Are you one of those amazing people who cares for homeless pets until they can be placed in forever homes — or do you want to be? If so, here are some tips on creating a welcoming, soothing environment for the temporary addition to your family, including helping resident dogs adjust to the newcomer. A little preparation and management can make the transition easier for yourself and all the foster dogs involved!
Create a Calming Environment
- Give a stress vacation. For at least a week before your new foster comes home, don’t schedule anything too hectic for your resident dogs. Remember that good stress (“eustress”) and bad stress (“distress”) effect the body in the same way, so in this period, don’t schedule vet visits, grooming sessions, construction work at the house, or even visits to the dog park! Anything you can do to reduce stress — mental stimulation, long walks in a relatively non-distracting environment full of great sniffing opportunities, massage, T-Touch, etc. — is recommended.
- Use calmative aids. These may include the use of aromatherapy via pharmaceutical-grade essential oils (lavender oil is great for this, but avoid using essential oils in homes with cats), Dog-Appeasing Pheromone (D.A.P.), massage, various supplements (talk to your vet!), music from Through a Dog’s Ear, and ThunderShirts. Introduce these to your dog at naturally low-stress times, or they’ll provide little benefit in stressful situations.
- Brush up on training. Revisit basic manners training like sit, down, watch, leave it, or go to mat/crate.
- Set up management tools. You may need to use baby gates, crates, “safe rooms,” tethers, and drag leashes to create an environment where all resident dogs have space to feel safe while they get to know one another. Even if your current dog is not a countersurfer, your foster pup may be, so putting these items in place well in advance will prevent rehearsal of unwanted behaviors. It also gives your resident dogs a chance to adjust to the new layout before the foster arrives.
- Consider quarantine. Aquarium enthusiasts often use a “quarantine tank,” where new fish are kept for a while to ensure they do not have any as-yet asymptomatic contagious illnesses. It’s not a bad idea for foster dogs, too. This provides a nice stretch of time where you can do relaxation work and training with both your resident dogs and the new foster.
Learn About Your Foster Dog
Have a qualified behavior professional perform a full assessment on your foster dog, so you know what to expect. Is this dog safe with cats? Other dogs? Children? Strangers? Does she prefer a quiet environment or have any medical issues you need to be aware of? What types of dogs does she like? What type of play does she enjoy, if any? Is this dog crate-trained? My preference is that the foster is introduced carefully to resident dogs before you decides whether that particular dog is right for your home, but I realize this may not be possible for a variety of reasons.
Introducing the Foster Dog
- Do it slowly! Whenever possible, introductions should take place in a neutral environment with lots of space. If you have several dogs, introduce the foster to your most neutral dog first, at whatever distance is required for each dog to feel comfortable, only reducing distance when both dogs are comfortable. Do this with each of your dogs before matching up the foster in pairs or groups. You can use parallel walking, “Look at That” (from Leslie McDevitt’s great book Control Unleashed), relaxation work, elements of Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training, etc. Don’t worry about all of the dogs being best friends or playing right away — the first step is just teaching them to be comfortable and confident around one another without any social pressure. The play or other healthy social interactions will come later. Not sure how to go about this? Hire an experienced trainer to coach you through the process.
- Be aware of situations likely to cause trouble. Even if your resident dogs eat in the same room or share a food and/or water bowl, your foster may not feel comfortable. To keep everyone safe, feed the foster separately and separate her when she is enjoying high-value toys, games, treats, etc.
- Never leave a foster dog unattended with resident dogs. If you must leave your foster at home, she should be crated, penned, or otherwise confined in an area where resident dogs do not have access.
- Train for adoption! You may love inviting your dogs on the bed for a snuggle, but your foster may wind up in a home where this behavior is not allowed. You may like a dog who jumps for joy to greet you when you arrive home, engages in rough play, or begs at the table, but these behaviors may be unacceptable in her forever home. Teaching some basic tricks and manners will make your foster dog infinitely more adoptable and reduce her stress level. Many dog-training facilities offer discounts for foster dogs — check to see whether your favorite trainer does!
- Manage the environment. Because dogs don’t generalize well, it is entirely possible that your foster dog was trained to potty outside in her previous home but needs consistency to learn that the same rules apply in the new home. Make sure you have appropriate cleaning supplies ready in case of accidents, and be ready to potty train her like she is a puppy until she is reliable. Don’t worry — if the dog has been previously house-trained, the process will generally not take as long as training a dog for the first time!
I could (and should!) write a whole book about these types of issues, and this list is by no means intended to be a definitive or sole source of information on how to help a foster adjust to life in a new home. Of course, these same tips can be helpful for adopters as well.
Have you fostered a dog or are considering it? Let us know in the comments!