My first adventures in the world of observing and analyzing dog behavior occurred while I was an undergraduate in the mid-1990s. I was a psychology major and lifelong animal lover and knew I wanted to find a career path that would allow me to combine my passion for behavioral science with my interest in dogs and cats. I took my first volunteer position at a local animal shelter and was immediately taken by the work. I went to volunteer each day full of excitement, knowing I’d be making a difference in these animals’ lives, providing affection, walks, training, and play time to break up their otherwise monotonous and stressful shelter confinement. I worked with as many animals I could in the time I had allotted, and felt driven and satisfied even in my somewhat limited role as a volunteer.
Anyone who has worked in or visited an animal shelter is familiar with the feeling of wishing we could do more, feeling our hearts tugged by the faces of these animals in need of a home. Luckily, animal shelters have become vastly more enriching for their residents in the last twenty years, and many have an increased emphasis on the animals’ social and exercise needs. As part of the evolution of animal sheltering nationwide, shelters have increasingly allowed and encouraged fostering of some of their animals in private homes. To foster a shelter animal typically means to bring the animal into your home and care for him or her over a period of time. The animal remains the property of the shelter or rescue group, although fosters are often given “first dibs” on adoption should they find they develop a bond and want to adopt their foster. Otherwise, the animal is provided with a home environment in which to live while waiting for adoption. Any dog or cat lover can imagine the benefits to the pet of living within a healthy, stable home environment during his or her bid for permanent adoption, and it turns out the experience can be quite enriching for the foster family as well.
In my fostering experience, I have had the pleasure of hosting puppies, adult dogs, and special needs or senior dogs, kittens and new momma cats. I have been a repeated “foster fail” (the playful term given to those who fall in love with their foster animal and decide to adopt that animal) and also happily passed on animals for adoption or returned to the shelter those who were not a good match for my home or for whom I was not in a position to provide a permanent home at the time. I have come out of these decades of experience with a strongly positive impression of fostering and encourage you to explore this option for your family as well.
What are the benefits of fostering for the animal? Well, certainly many dogs and cats prefer to move about and interact with people more than is allowed by the kenneling or caged confinement required in many shelter settings. While most shelters do their very best to provide as much exercise, enrichment, and socialization as possible, they are often unable to provide the opportunities that a home environment can in terms of space, play time, snuggle time, trips in the community, etc. At the same time, while fostering a dog or cat in a healthy home environment, we are able to address minor issues that might make the animal more adoptable. For example, foster families can work on leash manners for dogs who pull, teach litterbox skills to kittens just learning their way around, teach dogs (or cats!) the basics of a simple Sit/Stay for beginning obedience, or teach timid animals to enjoy and seek out human interaction.
There are also benefits to the foster family in this work. Many families learn much about the animals often available for adoption, leading to insights for them about the type and temperament of animal that would be best suited to their own home when they are in a position to adopt. Some families explicitly pursue fostering as a way to explore adoption possibilities, without the worry that they have committed to adopting an animal who may not be the right match once inside their home. Others have no interest in adoption but derive great benefit from the joy of sharing their home with an animal and the satisfaction gained from knowing they are helping that animal along his or her journey to adoption.
Can any family provide a good foster environment? I think not. I have seen cases where the animal would, in fact, have been LESS stressed or MORE enriched in the shelter environment, when compared with a home that was not in a good position for fostering. If your home is already chaotic with busy or inconsistent schedules, familial instability or strife, or many other pets with their own needs and personalities, then fostering a shelter animal is not likely of great benefit to that animal. Many potential foster guardians have big hearts and the best of intentions, but find themselves overwhelmed by the responsibilities and needs of a foster animal in the home and these animals suffer in turn.
Consider whether you have the space, time, commitment, responsibility, and stability in your life to share your home temporarily with an animal. Remember that the animal may look adorable and needy in the shelter, but comes with a host of requirements beyond snuggles and a warm bed. You may need to set up gates or crates, manage walks and car rides, provide training, miss other events in order to care for the animal, or change routines of your household to accommodate this animal’s needs. Only when you believe you are ready to accommodate yourself and your home to the needs of a shelter animal should you pursue fostering. Of course, you also will need to be sure you are ready to say good bye to that animal once your fostering time has come to an end, comfortable in the knowledge that you have safely homed this pet and ideally made him or her a better companion for the adopting family.