Foster Care for a Rescue Dog

by M. Shirley Chong

You heard about this dog from your hair dresser; you got a referral call from the chair of your national rescue club, someone that you know from dog shows heard about this dog that needed help and found your name through an old show catalog. You met the dog; not a gem and not a monster, but a nice dog with some promise. You’ve got a foster dog.

Like any foster parent, you have a special task ahead of you. You have to guide, teach, help, and love this refugee, without becoming this dog’s special one-and-only person. You have to be ready to spend time and energy and love on this dog, and yet be able to give it up when the right family comes along. If everything works out right, someday not too far in the future, there’ll be a lump in your throat and maybe even tears in your eyes as you watch your foster dog eagerly leave your home and loving care for a new life with a new family.

But before that day comes, you’ve got work to do! Very few dogs land im rescue without a few minor quirks or problems-hey, if they were perfect, they probably wouldn’t have landed in rescue! The less you know about the dog, the more you’ll need to do to increase the chances of a happy placement.

The first thing that needs to be done is to make sure the foster dog is housetrained. Even if you were told by a previous owner that the dog never makes a mistake and is perfectly housetrained, be a skeptic! Dogs that didn’t get much socialization often learn not to soil the house they live in, but they never had a chance to generalize to other houses or buildings. The first week or 80 that you have a foster dog treat it as if it were an eight week old puppy. Constant supervision when the dog is loose in the house and crated or otherwise confined to their bed when it isn’t possible to supervise.

During this first week or so, don’t push any other training issues, if possible. Let the foster dog settle in and get oriented Carefully referee interaction between the foster dog and your own dogs. If the foster dog is not in good health, postpone serious training and testing until the dog is well on the road to recovery. Dogs that are emaciated often show mental effects of starvation–they can be unnaturally passive, uninvolved, uninterested in other dogs or in human beings. It is impossible to accurately assess the temperament of a starving dog. I don’t want to try to provide a guide for dealing with an emaciated dog–consult with your vet. I will say that in general, slow and steady weight gain is better than putting on a lot of weight in a hurry. The mental effects of starvation can take as much as twice as long for the dog to recover from as it took to put the weight back on the dog (in other words, if it took six months to build the dog up to a normal weight, it can take up to a year for the dog to be mentally normal.) An emaciated dog CAN be brought back, but it isn’t a quick fix-it project.

After the first week or so, start working on basic commands. Make sure the foster dog knows how to walk nicely on lead, sit and down on command, and come when called. If you add in stays, most pet owners would consider this a well trained dog! Also work on the problems that are least acceptable to most pet homes: destructive chewing and jumping up on people.

Again, treat the foster dog as a puppy–get it out as much as possible, expose it to new people and new situations Make sure to visit several different (dog lover’s) houses, so that you can be sure that the dog really does understand that housetraining means ALL houses, not just yours! As you work with this foster dog, be alert to things that may be TRIGGERS for fear or aggression. Common triggers are holding a rolled up newspaper or magazine and tapping it on one hand); calling the dog in a loud (angry sounding) voice; shuffling feet toward the dog—dog interprets it as an attempt to kick); holding any long object, such as a yardstick or leash; bending over the dog, especially if the dog is lying down; suddenly raising a hand (for instance, as if you were waving to a friend across the street); suddenly reaching out, especially towards the dog’s head; being near or picking up the dogs food dish; taking away a toy that the dog is chewing on; taking away an object that the dog has stolen (like a sock or a piece of garbage); leaning over the dog as you put it in a down.

Don’t avoid triggers; in fact, you should test for them. If the dog reacts to something, this shows you an area that you need to defuse, for the dog’s peace of mind and the safety of the adoptive family. If you discover a trigger, you need to assess how strong the dog’s reaction is and whether you feel capable of de-fusing it. This may also affect your selection of an adoptive family.

There are some other things that you should learn about vour foster dog:

  • how this dog reacts to children of different ages (from babe in arms to teenagers)
  • how this dog reacts to cats
  • how this dog reacts to birds (ducks or pigeons)
  • is there any difference in how this dog reacts to men or women?
  • is this dog more likely to be irritable or cranky after more exercise than usual?
  • how does this dog react to having it’s usual activity level curtailed for a day or two?
  • how does this dog react to being given a pill? (you can test by using a pill sized bit of hot dog or cheese; open the dog’s mouth and push it down as if it were a pill; repeat the test later)

The above information will definitely affect your choice of an adoptive home; what these things have in common is that they are basic instinct/temperament/personality issues. If the dog has very high prey drive (wants to chase any cat or bird it sees), placing it in a home with small animal pets might not be a good match. If the dog truly does not like children of a certain age, it may learn to love a family member of that age, but it may never like other children of that age (so does this child bring home lots of friends?). The pill test tells you how willing the dog is to accept unfamiliar sorts of handling.

To a certain extent, the breed you are dealing with influences how long you should hold onto a foster dog to assess them. An easygoing, gentle, typically submissive breed may be easier to place sooner, without extensive testing and training than a breed with a more difficult temperament. Taking the time to really learn about your foster dog will pay off when you are trying to play Yentl, to make a match for life!

This article first appeared in the March 1994 issue of Texas Dogs.
Texas Dogs, 2737 Oak Mountain Trail, San Angelo, TX 76904; (915) 944-7016.

Copyright 1994, M. Shirley Chong