Tips on Successful Fostering – Guide by

Cara Sue Achterberg is a prolific writer and an active—some might say hyperactive—dog rescuer. In her latest book, One Hundred Dogs and Counting, she chronicles her experiences fostering more than 175 dogs of all sizes and types. Many of the dogs arrive at her hillside farm in her home state of Pennsylvania from shelters in the Southeast.

These shelters also come in all sizes and types, and as part of her foster work, Achterberg has led visits to a number of them over the years. She volunteers her knowledge and organizational skills to these facilities, which are often underfunded and short of resources despite their staffs’ abundance of goodwill and dedication to saving animals.

In her writing, blogs, podcasts and public appearances, she advocates for rescue dogs. Like a proud pack leader, she personalizes complex and systemic issues, shares the challenges and rewards of fostering, and highlights some of her favorite dogs. Among her other books, Another Good Dog (Pegasus Books 2018) is a companion piece to her new work. In both books, readers will discover a woman of unwavering commitment to animals in need and an advocate for making a difference.

In this discussion, Achterberg shares some expert advice, including how to provide a foster dog with a good experience, her top tip on what to do first when bringing a foster dog into your home, how to engage the community in successful rescue/foster activities, and five things she’d mandate if she could make the rules governing animal welfare—particularly dogs’ welfare.


Cara Sue Achterberg: I suppose that depends on the purpose of the fostering situation. Some shelters have “foster to adopt” programs, where the successful foster ultimately adopts the dog. Those of us in the rescue world call ourselves a “foster fail” when we choose to adopt the dog we are fostering. Hospice fostering is completely different from fostering an adult dog or a litter of puppies for a shelter or rescue. In terms of fostering for a shelter or rescue, the type of person who is successful varies widely, but I believe they have to approach fostering as a job to do. A foster’s job is to prepare a dog to be adopted. Some dogs need time, space, patience. Others need exercise, engagement, direction. They all need routine, safety and security. Many times, the dog you pick up from a transport or a shelter is very different from the dog living in your house a week later. Shelter dogs are stressed to the max, and their reactions can vary from completely shutting down to aggressively reacting to every stimulus.

If I had to assign characteristics of a good foster, it would be patient, kind and motivated to help a dog. The rest you can learn. How to help shy dogs, reactive dogs, dogs who have only lived outdoors, dog who have health issues—all of that, a good rescue group or shelter can teach you how to handle. The vast majority of dogs being placed in foster situations are simply good dogs that require no special skills, only the willingness to love a dog.

B: Fostering dogs with problematic behaviors seems daunting. While these behaviors are absolutely understandable, it must be stressful for those doing the fostering. Have you found some strategies to be more successful than others in dealing with both the behaviors and the stress?

CSA: A lot of times, you don’t know a dog has problematic behaviors until you’ve had him home a week or two. I’ve fostered over 175 dogs now and I’ve only had a two or three with truly problematic behaviors, and those behaviors were all manageable—even Gala (the dog I wrote so much about in One Hundred Dogs and Counting) was not dangerous; she just needed our family to sort out how to manage life with her. Our busy house was not a good fit, and if I had it to do over, I would have worked harder to move her sooner than we did. That said, she taught me a lot.

When you bring home a new foster dog, the first thing you need to do is what our rescue calls a “shut-down.” The dog needs a quiet place, usually a crate (for some dogs, it can be a small room) where he can relax and recover from living in a shelter and/or being abandoned and the stressful transport that brought him to us. This means providing a comfy bed, a few toys, regular meals, water and calm walks. Giving a dog a few days, or a few weeks, if necessary, to reset is critical.

I also find that gates, crates and regular exercise go a long way toward managing a challenging dog. The challenging dogs I’ve encountered have all been very smart dogs who need plenty of engagement. I get them out for long daily walks; play fetch until my arms give out; and, with one particularly busy, nipping dog, I trained her for agility.

Instead of focusing on what is “wrong” with the dog (because a personality trait is not a fault), find what the dog can succeed at, what he likes to do, and how you can help him shine. That will be the best way to attract the perfect adopter for that dog.

