Adoption & Fostering

How to Foster a Dog 101: Everything You Need to Know

Have you ever thought about opening your home and heart to a dog in need? Fostering a dog—providing temporary shelter and care until a forever home is found—is one of the most rewarding experiences for any animal lover. As a longtime foster dog parent myself, I’m thrilled to share this comprehensive guide on how to get started, what to expect, and how to prepare your home for a furry guest. 

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Let’s dive in!

Are You Ready to Be a Foster Dog Parent?

Before we dive into the nitty-gritty details, let’s chat about whether fostering is right for you. Here are some telltale signs you might be ready to take the plunge:

  1. You’re passionate about transforming a shelter dog into a beloved pet and helping another family find their perfect match.
  2. You’ve been considering adopting a dog but want to test the waters first. Fostering provides valuable experience in caring for a dog without lifelong commitment.
  3. Your current dog could use a playmate! Many foster parents find that having a temporary canine companion brings joy and socialization to their resident pup.
  4. You have the space, time, and energy to welcome a dog into your home and provide the love and attention they need to thrive.

If any of these reasons resonated with you, then congratulations—you might just have what it takes to be an incredible foster parent!

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What Kinds of Dogs Need Foster Homes?

Now that you’re feeling the fostering itch, you might be wondering what types of dogs typically need foster care. Shelters often seek foster homes for dogs who are:

  • Stressed out by the shelter environment and need a calmer setting
  • In need of more individualized attention and TLC than busy shelter staff can provide
  • Too young to be adopted (such as puppies under 8 weeks old)
  • Recovering from an illness or injury
  • Shy, timid, or undersocialized and need a safe space to come out of their shell
  • Energetic youngsters who need to learn some basic manners before finding their forever homes
  • Seniors or terminally ill dogs in need of loving hospice care

Some shelters also turn to foster homes when they’re overcrowded and need to free up kennel space. Foster-based rescues rely entirely on foster homes rather than operating out of a facility. In these cases, foster parents are the lifeblood that enables these organizations to save lives.

So whether you’re looking to nurture a rambunctious puppy, heal a sick or injured dog, socialize a wallflower, or provide comfort to a dog in their golden years, there’s bound to be a foster dog out there who’s perfect for you!

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Your Responsibilities as a Foster Parent

As a foster parent, your primary job is to provide a safe, loving home environment for your temporary charge. For the most part, you’ll care for your foster dog the same way you would your own pup— providing food, water, exercise, socialization, and plenty of affection.

Depending on the rescue group, you may also be asked to:

  • Driving your foster dog to vet checkups or adoption events.
  • Teaching them some basic good manners, like not chewing on furniture (we’ve all been there!) and going potty outside.
  • Providing updates on your foster dog’s personality and behavior to help the rescue make a great match
  • Chatting with potential adopters about your foster dog to help determine if they’re the right fit

Your level of involvement will depend on your availability and the rescue’s needs. When you first start fostering, the organization will work with you to match you with a dog that fits your lifestyle and experience level. As you gain more fostering experience, you may choose to take on dogs with more challenging behavioral or medical needs.

No matter what type of dog you foster, your care and attention will be instrumental in preparing them for life as a cherished pet. The bond you form will provide valuable insights into your foster dog’s personality that will help them get adopted.

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The Costs of Fostering (Hint: It’s Mostly an Emotional Investment!)

One common question aspiring foster parents have is—do you get paid to foster dogs? The short answer is no. Most rescue groups operate on tight budgets, and fostering is a volunteer position. However, reputable organizations will ensure you have the supplies and support you need to succeed, such as:

  • Food and bowls
  • Leash and collar or harness
  • Crate and/or baby gates
  • Toys and enrichment items
  • Veterinary care and medication
  • Training resources
  • 24/7 support from shelter staff

While you may occasionally need to buy extra treats, poop bags, or cleaning supplies, fostering is generally a low-cost endeavor. The biggest investment you’ll make is your time, energy, and, most of all, your heart.

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Watching your foster dog blossom under your care is immensely rewarding, but saying goodbye can be bittersweet. Many foster parents experience a sense of sadness or “foster guilt” when their foster dog gets adopted. It’s a natural part of the process that gets easier with time. The key is to remember that letting your foster dog go enables you to help another dog in need. Trust me—the joy of seeing your former foster dog thriving with their new family will be worth it!

