The Life of a Foster Parent

I wrote this blog post for Lowcountry Dog a few weeks ago and thought I'd repost it here for posterity. The first part was originally posted here, and the second part followed a week later.

Next month my first dog, Nala, will turn 6 years old. Before bringing her home in March 2005, I had never considered myself a dog person. Now I'd definitely say I'm a dog person, considering I've fostered five dogs in two years!

Nala came from a local Lab Retriever breeder who was actively involved in the breed. They encouraged me to get involved with the Coastal SC Lab Retriever Club, which eventually lead to my involvement with Wild Heir Labrador Rescue.

Wild Heir Labrador Rescue (WHLR) is rescue group that specializes in rescuing Labrador Retrievers and Lab mixes from shelters across South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. WHLR is an entirely foster-home based rescue program and depends on volunteers to give rescued dogs temporary homes until a permanent home can be found for them.

After volunteering with WHLR for a few months helping out at events and becoming the unofficial official photographer, I started fostering dogs for WHLR back in 2008. Over the last two years I've had 5 foster dogs come in and get adopted out to some great homes.

My first foster dog was Hannah, a young energetic female lab. For a first-time foster, you'd think they'd have given me a nice mellow easy to take care of dog. Her first day with me, she managed to scoot past me out of the back porch and took off into the woods behind the house. The first thought through my head was "Oh crap, how am I going to explain this? They're never going to let me foster again!" as I ran after her. Fortunately she came back and I breathed a big sigh of relief. A couple weeks later, she went into heat and I had every stray dog in the neighborhood hanging out in my yard for the next few weeks. So much for easing into fostering. Hannah was with me for about 4 months before she got adopted.

My second foster dog was no less challenging. Mel was another young female lab, although she looked more like a lab/whippet mix. Full of energy, got along great with other dogs, very curious but extremely timid around other people. It took about an hour and lots of Milk Bones before she would even come close to me. Once you were in her circle of trust though, she stuck to you like glue. No worries about Mel running off. With her the challenge was socializing her around people. I spent a lot of time at the dog park working with Mel and recruiting dog park friends to help with the socialization. Mel stayed with me for close to 6 months before being adopted. By the end of her stay, she had become a little less timid and would let people get a little closer to her. She even let a few people pet her. I counted that a huge success.

After Mel, I became known as the Difficult Dog Foster. None of them were agressive or anti-social, but each of them had a different set of problems. Barkley was the big lovable goofball always getting into some kind of mischief. Sazy had incontinence problems but was sweet as pie. Missy was another Velcro dog and a complete ball fiend. Once the ball came out, nothing else mattered. She would fetch until she dropped from exhaustion.

What is dog fostering and what makes a good dog foster home?

When you get involved in fostering dogs, you quickly learn that it's more than just providing a temporary home for a dog. Fostering is all about preparing the dog to be a pet in someone's home. Sometimes it's an easy task, other times it's a little more challenging. With dogs that have already been pets, fostering is usually pretty easy. In those cases fostering usually is just providing a temporary home for the dog. More often than not though, the foster dog is a stray, or was found abandoned in the woods, or came from an abusive home, or any number of other possibilities. Fostering those dogs becomes a little more challenging. They'll almost always need some basic obedience training so you'll need some dog training skills. There might be some issues that need to be sorted out so you'll need to know a little bit about dog psychology and behaviour patterns (think Cesar Milan or Victoria Stilwell). While the foster dog is with you, it effectively becomes your dog for the duration of its stay, and it becomes your responsibility to shape the dog into a pet that someone will want to adopt. That someone might even be you, what some in dog rescue call "foster failures". I prefer to think of them as foster winners though. The foster meets a dog they can live with, and the dog gets a home. Win-win.

Most of the dogs that come into WHLR are pulled from the shelters and come with little in the way of history. I frequently get asked about the background of my foster dogs, and most of the time I just don't know. I think it's better that way. That way it doesn't influence the way I treat the dog. All I have before me is a dog that I need to work with to turn into a pet that someone will want to adopt.

In addition to providing a home and training, a good foster needs to show off the dog to potential adoptees. It's not enough to just wait for the rescue people to find someone to adopt your foster dog. You end up having a foster dog for months on end that way. A good foster parent will put up flyers, get the dog out and let it meet people, people that might be interested in adopting your foster dog or people that know other people who might be interested in adopting. A good foster parent will actively work to get their foster dog adopted into a forever home when the dog is ready.

Why should you foster a dog?

Foster because you love dogs. Foster because you want to give a dog in rescue a chance to find its forever home. Foster because your next dog might be a rescue who lived in a foster home. Foster because you want to give a dog the chance to become someone's much loved pet. Foster because you want to help. A dog may have had a rough life before coming to me, but with a little work, patience and sometimes a lot of advice from others who know more about dogs than I do, it doesn't take long before the past is wiped away. Seeing a dog transform from timid and defensive to a confident, happy pet ready for a new home is a marvelous thing. Fostering dogs isn't always easy, but it's always rewarding and well worth it in the end.

Even though I know the foster dog is only with me temporarily, I treat every foster dog as if it were one of my own dogs. I often get asked if it's hard to let the dogs go when they're adopted. Seeing them leave is hard, but knowing that they're going to a good home to stay makes it easier. I can also let them go knowing that they're leaving in better condition than when they came. It gets easier after the first couple of foster dogs though.

Every foster dog I've had has taught me something new about myself, my dogs, and dogs in general. I've learned just how many dogs I can handle at one time (four big dogs crammed into the back seat of a Camry draws some interesting looks from other drivers). I've learned a lot about dog behavior just by watching the way three dogs behave around each other, and by watching them interact with other dogs at the dog park. There's a lot to be gained from fostering a dog. Perhaps the biggest is knowing that not only have you helped save the life of a dog, but also that the time and effort you've put in has helped improve the life of the dog and its new owner. Go ahead, contact your favorite rescue and tell them you want to know more about being a foster. It doesn't have to be dogs. Foster a cat if you like, or any other animal that appeals to you. It'll be worth it in the end.