Fostering is never boring—you learn something from every dog you encounter. While the challenging ones get all the press, foster dogs bring far more joy to our household than hardship. Rescue dogs have a sense of gratitude about them, and they are literal lessons in forgiveness and unconditional love.

B: How hard/practical would it be to implement the strategies in play at South Carolina’s Anderson County PAWS nationwide?

CSA: Not hard at all—providing you have a workable shelter and motivated leadership. The PAWS staff meets weekly to come up with more ideas to help their animals find homes. Everyone, not just the director, has a voice and a stake in this. They try all kinds of programs, smart management, fundraising ideas and training to be sure they are improving all the time. They engage their community; partner with rescues; practice smart, preventive veterinary care; cultivate a strong volunteer program; and work to reduce barriers to adoption. In addition, they counsel potential owner-surrenders to help them keep their pet in their home. Very little of that costs money, but all of it requires motivated leadership.

The reason we can’t put PAWS practices into place everywhere is because too many states have no real sheltering system. In western Tennessee, they still operate with a dog-pound system where dog-catchers (who are not trained animal professionals) contain dogs in rudimentary conditions for their stray hold (three to five days) before destroying them or having a local vet do it for them. In Mississippi, there are very few, if any, truly public shelters; instead, they depend on a patchwork of nonprofit rescues and shelters. In Alabama, it is the state law that every county have a shelter (they call it a pound) or pay their portion to a neighboring county for those services, but at least half of the counties are out of compliance.

In order to put progressive practices in place that will save every adoptable dog, there must be a shelter-building and motivated leadership. Without those two key pieces, it’s hard (but not impossible) to save lives.

B: What would make dogs’ lives better, and/or improve our animal-welfare system overall? If you could make five rules that everyone had to follow, what would they be?

CSA: Dogs’ lives would be better overall if everyone, including governments, valued dogs’ lives and understood that we have a responsibility we incurred when we domesticated them to protect those lives, and to shelter them when necessary until every dog has a home.

And gosh, I sure would love to set the “rules.” If I did, here’s what I’d propose:

Rule 1: Remember that every dog is an individual and stop labeling shelter dogs as any particular breed. Research makes it clear that breed assignment is wildly inaccurate, even when done by professional shelter staff. In some places, labeling a dog a “Pit Bull” can increase or even guarantee the dog’s death, while labeling him something else—say, a Labrador Retriever—can mean he gets rescued. Whatever the label, it still carries with it unrealistic expectations that can lead to the dog’s return and ultimate death. Even within purebreds, every dog is different. So, basically, if you don’t personally know the parents or you haven’t done a DNA test, do not label the dog anything beyond “dog.” If you must label him something, label him a “medium-sized, energetic dog” or a “large, friendly dog” or a “small, long-haired dog.”

Rule 2: Every county in every state must maintain an animal shelter (or pay its share for a shelter shared amongst counties) in which animals are housed and fed humanely and given proper veterinary care, including vaccinations, spay/neuter, and heartworm testing/preventives.

Rule 3: Every community must pay for its animal control department with tax dollars. We domesticated dogs (and cats), and it is our responsibility to be sure they are cared for so that they don’t endanger the public, spread disease or become a nuisance. That said, a good shelter will need very little tax money once it’s established. Adoption fees, community programs and the shrinking number of animals within (thanks to community education, spay/neuter and foster programs) will see to that.

Rule 4: Every county-funded shelter must offer community education; low-cost/no-cost veterinary clinics; and a volunteer program that includes a foster program, animal-enrichment programs and community service opportunities.

Rule 5: In order to graduate from high school, every student must complete some form of safe dog interaction education. Too many animals end up in shelters because of a bite that could have been prevented if people knew how to safely, respectfully interact with dogs.

FAQ’s About DOG Fostering:

2 to 4 weeks
How long does fostering lastFostering tends to last 2 to 4 weeks for dogs because most get adopted within that timeframe. Sometimes dogs get adopted much more quickly, sometimes it takes longer.