Preparing Your Home for a Foster Dog

Once you’ve decided to take the leap, it’s time to get your home ready for your new arrival! Even if you already have dogs, you’ll want to do some prep work to ensure a smooth integration.

Here’s a shopping list of helpful supplies:

  • Baby gate(s) for keeping your foster dog in a designated area
  • A cozy bed for lounging (a crate may be provided)
  • Grooming tools like brushes and nail clippers
  • Enzyme cleaner for accidents
  • Bitter apple spray to deter inappropriate chewing
  • A variety of toys to prevent resource guarding with resident dogs
  • Dog Puzzle feeders and long-lasting chews for mental stimulation
  • High-value training treats

In addition to gathering supplies, you’ll need to do some dog-proofing to keep your foster dog safe. Get down on their level and look for hazards like:

  • Small objects they could swallow (paper clips, hair ties, coins, etc.)
  • Exposed wires they might chew
  • Unstable furniture they could knock over
  • Toxic plants, cleaning products, or medications within reach
  • Gaps in fences or gates they could escape through

Install baby locks on cabinets, cover your trash can, and tuck away loose items Fluffy could get into. Keep your toilet lid closed and put away any treasured possessions you don’t want slobbered on. It’s better to be overly cautious, especially with a new dog whose habits you’re still learning.

Check with the rescue group about their policies on leashing and doorway protocols. Some don’t allow fosters to be in the yard unsupervised, as they may be a flight risk. Make sure your foster dog is microchipped and has up-to-date ID tags with your contact information, just in case.

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Caring For Foster Dogs with Behavioral or Emotional Challenges

Sometimes, the dogs who need foster homes the most are those with a history of abuse or neglect. These dogs may exhibit fearful or defensive behaviors as a result of their past traumas. Common issues you may encounter include:

  • Lack of house-training: A dog who lived outdoors or was left alone for long periods may not understand the concept of relieving themselves outside. Be patient, establish a toileting routine, and praise liberally for successes. 
  • Resource guarding: Compete with survival instincts. Some foster dogs may growl or snap if approached while eating or chewing a bone. Avoid taking items away—instead, work on trading them up for something more valuable. Separate them during mealtimes if necessary.
  • Fear-based aggression: A dog may air, snap, growl, or bite if they feel cornered or threatened. Never approach a fearful dog head-on or loom over them, as this can be very intimidating. Encourage them to approach you by tossing yummy treats and using a side-faced body posture.

An undersocialized or anxious dog may be slow to trust, so let them set the pace. Use baby gates or pens to give them a safe space. Reward confident, relaxed body language and ignore fearful behavior. Consult with your rescue group’s trainer on the best ways to help your foster dog feel safe.

Some foster dogs may have physical limitations such as blindness, deafness, or mobility issues that require modifications to your normal routine. Ask the rescue group what training tools or mobility aids would make them comfortable. With the proper care and environment, even dogs with troubled pasts or special needs can absolutely thrive.

the girl and the dog are playing

The Unmatched Rewards of Fostering

Think about how good it feels when you volunteer or donate to a worthy cause—now imagine experiencing that each and every day you care for your foster dog! By opening your home, you’re not only freeing up space for another dog to be rescued, you’re providing a crucial stepping stone to an adoptive home.

There’s nothing quite like watching your shy, shut-down foster dog slowly unfurl under your patient guidance, revealing the goofy, lovable pup underneath. Or experiencing the pride of seeing your wild child foster puppy master basic manners and bloom into a happy, well-adjusted pet. Knowing you played an instrumental role in making that transformation possible is a feeling like no other.

Of course, fostering does come with one major perk—once in a while, you may just fall in love! Many foster parents have ended up adopting their foster dog themselves. We affectionately call this a “foster fail,” but really, it’s the ultimate win. I became a “failed foster” myself when my foster dog, Oreo, stole my heart. At a certain point, I just couldn’t imagine him belonging to anyone else but me!

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How to Get Started as a Dog Foster Parent

Are you feeling inspired to give fostering a try? The best way to get started is to reach out to reputable rescue groups and shelters in your area. PetFinder and the ASPCA have databases you can search. Many organizations have online foster applications right on their websites.

When evaluating a potential rescue group, ask for details on their foster policies and procedures:

  • What types of dogs do they typically need foster homes for?
  • What supplies and support do they provide to fosters?
  • How long do most foster dogs stay on average?
  • What happens if a foster dog needs medical care?
  • Can they connect you with other foster parents to answer questions?
  • Do they require home visits or training prior to fostering?

