Creating a Great Dog Foster Home

It starts with a focus on the dog's health and emotional needs before correcting" his behavior."


“I wasn’t sure if he was going to make it, those first two weeks,” says foster provider Nancy Kerns. Buffet, formerly known as Muppet, was surrendered to a shelter by his owner. He was emaciated, and had become gravely ill in the shelter from kennel cough – an infection that rarely debilitates otherwise healthy adult dogs. He had also apparently been kept confined excessively; his muscles, tendons, and ligaments were so unconditioned that he couldn’t stand fully upright on the pads of his feet. Instead, when he walked, he padded along on his “wrists” – the back part of his legs. And he was uncoordinated; he was unsure of how to navigate his world.

cute foster dog

That was the bad news. The good news was that he wanted to try – to try to explore the world and make new human and dog friends. And he was adorable, with a sweet, enthusiastic personality. If his body could recover from whatever it had been put through in his first year of life, it would be easy to find him a home.

Nancy nourished him in body and mind. He needed two rounds of antibiotics to kick the respiratory infection, lots of high-quality, high-protein food to gain weight and energy, daily off-leash walks to gain strength and coordination. Soon enough, he was feeling well enough to require lots of supervision to keep him from chewing things he shouldn’t! In roughly six weeks, he was walking almost upright, recovered from his illness, gaining weight, and was almost ready to find a home. Nancy wrote about some of Buffet’s time with her in the Whole Dog Journal blog.

cute foster dog

Some of my friends had asked me to keep an eye out for a candidate to be their next dog. When I heard about Buffet, I thought he’d be a perfect match. I made arrangements to foster Buffet for another month or so, so I could assess his needs in order to provide support to my friends after they brought him home.

Fostering = Setting Up Dogs for Success

In my opinion, foster or rehabilitation caregivers do not just nurse dogs back to health if they are ill and give dogs temporary shelter before they are adopted out. They are also responsible for bolstering their emotional state and mental well being. Setting up a dog for success is a big challenge but should be the goal for foster caregivers.

Emotional Dog Rescue

What does it mean to set a dog up for success? Initially, success is meeting the emotional and physical needs of our new charge. This means that we must learn how to read dog body language, so we can understand their emotional state.

If we know when a dog is stressed, fearful, or anxious, we can help to alleviate his anxieties and help him gain confidence, which makes him more adoptable. When a dog is relieved of stress, his ability to learn increases, which also makes him more adoptable. It behooves all foster caregivers to learn how to “speak dog” if our goal is to be the bridge to their forever home. Remember, if we can’t communicate, we can’t bond!

Many dogs in foster homes have come from shelters, so by the time they come to a foster home, they have been in a minimum of three previous homes: One, where they were born; two, their first home away from their litter; and three, the shelter. The foster home is at least number four – and all of these changes can be traumatizing for any dog.

This kind of trauma is often responsible for breaking the human-dog bond. It manifests in stress behaviors such as barking, whining, jumping, mouthing, separation anxiety, and even aggression towards humans and other dogs or animals. If a dog’s first two years of life are interrupted by displacement, illness, or abuse, he will suffer emotionally. It’s our job as foster providers to help alleviate this stress by making our wards feel safe and secure; without this, dogs are unable to learn and thrive, thereby making the return rate to shelters and foster homes higher than need be.

Dog Fostering Phase Two

Buffet came to me already much healthier and thriving, thanks to his first foster provider. His joie de vivre wasn’t permanently destroyed by his his poor health. He was a happy, goofy, gangly, one-year-old puppy, ready to roll. But he also displayed a lot of anxieties.

My goal for Buffet was to make him feel secure in himself and in the world around him, and that process started with observing him without expectations of his behavior, and trying understand his emotional state. He’d been through a lot and still had a very sweet and willing disposition, and I didn’t want him to lose that.

