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Foster dog looking at camera

the essentials

  • Fostering makes room in shelters — Millions of dogs find themselves in the shelter each year in the United States. Offering a foster animal a place to stay in your home frees the kennels in your local shelter, giving more dogs a better chance.
  • Be prepared for the time and space commitments — Taking in a foster dog is a rewarding experience. However, it’s important to evaluate your schedule and living situation to make sure you’re a good fit.
  • A wide range of dogs benefit from a foster — Behavioral issues, medical complications, and past history are just some of the reasons some dogs might not be suited to stay in the shelter.

With an estimated 6.3 million animals entering U.S. shelters each year, fostering is one of the best ways to help out a homeless animal. Your act of generosity reduces overcrowding in shelters, opening up more room for more animals to be saved, and giving foster animals a loving home while they wait for adoption.

Wondering if fostering a dog is right for you? We’re here to walk you through everything you need to know before taking that final step of bringing a foster dog into your home environment.

What you need to know about fostering dogs

Dog fostering allows for dogs to stay in temporary homes instead of a shelter while they wait for their forever home. There are many reasons why a dog may not be suited to stay at a dog shelter, and in these cases, dogs need a loving home to stay in while they wait to get adopted. This is where foster homes come into play.

When you foster a dog, you’re opening up your home to love and take care of a dog while they are on their road to adoption. Most of the time, these situations are temporary, but each case varies. Some foster parents meet their forever pup through a foster situation and end up adopting them permanently!

In this type of situation, fostering may be seen as a way to see if having a dog permanently fits with your schedule without the commitment of adoption. Since the foster dog lives with you, you’ll also find out how or if they get along with other family members and pets.

👉 Fun fact: A study on the effects of canine foster care funded by Maddie’s Fund® found that foster environments improved dogs’ overall mood, behavior, and adoption odds.

Why dogs are brought into the foster care system

There are plenty of reasons why pets might qualify for foster homes rather than shelter stays.   In certain cases, the reason may be the animal in question, such as if there’s a history of abuse. Other times, the shelter may be at capacity and need help taking in more animals.

Here are some other common reasons why a dog may be a good candidate for a foster stay:

  • Abuse or neglect. A dog who was largely left to their own devices or who’s had scant contact with people may struggle to socialize. Dogs with a history of abuse often develop certain phobias, such as a fear of men or other animals.
    • Abused dogs may also require a calm foster home instead of an animal shelter where they may come into frequent contact with people or animals who trigger trauma responses.
  • Age. Puppies who are too young to receive vaccinations and senior dogs with lower immune responses may benefit from staying in a foster home where they’re less likely to be subjected to parasites and diseases.
  • Surgery or sickness. Staying at a foster home allows for a dog to experience a more peaceful recovery following surgery or trauma than they’d experience in a shelter. If they require medications, placing them with a foster can also ensure they receive personalized medical care that shelter volunteers may not be able to offer.
  • Low shelter capacity. Animal rescue groups often run at or near full capacity. Allowing some animals to stay at foster homes gives them the ability to take in more pups in need. Some nonprofit rescue groups operate exclusively out of private homes and may not have a building.

Are you ready to foster a dog?

While fostering a dog may not be quite the same level of commitment as adoption, you should still make sure you are in a place where you can care for any dog that may be put into your care. Here are a few things to consider before fostering:

Time commitments to taking care of an animal — Walking, feeding, and socializing a foster dog is part of the job description. You can still have a full-time job and foster, but you should be around enough to provide adequate care.

Consider the costs — Many rescue organizations provide food and other necessary materials. However, most of the “cost” associated with fostering is emotional. You’ll likely get attached to your pup, but remember that a foster situation is temporary.

Understand basic training techniques — You may need to help train a pup with basic obedience training, so having an understanding of how to train a dog will be helpful. You don’t have to be an expert, but knowing the basics won’t hurt.

Know what you are responsible for — You might need to take your foster pet to the vet, talk to potential adopters, take them to adoption events, provide photos for social media, provide reports on the dog’s behavior to the shelter, and more. Make sure to ask the shelter what is required of you before fostering.

Consider your family and household — If you own pets already, make sure that they are friendly enough to get along with other animals in the household. Families with kids should also set expectations with their family members to make sure adding a pet to the mix will be manageable. Of course, you’ll also want to make sure your physical home is ready for a foster dog, too (more on that below).

👉 It can be hard to say goodbye, but it can help to keep in mind that fostering gives dogs a loving home and ultimately saves lives. Of course, if you do fall head over paws for your foster dog, there are ways you can adopt them yourself and become the forever home they’ve been waiting for.

How to get started fostering dogs

After carefully weighing your lifestyle and setting realistic expectations, you’re ready to begin the process of becoming a dog foster. Here’s a practical list to get you started:

  1. Find an animal shelter or rescue group near you that has a dog foster care system. You can use sites like Petfinder to narrow the search, but you can also just start with your local shelter and branch out from there. Your city may also have an adoption center that helps coordinate with a foster care program.
  2. Fill out the foster application process to make sure you are a good fit to foster. Pay attention to what is required of you while going through the application process. For example, who is responsible for vet bills? Ask lots of questions, and don’t be shy!
  3. Once you’ve gone through the application process, you’ll be set to start fostering. The final step is to make sure you are stocked with what you need to take care of a pup. If you’re taking care of a puppy or a dog with behavioral issues, you’ll need to puppy-proof your house.

👉 Deciding what type of foster you want to be is an important step in your foster parent journey. For example, some people like to focus on senior dogs or animals with behavioral problems. Others welcome any four-legged creature who needs a home. 

