion sort of sputters to a halt. Then the potential adopter asks how the dog is with other dogs. My friend explains that’s she’s super playful and wants to play with any other dogs she meets – and the potential adopter says, “Well, she’ll have to learn to stop that; I have a very grouchy little dog who will tell her what’s what!”  Oh man, another sinkhole of a conversation stopper.

My friend asks the potential adopter more about herself; where will she keep the dog? The person explains that she works all day out of the house, so the dog will be either indoors all day or outdoors all day… and at this, my friend is officially depressed. This does not sound at all like a great home for this dog! And now my friend is saying, “If this is the dog’s only option, maybe I should keep her!”

But those two things shouldn’t be the dog’s only option! A good rescue group would have been checking in on the dog’s progress, and either would either promote her as a special-needs dog in search of a very particular kind of home (lots of supervision, other friendly and playful dogs or perhaps no other dogs, someone with the experience or willingness to teach her basic behaviors without resorting to punishment-based techniques) or at least have a plan to promote her. Instead, it seemed like they just made a call to someone who had expressed a minor interest in her, hoping to just solve the custody issue by palming off the dog to anyone. Ugh.

My friend called the group again, to try to find out who, exactly, is the person in charge of this dog’s case, so she could have a discussion about the plan going forward – and got a runaround. The person in charge is too busy to talk; the person she can talk to is fine with the placement with the choke-chain lady. Or, my friend can keep the dog. Whatever.

Ugh again. I feel terrible for my friend; she’s invested a lot of time and loving care into this dog, and was hoping for the dog’s story to end with a great adoption into a suitable home. Instead, she’s being torn between taking on another not-100% sound dog, for another decade-plus of more-extensive-than-normal medical needs, and just handing the dog over to a home that she’s not particularly well suited for. At the moment, the whole thing feels like a disaster. It’s great that the rescue group found the money for the dog’s medical treatment, presumably saving her life (or at least her leg), but their follow-through has been dismal.

Moral of the story

I was only peripherally involved in all this; while I know all the parties involved, I don’t know any of them except my friend very well. I probably would have been more proactive at communicating with the person who delivered the dog to my door in the first place, to determine the “chain of command,” as it were, before so much time had gone by – and I feel really bad that I didn’t inquire and encourage my friend to learn more about this earlier on in the fostering process. I’ve been distracted and preoccupied, too! All I can say is, if you are considering fostering:

Read Pat Miller’s article on fostering.

Read Pat Miller’s book on fostering.

Before you take on a dog, know exactly who you are dealing with and who is ultimately in charge of your foster dog’s case – and what the plan will be to find the dog a home.

I don’t know how all this is going to end; the rescue group asked my friend to keep the dog for a few more weeks before their veterinarian will clear her for unsupervised activity. I just really hope a more suitable adopter will come along.

If you’ve fostered before, do you have a most-important bit of advice for other potential foster providers? Any cautionary tales of your own?

10 COMMENTS

  1. Stand your ground. I have been fostering for over 10 years for Ohio Italian Greyhound rescue and sometimes you do get stuck with a dog for a long, long, time due to dog health issues, finding the right home, etc….
    I once had a dog for 18 months partially due to health issue, poor boy needed disc surgery, and partially because the person who is in charge of this area seems to drag her feet. I was able to secure him a perfect home from someone who had adopted from me twice already and she is just head over heels in love with him. Patience comes with fostering just because the people in charge have jobs generally and dogs get put on the back burner because they are in a good foster home and no worries. But it becomes exhausting for the foster, especially when they have dogs of their own that get a bit neglected since focus is on getting the foster socialized, healthy and in a good spot to be adopted. If I have learned one thing, if the potential adoption does not feel right, go with your gut and keep looking for a new adopter. One think you do not want to do is put that dog back into another horrible situation and feel guilty for being the one who put him there. I once did a home inspection and was so put off with the horrid conditions that the applicant lived in that there was no way I would approve a dog going into that home dreading what his fate might be if placed to that applicant. You have to stand your ground. As a foster, you speak for that dog and that is your only concern is his/her well being.

  2. I’ve fostered for 16+ years for different organizations in different states. All you’ve mentioned is great. The one thing I learned the hard way is to find out what the organization’s policy is if a dog bites. Do they have insurance or are you expected to put it on your homeowners and take the hit? Also ask if the dog has bitten anyone and get that info in writing. The last dog I fostered was a little spaniel mix. Very sweet, but no one told us that he had bitten previously. My husband was in and out of the hospital and we would not have taken a dog that had a bite history if we had known. I even asked and was told no, but he is skittish and he might. The outright lied to us. I also found out after the fact that they expected my homeowners insurance to cover the costs associated with him biting someone that came to our house. I did fight it and the rescue is paying the costs, but basically, get that info up front.

  3. Can your friend “adopt” this dog and then maybe you can help her find a more suitable home for it? You write such great articles, Nancy, I bet there’s someone who will read this and be a perfect fit as the new adopter.

    Or maybe you can intervene in a friendly, helpful way, to explain what your friend has observed from the potential adopter to the agency who “owns” the dog? (That potential adopter, BTW, sounds like she shouldn’t even have the dog she has! Her comment about there being “correction collars that don’t hurt” really concerns me. That mentality needs to be educated out of people.