Dealing with his anxiety was the first order of business, however. He had been transported to my town in a car with several other dogs who were being moved across state lines to new homes, and even though his part of the journey lasted only about six hours, he had been stressed enough in the car that when he got out, he had diarrhea and a loss of appetite for a couple of days. (I checked with Nancy, who reported that usually he was a voracious eater and had not previously had loose stools.)

dog decoder

courtesy of

There were lots of other clues that Buffet was quite anxious. He frequently barked and whined for attention, “counter surfed” (restlessly looked for items to eat or chew from the counters), chewed any clothing he could get hold of, and humped his bed in an effort to settle himself before he’d sleep. Nancy had reported that he had displayed some of these behaviors early in her time with him, but most of them had faded over the six weeks she had him.

The barking was perhaps the most obnoxious stress signal – but it’s important to understand that he wasn’t being bad; he was anxious, and barking helps relieve an anxious dog’s anxiety. It’s a coping mechanism – albeit not a very useful one, given that many people yell at or punish a dog for barking, which just increases the dog’s anxiety!

Buffet barked when he was frustrated or wanted something, because he didn’t know what else to do, and had never been taught a more polite way of getting attention from humans. He barked at the dogs to get them to play and he barked at me when he wanted something from me. If I left him in the house while I went out to my car to get something, even though he could see me the entire time through a window, he would bark with anxiety, worried that I might leave him behind. He would also bark when I asked him to do something that he didn’t want to do, like “sit” on cue.

I ignored the barking; again, if someone punishes this stress-based behavior, it often worsens the situation. Within a few days, he stopped barking at me, and barked at my dogs only when he wanted them to play, or when I was giving them loving attention and he wanted to be a part of it. As he began to feel safe and secure, the barking diminished and vanished by the end of our month together.

Another major indicator of his stress was his inability to settle himself. When I would sit down on the couch or at my desk, he would often hump his bed in an anxious frenzy. I knew that I had met his needs for exercise with walks, play, and short training sessions. I knew he wasn’t hungry, didn’t have to go potty, and that he indeed wanted to rest but couldn’t.

I watched his behavior without reaction or words, and with each passing day, the humping became less and less frequent until he didn’t do it at all. Keep in mind that this is not sexual and not a bad behavior; it’s just an anxious behavior. It was his way of winding down in his unfamiliar world.

Buffet stopped the humping behavior completely while living with me, and started it up again after he met his new guardians and stayed with them in a hotel when they came to my town and stayed for a couple of days of visiting and getting to know him. When he got to his new home, the humping ceased within a few days.

Remember, correcting anxious behaviors is wrong. It perpetuates the anxiety and/or makes the dog shut down. It’s our job as foster caregivers to build confidence and trust, not shut down the dog’s emotions. Most anxious behaviors go away by themselves when they are responded to with little to no reactive energy, as long as the dog has opportunities to have his emotional needs satisfied with love and affection.

Teaching Foster Dogs Positively

As a dog trainer, I of course want to further my foster dogs’ education, but not at the expense of his confidence or enthusiasm. So I aim to keep all teaching sessions short and fun, and use games and yummy treats. In this way, I was able to build Buffet’s self-assurance while helping him overcome his anxieties.

It helps to relieve a dog’s stress if you make learning fun and rewarding, by doing short sessions – only five minutes each maximum, and ending on a positive note, about four to six times a day. I teach one cue or trick at a time, and if the dog gets at all “stuck,” I don’t try that trick or behavior again for a day or two. Then, when I do go back to it, the dog usually has it down and is willing to give more and with much more enthusiasm.

That said, I always take the time to teach my foster dogs cues in real life situations – because it’s real life that will be happening when they go to their new homes! For example, I always teach dogs to “wait” at doors and gates, in the car, and while hiking or in safe public places.

I also teach them to “sit” if they want a toy or treat; it’s a dog version of saying, “Please!”

I take my fosters to the vet clinic for a weight check and treats from the staff, so that going to the vet is a fun time, not anxiety-producing. I practice low-stress handling methods for grooming and vet visits, so my foster dogs are comfortable being touched, positioned for ear checks, blood draws, nail trims, and being brushed; this goes a long way in reducing stress. I teach these things slowly and with treats to make it enjoyable and rewarding for them. I also keep these sessions short and positive, and allow the dog to have a choice in how fast I go.

