Foster Families - Our Heroes

- by Lorraine Houston

Foster: to afford, receive or share nurture or parental care though not related by blood or legal ties; to promote the growth or development of; to encourage.

The above definition of the word "foster" gives us a general idea of its meaning but if you dive into the world of dog rescue, the word takes on significant new meaning. If you ask any dog rescue organization what their most valuable resource is, they will respond without hesitation, "Our foster homes."

Foster parents are the life line of dog rescue work - the outstretched arms eager to embrace, the tender hearts that are always open, ready and willing to share their love and life, and the gentle hands that guide, caress and heal a broken, confused or frightened canine soul.

They are also that late night call or e-mail for assistance - the groomer, poop scooper, trainer, walker, driver, pill giver, evaluator, bottle feeder, steam cleaner, feces inspector, chief cook and bowl washer and the list goes on…and on.

Since most rescues operate without a sheltering facility, the groups rely solely on foster homes to provide the necessary care. Foster homes are vital to a rescue organization and, without them, many of the "happy ending" stories you read and hear about may not have had the same outcome. Perhaps your own dog was adopted from a rescue group and, if this is the case, there was most likely a foster parent involved at some point along the way.

What is involved in being a foster parent?

Fostering a dog for a rescue group requires commitment. Foster families must be willing to invest time, attention, TLC and offer a safe environment for a dog who is in need. Aside from the day-to-day schedule of feeding, exercise and grooming, some additional responsibilities may be required. Kim Gladding, assistant dog adoption coordinator for the Etobicoke Humane Society, has been matching dogs with foster families for over 3 years. She says, "A good percentage of the dogs we take into our program need a foster home in order to learn basic obedience (to sit rather than jump up, walk mannerly on a leash, come when called). Many of our dogs need to learn how to trust people again. Placing a dog in a foster home allows us to assess the dog's personality and determine the type of permanent home we should be looking at for that particular dog. The foster parent provides love, attention, some basic training (which we help with), and a regular report on how the dog is doing. They should understand that we cannot predict how long it will take to find their foster dog a forever home. We are always in need of foster homes because the bottom line is the more foster homes we have available, the more dogs we can help." Most rescue groups provide food and supplies and take care of all the medical needs and veterinary costs.

What kind of dog needs fostering?

Dogs of all ages, breeds and breed mixes come into rescue organizations and need foster homes. In fact, for nearly every breed of dog, there is a rescue group to assist them. Many people do not realize that purebred dogs also become displaced, are abandoned and left homeless. People are similarly surprised to hear that a 10-year old dog has been taken in by a rescue group and needs a foster home. Often puppies purchased on impulse are surrendered by owners when they are "teenagers" because they have not given these dogs the time, attention or training they need. For every human/canine relationship that has ended in separation and for whatever reason it has happened, there will be a dog with his or her own unique story, experiences and needs.

Where do these dogs come from?

Rescue groups receive calls and e-mails daily about homeless dogs who need assistance. The dogs often come from animal shelters where perhaps they were stressed and struggling in the shelter environment. Many shelters will call on rescue organizations to help when their shelter is becoming full and they are running out of cage space. Sometimes it is because a dog is older, needs extra TLC or has a medical condition that can be better addressed in a home environment.

Sometimes the dogs will come from a puppy mill "bust," an abusive or neglectful owner or an investigation case. Other dogs who need foster homes are taken into a rescue program directly by way of owner surrender. For whatever the reason, the rescue group is asked to take the dog into their care.

What is known about these dogs?

Some of the dogs coming into the rescue have little or no known history as they have been abandoned or admitted into the shelter as a stray or "lost" dog. During their stay at the shelter, the staff often has the chance to get to know them and complete an evaluation or assessment. This helpful information is passed on to the rescue organization. Sometimes the rescue organization has little information about a dog other than approximate age and breed or breed mix. Either way, most often an experienced representative from the rescue or a dog trainer in the area is asked to do a "meet and greet" and evaluation with the dog. From there, the rescue organization can determine what type of foster home would be best suited to care for, house and attend to the dog’s needs.

When dogs are coming into rescue from an owner's home, a questionnaire or background history on the dog is typically supplied by the owner. However, even with this information, a representative from the rescue will often go and meet the dog prior to placing him or her into a foster home.

How does the rescue match the dog with the foster home?