Questions to ask the rescue

Knowing everything you can about the fostering process before you commit helps you take on the responsibilities when they come. For example, some questions you might consider asking include:

  1. Who’s responsible for paying for food? Treats? Medical bills?
  2. How long will I be expected to foster the dog?
  3. Am I responsible for transport to the vet and adoption events?

Preparing for your first foster dog

Congratulations! The rescue group accepted you as a suitable foster and now you’re counting the days until your temporary resident arrives. Here are a few things left to do before you welcome your guest through the door.

Prepare a separate space 

Your foster dog needs an area where they can acclimate for a day or two until they’re comfortable in your house. If you have a dog with behavioral issues — such as aggression or severe phobias — you may need to keep them in a confined space for longer or even through the duration of their stay, especially if you have other animals who could be harmed.

👉 Aim to create a relaxing atmosphere with food, water, and soft towels or blankets. Opt for a basic, quiet room free from breakable or dangerous objects they might ingest. 

🚨 If the foster dog shows aggression to other animals, you’ll need to prioritize keeping your other pets safe by keeping them separate and letting the rescue group know that the foster should be placed in a forever home where they’ll be the only pet. However, you should still continue to spend plenty of time with your foster animal so that they can become familiar with safe human interactions. 

Pack up valuables 

Whether the foster dog stays in a separate area or eventually roams the house, you’ll want to make sure any area available to them stays clean and doesn’t offer tempting things to eat or destroy. If you have anything valuable or breakable, such as an antique lamp from your Great Aunt Margaret, you’ll want to pack those away in a safe space.

Keep the car in good shape 

It’s always a good idea to keep gas in the tank, air in the tires, and your seats clear from debris in case you have to transport the dog at a moment’s notice. Having a crate or doggy car seat belt already installed also helps in the event they have a medical emergency.

👉 Even well-trained dogs can have accidents — especially in a new home. Make sure you have the appropriate cleaning supplies on hand just in case.

Questions to ask about the dog  

You don’t have to accept every dog who needs a foster. Sometimes your home might not be the best fit for the dog in question, so it’s wise to find out everything you can about the dog before you let them in. Some things you might want to ask include:

  1. How old is the dog?
  2. What is their medical history?
  3. Do they have any known triggers?
  4. What’s their backstory?
  5. Are they good with kids?
  6. Do they like other dogs? What about cats?
  7. Are they up-to-date on all of their vaccines?
  8. Are they spayed/neutered?
  9. Do they have any known behavioral problems?
  10. Are they house-trained?

You might not be able to provide for every foster dog’s individual needs. And that’s okay. It’s better to learn everything you can about the foster animal ahead of time to determine whether or not your home is a good fit. If not, it might be best for you and the foster dog if they go to another foster who can better meet their requirements.

Tips for fostering dogs 

Fostering an animal is rewarding work, but it’s also just that — work. Here are some tips that can help you smooth out common problems that you might run across.

Be prepared for possible behavioral issues

Not every foster dog comes with aggressive behavior issues — there are so many different types of dogs that end up in foster care. However, your pup might have other special needs such as emotional or behavioral issues.

Food aggression, separation anxiety, lack of basic training, and biting when cornered are all common issues. If you have a hard time dealing with their behavior, reach out to the rescue group for advice and support.

Make sure they’re healthy

Underlying health issues can cause behavioral problems that signal a need for medical care. Plus, the emotional turmoil of being in a new environment can also cause physical symptoms of stress that need to be treated under veterinary care. Be sure to keep an eye out for any signs of issues, including gastrointestinal distress, lethargy, or refusal to eat.

Use positive reinforcement

Some foster dogs with emotional and behavioral issues come from abusive or neglectful homes. Because of this, a rewards system during dog training can go a long way compared to a discipline-focused training method. Being patient with them earns their trust.

Socialize, socialize, socialize

Socialization with both humans and other animals is important. Not sure where to start? Slowly get your foster pup used to being touched by you. Rituals such as weekly brushing, nighttime cuddles on the couch and more can help normalize interaction with humans. If you and your foster dog are up for it, introducing them to friends and family in small doses can help get them used to being around new people, too.

As long as they don’t show signs of aggression, you should get them accustomed to other dogs as well. Use treats to reward good behavior, and make sure to be diligent about staying close during interactions in case you need to intervene.

Preparing to become a foster parent is one of the most important steps of the process. Understanding your responsibilities and learning about the specific dog you’re taking in makes everything go easier once they’re in the house. If you ever feel overwhelmed, remember the rescue group is always there to lend a hand or offer advice.

Frequently asked questions

What does it mean to foster a dog?

Fostering gives a homeless dog a temporary place to stay until they are safely placed in a forever home. This selfless act relieves your local shelter and often provides a more peaceful environment for a pup in need. These situations are temporary by nature, but usually, you are able to request an adoption application if you fall in love with your foster.

Do dogs get attached to foster parents?

As a foster parent, you may be the first source of love that the foster dog ever recognizes. It’s an awesome, humbling privilege to play such a pivotal role in their life, and you’ll likely feel their admiration and affection. However, it’s important to keep in mind that they will adjust to their new pet parent when the time comes to say goodbye.

How long will I have a foster dog?

The duration of a foster animal’s stay depends on the rescue organization and the particular situation. Asking specific questions at the beginning of the process helps you get a feel for what you can expect.

Do I have to train my foster dog?

You might not need to teach them fancy tricks, but it’s certainly a good idea to teach them basic obedience skills. In some cases, you might have to house-train or crate-train your foster dog. Helping them learn these basic life skills increases their chances of adoption.