For example, when I took out a brush to groom Buffet, he initially backed away and bit at the brush. He was playing, but underneath his play was an undertone of anxiety about being brushed – or perhaps being forced to tolerate brushing.

I stopped immediately and, instead, walked over to a training mat, prepared with brush and treats. (I use a fuzzy sort of bath mat, which gives the dog a comfortable place to sit, stand, or lie down, while also providing a sort of boundary of where I’d like him to remain while we work. I reinforce the dog heavily while he’s on the mat, and soon he is happy to remain there, without being forced to do so.)

Buffet followed me to the mat, and I showed him the brush and gave him a treat. Putting the brush behind my back and treat ready in the other hand, I brought the brush out front again, and when he sniffed it, I immediately offered him a treat. After about five repetitions of this, I touched him gently with the brush and gave him a treat. I repeated this about five times. Then I did one brush stroke and gave him a treat. I repeated the same sequence with longer brush strokes (brush, treat; brush, treat), until I was able to brush him without biting the brush or moving away – and all this took only about 10 minutes.

Spending just a few minutes each day on this type of positive reward teaching and low-stress handling in real-life situations helps a foster dog build confidence and trust in you. What better way to bond with a dog, but especially an anxious, fearful, or stressed dog! While you’re in these teaching sessions, pay attention to the dog’s body language and emotional state. It will help you to know when to stop, slow down, or keep going.

Canine Stress Relief

Teaching a dog some tricks is a blast – and they don’t have to be complicated! A simple “high five” or catching a toy or treat in the air is fun and rewarding. Watching how a foster dog processes new tricks and games gives you more information that you can offer his new guardian, who can then see how fun and easy teaching dogs can be and how much dogs love to learn. Tug of war is another great game, because while playing you can teach a dog to both take (“take it!”) and release (“drop it!”) the toy.

Buffet learned tricks before I taught him any formal “good manners” behaviors, because I saw that the leash highly stressed him. When I attached a leash to his collar, he would bite at the leash and bark at me; if I took the leash off, he was eager to learn. I recognized these “bad behaviors” for what they really were – anxious behaviors – and understood his emotional state; it was more important to alleviate his anxiety than to worry about the barking and grabbing at the leash. Once he caught on to the teaching process and became enthusiastically engaged, I could put the leash on without him getting anxious and his progress soared.

Four to six short (five-minute max) training sessions a day adds up to 30 minutes. I would venture to say that many people spend far more time trying to correct so-called bad behaviors, which ultimately is detrimental to their relationships with their new dogs.

In contrast, short, fun teaching sessions help to alleviate the dog’s stress while building a stronger bond and a foundation of trust. This kind of foundation truly helps prepare a dog for his or her new family, as it’s more important that they are happy, healthy, and willing and able to trust and connect with new people than it is to be perfectly “trained” in conventional “obedience” behaviors. If more attention was paid to foster dogs’ emotional state from the minute they were taken into foster care, I think their placements would go much more smoothly.

Another Happy Ending

When Buffet left me to be with his new family, he was a more confident dog and able to manage stressful situations with ease. He had the confidence he needed to mature into a well-mannered, well-adjusted adult dog.

Just as important, his adopters took the time to learn to be aware of his emotional state, recognize his signs of stress or anxiety, and and respond appropriately to those signs in order to help him regain confidence any time he got overwhelmed.

We’ve been living with dogs for thousands of years and yet it’s a relatively new idea to learn how to read dog body language to better understand their emotional state. By getting better at speaking dog, we can help to reduce their stress and fear so they can behave “better”- which, in turn, will help them stay in their original homes, instead of being surrendered to shelters.

If we took this education to heart, I daresay that homeless dogs, dog bites, and surrendering dogs to shelters would not be the huge problem that they continue to be today.

Trainer Jill Breitner has been training dogs since 1978 and is a body language expert. She is the developer of the Dog Decoder smartphone app, which helps people identify and “de-code” their dogs’ body language for a better understanding. She is also a certified Fear Free Professional and certified in Animal Behavior and Welfare. She lives on the west coast and uses Skype for dog training consultations all over the world.