However, it's important to remember that fostering a dog can also be extremely challenging. You're taking in a dog who has been in questionable circumstances, meaning they might display erratic behavior... and then, after devoting your time and love to them, you eventually have to give them up.

8 Reasons Why You Should Foster Animals
  • Fostering increases an animal's chance of getting adopted. ...
  • Your own pets will learn more social skills. ...
  • You get to see if you're ready to own another pet. ...
  • Fostering is temporary. ...
  • You probably already have the space for one more. ...
  • You can choose how to foster. ...
  • Fostering keeps animals out of shelters.

Yes. In your initial interview, our Animal Foster Caregiver Director will ask what types of pets you are interested in fostering. During this time, the director will also go over in detail all the types of fostering situations. Together you will discuss the best fit for you and your family.

Fostering a dog is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have (other than adopting, of course). By taking an animal in need temporarily into your home you're: freeing up a spot so the shelter or rescue can take in another dog. giving your foster dog the time he needs to be ready for adoption.

Emotional Changes

Dogs experience a range of humanlike emotions when they change owners. Depression is common in dogs who have recently lost a caring owner. A depressed dog may be unmotivated to play, may sleep at unusual times and may show a lack of attention to his surroundings.

Your dog should be able to sleep in a place where he feels safe. This should ideally be in a crate the first few weeks, but it could also be a nice cushy dog bed or even a pile of blankets arranged into a comfy nest.

In general, re-homing is a very stressful experience for dogs. It's common for dogs to undergo bouts of depression and anxiety, especially if they're coming from a happy home. They will miss their old owner and may not want to do much at all in their sadness over leaving.

In other words, you get to know the dog, what they need, what they know, what brings them joy, and what scares them to death. Furthermore, attachment to a foster dog means you can observe, listen, and assess with keenness and care. Some dogs may draw you in more than others.

  1. First Things First. Before you commit to fostering a dog for the first time, check your homeowner's insurance or rental policy. ...
  2. Shop Smart. ...
  3. Wait on the Fun Stuff. ...
  4. Involve the Whole Family. ...
  5. Be Prepared to Socialize Your Foster Dog. ...
  6. Go Slow With Other Pets. ...
  7. Think Ahead.

The Responsibilities of a Dog Foster Parent

The main function of a foster home is to provide a safe, loving home environment. For the most part, this entails caring for your foster as you would care for your own dog: offering food, affection, socialization, and exercise to keep the dog happy and healthy.

Pet fostering provides temporary care to shelter animals who need to live in a home environment prior to adoption. While pet fostering is ideal for some people, it is not for everyone

The most important thing to remember is that it's OK to return a foster dog if it is not working out. You do not have to put up with the dog no matter what, and there are always other dogs you can foster. If you have to ask yourself whether or not you should return your foster dog, you probably should return him.

No… not a feeling of being abandoned. But they would definitely miss their Foster Mom/Dad. Most dogs in foster care are rescued from the Shelter, and some are being re-homed.

Absolutely! Most of our adopters work full time, so the 9-5 routine helps prepare the foster for such a lifestyle. If you do work full-time, however, it's important that you make sure you have enough time and energy to give the foster the attention and exercise it needs when you are home.

A Dog does NOT forget their owner after two weeks! There is no way that the dogs can ever forget their owners, not even after years. Their amazing smelling power and facial recognition helps to remember their owners as soon as they see them.

Bringing home a rescue is a wonderful thing, but sometimes, because of their background, these dogs may not have been housetrained for many reasons. Even if your rescue is an adult, it is possible to housetrain them at any age. With some knowledge, consistency, and patience, you an housetrain your rescue dog.

Keep a crate in the room as the dog's 'safe place' and to help with housetraining. Set up an environment in which your foster dog can acclimate most comfortably and cannot “make mistakes”. Place the crate in a low-traffic area of the room. Determine the quickest route to the outdoors for bathroom breaks.

When you arrive home let the dog sniff around the yard or outdoor area near your home on a leash. Bring your dog to your designated potty spot and reward the dog with a treat for going there. Introduce your dog to your family members outside, one at a time. Keep it calm and low-key.

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