Last year, my family adopted a senior-aged Chihuahua mix named Laney. She walked on a leash, liked car rides and had a hearty appetite. But, it soon became clear that Laney was happiest curled up on my lap with no one else around. If dogs had theme songs, Laney’s would be Just the Two of Us by Bill Withers. She growled at my husband and kids, and verged on aggressive when my other Chihuahua would innocently try to claim a leg for herself.
Laney clearly had experienced some trauma, and needed attention and patience from someone who was able to socialize her enough so she could thrive in a home environment — someone like a foster parent.
A fosterer temporarily cares for a dog, typically a few weeks to a few months depending on the dog’s needs, until the dog is ready to be put up for adoption.
Behavioral issues aren’t the only reasons that dogs need fostering. Home environments are better for dogs healing from medical procedures, puppies or kittens too young to stay in the shelter or senior dogs needing a stress-free home for hospice.
“You can save lives,” says Erin Steen, foster specialist at Best Friends Animal Society in southern Utah, of foster parents who house animals that aren’t thriving in a shelter situation or who care for animals that a shelter no longer has room for.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep Laney (still a sore subject in our house!), but it did show me how much impact foster parents can have on a successful adoption.
Three nationally recognized organizations take us through the steps of becoming a dog fosterer.
Most shelters have information on their websites with a place to fill out an online application. The shelter will then enroll you in an orientation to familiarize you with the fostering process, including the shelter’s expectations, what types of animals need help and how your availability — no matter how limited — can be of service.
“Fostering is a great option for folks who work full time or travel a lot, and having a pet full-time isn’t an option for them,” Erin says.
Best Friends runs a sanctuary, which acts as a refuge for neglected animals nationwide, and encourages all types and sizes of families to apply, including teenagers who can put fostering hours toward community service credits for school.
“It’s a great opportunity to teach kids about the responsibility of pet ownership,” says Erin, who typically has 75 families fostering a year. Those numbers increase during kitten and puppy litter season in the spring, when more help is needed to look after the pregnant mothers and young babies until they are strong enough for adoption.
Shelters try to find the best match based on personality, home life and experience levels.
“We do one-on-one matchmaking, similar to what we would do with an adoption,” says Sylvia Ottaka, senior director of operations at North Shore Animal League America in Port Washington, New York, the world’s largest no-kill rescue and adoption organization.
For more intense cases, for example, a dog recovering from surgery, North Shore offers in-depth training and classes. Other perks include donated food, toys, beds and medical supplies, and a 24-hour-a-day support and a dedicated phone line for foster parents.
With all these services offered, most organizations, like North Shore, require foster parents to live in the vicinity of the shelter for easy access to check-ins and vet appointments.
“There’s no obligation or expectation that the foster family will adopt that animal,” says Eileen Hanavan, director of volunteer and foster engagement at the ASPCA adoption center in New York City.
In fact, many foster parents choose not to adopt because they can’t make a long-term commitment to dog ownership.
Through the ASPCA Adoption Ambassadors program, the fosterer can take the lead with the dog’s adoption, posting photos and videos on social media, sharing personal stories with potential adopters or bringing the dog to local adoption events. The program has resulted in fewer dogs being sent back to the shelter after adoption, according to the ASPCA.
Occasionally, some fosterers choose to adopt their foster pets, Eileen says, “and we see that as a success.”
The three organizations partner with thousands of local shelters nationwide. Search their databases online for shelters in your area with foster programs or visit local shelters to research which program will be a good fit for you.
Give it a try; you have nothing to lose. Remember, there’s no commitment. Even if you choose to foster only one animal for a few days, you’re still making a difference.
Foster on your schedule. Shelters want the experience to be rewarding, not taxing. Find the right commitment level, so your family can enjoy the company of another pet.
Editor’s note: This article appeared in Dogster magazine. Have you seen the new Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? Subscribe now to get Dogster magazine delivered straight to you!