How to Welcome a Foster Dog

Help! I’ve just taken in a foster dog—what do I do next?
By Karen B. London PhD, June 2020
foster dogs

Dear Bark: Our local shelter put out a call for foster homes for its animals during the pandemic. Four hours after thinking I’d like to help out, I was driving home with an adorable two-year old mixed-breed dog. Now what do I do?

Welcoming a new dog into your home can be wonderful, frightening, exciting, dizzying, gratifying and overwhelming—sometimes all at the same time. That emotional whiplash is especially likely when the dog arrives with so little warning. Whether you are adopting or fostering, the first few days, weeks and even months can be challenging, but there are ways to make it easier on dogs and people alike.

Whether fostering or adopting, there’s so much to say about taking in an adult dog that Patricia McConnell, PhD, and I wrote a book about this very subject. (Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming an Adopted Dog into Your Home). Because anyone who just brought a new dog home doesn’t have the time to read a lengthy work, we kept it short, and organized it so you can check out the relevant sections as you need them. Naturally, I recommend the book for a more complete resource, but here are a few tips to help you start this journey with your foster dog.

Supplies. It’s easier to take care of your dog if you have some basic supplies. I recommend a 4- to 6-foot leash, a flat collar, bowls for food and water, dog food, a Kong or similar hollow toy that can be stuffed, a few toys of different types (including chew toys), poop bags, a dog bed (or blankets that can serve as one), and a crate or pen. Those are the key things to have on hand or acquire as soon as possible.

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Basic house plan. As soon as you can, figure out how to use the layout of your home most effectively. Choose spots for the dog bed, crate, food and water bowls, and toys so your dog can enjoy these things without being bumped into or surprised. Dogs need to learn where to potty and where to sleep as soon as possible. It is good for your house and good for relieving a dog’s anxiety if they know where to go for these vital functions, so introduce your dog to the bathroom and bedroom right away.

Make each introduction positive. Your dog may be overwhelmed by the sudden changes in his life, so focus on making each new experience pleasant and calm. For introductions, that means having him meet every person in your household one at a time in a calm way with no pressure and perhaps some treats or toys if he likes them. He should also meet other dogs, cats and any other species in your household one at a time, with a break between each introduction.

Use a leash. Many newly adopted dogs freak out and run away or resist coming back inside from a fenced yard, a situation that can be made worse by people attempting to catch them. Having a dog on a leash when outside for the first couple days prevents that. It also guarantees that every time he goes outside, he has company, and that can help him feel safe and secure.

Get to know your dog. This process cannot be rushed. In order to start your friendship, you need to spend time with your dog, engaging with him and learning about his likes and dislikes. Figure out what toys (if any) he enjoys and how he likes to play, whether that involves fetch, chase or tug. Do some positive training with him, but not with any expectations. He may know a lot or he may not even know his name or how to sit when asked. Perhaps he is too overwhelmed to learn much right now. Keep training relaxed and low-key. Consider it a fun way to interact with him rather than a way for him to learn any particular skills. The point is for him to associate you with good things such as treats and toys and love and attention, not for him to excel at obedience.

For now, avoid visits to the veterinarian and groomer if possible. At the very least, your dog has experienced many intense changes in a short period of time. Don’t compound that with additional new and potentially unpleasant experiences. Try to stay at home rather than take him to any businesses, however kind they may be to all their furry clients. Your dog has enough to adjust to after landing in an unknown household. Obviously, if there is an imminent medical need or your dog’s coat is so matted that it affects his quality of life (restricting his movements or making him uncomfortable), or some other serious issue exists, you may need to take him for help. Otherwise, I recommend waiting a few weeks before visiting any pet professionals.

Be patient. The most important three words to remember when you are caring for a new dog are patience, patience and patience. Do your best to be patient with him and with yourself. You both deserve that grace. Many people (including me!) are helping out by fostering a dog during this global pandemic. I hope you find it a positive experience and that your foster dog finds a forever home soon!

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.