Reputable, responsible rescues are very particular about where they place their dogs, whether in foster or forever homes. Their main concern is for the dog who needs to blossom, learn, and be well cared for and safe. They also want their foster families to succeed in their endeavour to help a displaced dog. Careful matching, consideration of all the variables (i.e: cats, other dogs, children, house or apartment, the dog's past) and understanding both the dog's and family's needs, limitations, behaviour and experiences will all determine the most suitable match.

What should a foster parent expect?

As far as the dog is concerned, the better question would be what not to expect. Do not expect your new foster dog to understand what you are saying or to obey your obedience commands. Some of the dogs have not been taught any human words. Repeating the words or saying them louder will not help as it will just add to their confusion and stress. Do not expect them to be perfectly housetrained, confident or comfortable when left alone, delighted and happy to meet new people or to come when you call them. Do not expect them to walk well on their leash or to be mannerly and polite when they meet your neighbours on the street. Do not expect them to trust you right away - trust is something that you must earn through your actions, the bonding process and the way you treat and care for them. With all this said, they might just understand some of your words, walk nicely on a leash, be housetrained, behave mannerly and love people in general. It is just better not to expect such things. Personally, I do not hold high expectations. The dog and I are going to get to know each other, develop a relationship, discover new things about each other and, hopefully, we will both learn something new from one another. Many of the dogs do have some sense of living with humans and have some sort of repertoire from which to draw. Even if they don't, I find that the dogs learn quickly with patience, understanding and positive teachings. You can expect support, suggestions and advice in addition to food, supplies and veterinary care from the rescue organization.

What fostering is Not

Fostering is not a way to "try on" many different dogs to see which one fits. It is not a way to try and adopt a dog at a lower cost and it is not a way to keep the children entertained for a few weeks or months. Fostering a dog is a serious commitment requiring dedicated, sincere people who want to help the dog, not themselves.

Fostering must be emotional

It is indeed an emotional, bittersweet journey. I have yet to meet a foster parent who has not wept the day their foster dog moves on to his or her forever family, myself included. Fostering is also a very rewarding journey. Each dog you foster will take a piece of your heart but will leave you with a piece of theirs.

If it sounds somewhat challenging, a lot of work, an emotional rollercoaster and a big time commitment, one might ask why people foster dogs and why do they continue to foster? That's a fair question. Being a foster parent is not for everyone. But, for some, it has become a part of life.

Sue Skinner, foster mom to many eldery small mixes of dogs over the years, sums up her experiences with these words: "Fostering is so rewarding because of the metamorphosis; the transformation you see within these beloved dogs, emotionally and spiritually. They often arrive feeling frightened and alone, unsure of themselves and their surroundings. Then, often within a day or two, they begin relaxing, smiling, playing, snuggling right in and giving and accepting affection. There is no greater feeling of satisfaction. It touches my heart when these angels start to feel safe and secure and open up and respond to my love and attention. That's what it's all about. Fostering has made me realize that this is my purpose in life. Why I'm here. I truly believe that."

Blanche Axton has been fostering dogs for nearly 20 years. She says that every dog she fosters teaches her something new. "Sometimes it's something about dealing with a particular behaviour, sometimes it's about how dogs function in groups. Often they just remind me how amazing dogs are. If there isn't some attachment between me and the dog, then I haven't done my job properly. My favourite fosters are the seniors. They have a wisdom all their own. They know things that I don't know and they remind me that there are wonders to be seen on the ground if you get low enough and go slow enough. Fostering has made me a better dog owner. Few things bring me the same joy as going to sleep at night completely surrounded by snoring dogs. It's a gift to take a fearful or woebegone dog and watch him turn into a dog that is willing to trust again, to play again, to give us humans yet another chance."

This article is dedicated to every foster parent/family that has reached out and touched the life of a dog in need. Please know you have played an intricate role in altering and enriching their life's path. Your selfless, tireless efforts are always appreciated, will never be forgotten and, as hard as it is to let your foster dogs go when their permanent homes are found, they will remain forever in your heart. You are all our true heroes.

Lorraine Houston is a feature writer for Dogs, Dogs, Dogs! and an evaluator for Therapeutic Paws of Canada and St. John Ambulance Therapy Dogs. She is director of Speaking of Dogs, an organization devoted to education, outreach and rescue. A Maxwell Award winner from Dog Writers Assoc. of America, Lorraine lives in Don Mills with her husband, two sons and family dogs. She may be contacted at 416-444-4190 or lhh4dogs@rogers.com