  4. My husband and I have fostered many times because we both worked at the shelter. He was a positive trainer and I was a humane educator. We poured so much love and time into our fosters and even brought some back from the brink of death. We got to be involved in the adoption process, but only because we worked there. Potential adopters were heavily vetted. We stayed in touch with many of the adopters and still get pictures of them through social media. My advice is to foster that young dog until you find an appropriate adopter on your own. It sounds like the rescue will place the dog with anyone. Once you’ve found a suitable adopter, you can call the rescue. That way, it isn’t permanent and you can find your dream puppy, but you also won’t be allowing an uninformed or unsuitable adopter to sentence the dog to a life with painful training methods, possible fights with the grumpy dog, and little human contact. I know it seems unfair that you put in all the love and hard work and then you also have to find an adopter, but the alternative is terrible and there is nothing like the feeling that all that work you did was worth it when you see the dog thriving in a good home.

  5. All of the points raised by the 2 previous commenters (and a whole lot more) are covered in Pat’s excellent book

  6. That rescue sounds like it will be a revolving door for many of the dogs in its charge, which won’t be good for anyone: the dogs, the volunteers, or the adopters. Granted these are crazy times.
    At 8 my Akbash tore her rear ACL badly and I was given a very large estimate for surgical repair by 2 different vets. Because she is a very strong and athletic dog who loves off leash hiking in the foothills, and has the sort of rather bossy and aggressive personality that is reliant on regular strenuous exercise to maintain her psychological equilibrium, I refused the surgery and let it heal with some lessened activity and NSAIDS. Both vets seemed to think that she made a good recovery without surgery, as she lost only perhaps 10% of functioning, and was able to return to her previous level of activity without confinement.

  7. This sounds all too familiar. I lost my Anatolian shepherd 2 years ago and thought my 8 yr old yellow lab would like a companion. I had fostered for many years with golden retriever rescue and it was a very positive experience. I took in a foster dog (through a rescue I wasn’t familiar with) who was transported from Texas. We live in PA. Soon after getting her, she was diagnosed with heart-worm and wasn’t able to be adopted out until she had a clean bill of health. In the meantime, my lab was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in Sept. We rarely hear from the rescue except at 9pm the night before they want to do a meet & greet. Really? You can’t give me any more notice than that? Then we were hit with the pandemic and all adoptions were put on hold. We’ve had her for 1 1/2 years and just want this to be over so we told the rescue we’d like to adopt her. They refused. When I call the rescue person, she’s too busy to talk and she’ll get back to me. She never does. Our foster dog is high energy, young and has a small prey instinct so she needs a secure fenced in yard. We’re in a similar situation and I don’t know what to do except hope the rescue finds a good home for her or changes their mind and allows us to adopt the dog. Wish I had seen this sooner.

  8. I went through a very discouraging process trying to adopt a dog at the beginning of 2020. I contacted 3 separate rescues on Petfinder to inquire about dogs that piqued my interest. Not a single one of them replied to me. I made multiple inquiries of all. With one group I even posted on their Facebook page to ask who I should attempt to contact – never a single reply. I ended up speaking with a former client of mine who works often fosters for a rescue and I found a dog that I eventually adopted through their network – but even that was fraught with difficulties and bad and incomplete information.

    As a professional dog trainer I’ve seen first hand many dogs that were adopted out by unethical rescues who did no evaluation of either the dog’s temperament and behavior or of the suitability of the adopters. I’ve seen the heartbreak caused by rescues that adopt out aggressive or fearful dogs to people who were unaware of what they were getting and completely unprepared and unable to give the dog what he/or she needs. Not to mention the fact that some of these dogs pose a real danger to the new owners and their family members, particularly children.

    It’s completely irresponsible. I now have a very dim view of most rescues. Simply preventing every single dog from being euthanized is NOT a good strategy.

  9. I strongly encourage Your Friend to create her own rescue group. Then ask the group that owns this dog to sign her over to her with the understanding that she is another rescue, is not committing to adopt her herself but will be taking over her guardianship. Get the dog legally signed over to her. If the other group has a financial investmentment in her (paid her vet bills etc) she should either pay the adoption fee that they would have gotten for adopting her out or offer to pay 50% of the future adoption fee when she adopts her out. Groups usually need the adoption fees to be able to afford to continue to rescue future dogs.

    Once the dog is legally signed over to her she has full control over who adopts her.

    By the way, this dog sounds like she will make a fun sports partner. Her drive, energy and enthusiasm sounds perfect for agility, etc. If she is not sound (I could not tell from the article) there still is so much she can participate in. Your Friend may even want to consider keeping her and managing the two dogs so that the quality of life for the older dog is not diminished. I’ve had to face a similar situation of deciding if keeping a rescue (out of concern that that dog would be recycled no matter who adopted her) was fair to my older dog. Twice I decided to do so and figured out who to manage the older and younger so that each got quality time without the older dog being injured in advertently by the younger dog. It can be done but it does take away some of the remaining time she has to focus on the older dog so I understand if she wants to wait. This younger foster dog could become the very beloved family member for someone else who loves the challenge of bringing up a boisterous puppy.

    I applaud Your Friend for the creative ways she has come up with to keep her entertained. I hope she writes about her protocols and how to keep a very energetic dog entertained during rehab.

    Would love to talk to her sometime. Looking forward to hearing about the progress of this doggy.

    Aloha from Hawaii
    Sue White
    Border Collie Rescue Hawaii

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