Some Things That I Have Learned While Fostering Dogs

People go to adopt a dog from a foster home or shelter and take their impressions of the dog from what they immediately see. And really, for the average adopter, they think what you see is what you get. Not so much. If you had been abandoned, sent to a new home, or your best friend had died, or you were in an unfamiliar situation for a host of possible reasons, would you be at your best? You would be in unknown territory and so would have to try to adapt with whatever skills you had or just try things and see what worked. This is what so many dogs are doing when a potential adopter comes to meet them.
With luck, the dog will be happy go lucky and thrilled to see every new person and go joyfully with them wherever they want to go and do whatever they want to do. This rarely happens. And really, would you go with a stranger, without reservations, and do whatever they asked of you? I think not. In fact, the argument might be made that this would be foolishness. Why then, do we ask it of dogs?

Often the dogs are sad, afraid, looking for safety. Trusting you to provide what they need is something that must be earned. If they came from a good, loving home, hopefully this will come quickly. If they have never had care, love, and safety, they must learn that these things are available and will be a constant in their lives. Expecting a new dog to integrate immediately into your life is not likely to happen and not fair to the dog.

Sometimes I have seen a family come to meet one of our foster dogs and have an immediate bond. This is rare. Usually the dog becomes anxious and sometimes panicy when it is time to leave with the new owners. Sometimes the foster dog tries to get out of the car and gives us a pitiful look with forlorn or panicked eyes. Or acts dejected. On fortunate occasions the dog is just happy to go for a car ride and jumps in. And these are dogs that have been living in our home, which admittedly is not very normal, but is loving, with lots of attention and company from humans and other animals.

Think then what it must be like for a dog living in a shelter or pound. Don’t get me wrong, most of these places now are wonderful, doing the best they can to provide for the animals in their care and often doing a fine job. Still, the animals are there because, for some reason, they have lost their homes, if they ever had a true home. And these places are not homes, even though they may simulate them. Workers and volunteers still have to go home at night. It is not physically possible for the sheer number of animals seeking homes to have an actual home to stay in during this transition.

These dogs in shelters and pounds can exhibit behaviors like slinking in the back of the cage, cage aggression-protecting the only thing they know, and shutting down, becoming non-reactive, or exhibit fearful shaking. These dogs do not “show” well to potential adopters. They get passed by, so spend longer in the shelter, which makes them have more negative reactions as they spend even longer in the shelter. It can become a vicious circle. Getting them out of their cages for walks and one on one interactions can help. It gets them out of that reactive situation.

With all dogs that you are meeting though, in foster homes or shelters, don’t expect miracles. The true personality of the dog may not emerge until you have adopted them and had them in your home for a while. How then can you make a decision on who to adopt? Well you can take them out of the current setting if possible and see if there is a connection with you and your family, including any other dogs you may have. It would also be wise to ask the shelter workers for their advice and opinions of the dogs and what is normal for them.

My experiences while fostering have taught me that, on average, the true personality of a dog won’t begin to emerge for about a week, maybe longer. Once they start to develop a routine and become familiar with a place, they start to relax and do things that seem normal to them. So keep in mind that input from someone who has spent some time with the dog can be invaluable!

All photos are of past dogs that we have fostered.