A reputable rescue will be transparent, communicative, and committed to setting their foster parents up for success. Ask for references, and join online foster groups or forums to get unbiased reviews of different organizations. Finding your fostering match may take a bit of research, but your perfect fit is out there!

Once you’ve found a rescue group you connect with, you’ll likely attend an orientation and fill out a foster application and agreement. You may need to do a home visit or phone interview so they can learn more about your experience and lifestyle. Be honest about what you are and aren’t comfortable with so they can match you with an appropriate dog.

Then comes the exciting part—receiving that first email or phone call about a dog in need of a foster home! Once you say yes, the rescue will arrange a time for you to pick up your foster dog, along with any supplies or medications they need. They’ll go over any specific instructions and answer your questions. Then your life-changing fostering journey will officially begin!

woman dog picnic

FAQ

As a prospective foster parent, you likely have some burning questions about the process. Don’t worry; I’ve got you covered! Here are answers to some of the most common queries I hear from folks considering fostering a dog.

  1. How long do foster dogs typically stay in a foster home?

The length of a foster dog’s stay can vary quite a bit depending on the rescue group, the individual dog, and the situation that led to them needing foster care. Some dogs may only need a place to crash for a couple of weeks, while others may hunker down with you for a few months. On average, most foster stints fall somewhere in the 2-3 month range. The key is to remain flexible and communicate openly with the rescue about your availability.

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2. Can I foster a dog if I have other animals at home?

Absolutely! Many foster parents have resident pets. In fact, having a well-socialized dog of your own can be a great asset in helping your foster dog acclimate to life in a home. However, it’s important to keep in mind that exposing your animals to unfamiliar dogs does carry some health risks, just like any visit to the dog park or vet’s office would.

To minimize these risks, make sure your own dogs or cats are up-to-date on vaccinations and in good health. Very elderly animals or young puppies with still-developing immune systems may be more vulnerable. If you or anyone in your household is immunocompromised, talk to your doctor before fostering. There are about 200 diseases called zoonoses that can be transmitted between animals and humans. While the risk is low, proper hygiene and preventative measures are key. When in doubt, consult with your vet!

playing puppies young dogs

3. Do I need to be a dog training expert to foster?

Not at all! Fostering is a great way for regular dog lovers to make a difference. You don’t need any special skills or certifications. That said, having some basic training chops under your belt can definitely come in handy. Most rescue groups love it when foster parents help their charges master good manners to boost their adoptability. They’ll typically provide resources to get you started.

Some special needs foster dogs, like seniors or those recovering from illness, may need help with medications. Don’t worry if this is new territory for you—the rescue staff will show you exactly how to administer them. They’ll make sure you feel comfortable with any medical care your foster dog requires before sending them home with you.

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4. How much time should I expect to devote to my foster dog each day?

Fostering is a commitment, and it’s important to make sure you can realistically meet your foster dog’s needs. The amount of time required can vary based on the dog’s age, energy level, and health status.

A feisty adolescent dog will have vastly different needs than a senior couch potato. Puppies and dogs who are still getting over being sick or hurt need the most attention.As a general guideline, plan to spend a minimum of two hours per day on walks, playtime, feeding, and potty breaks. Some higher-energy dogs may need significantly more exercise and engagement to thrive.

Be honest with yourself and the rescue about how much time you can feasibly devote to your foster dog. It’s better to start slow and work your way up to more challenging cases as you gain experience.

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5. Am I responsible for finding my foster dog’s forever home?

This is a team effort! Finding a foster dog’s forever home is primarily the rescue group’s responsibility, but they definitely need your help to make the best match. As the person who spends the most time with your foster dog, you have unique insights into their personality and needs. The rescue will likely ask you to fill out a questionnaire about your foster dog to help craft their adoption profile.

Once a promising applicant is identified, you may be asked to facilitate a meet-and-greet and share your thoughts on how the dog and adopter clicked. Sometimes, foster parents end up playing matchmaker themselves by connecting their foster dog with a friend, relative, or colleague looking to adopt. These referrals can be a great way to speed up your foster dog’s journey home, but the rescue will still need to vet the applicant to make sure it’s the right fit.

the girl hugged the dog

6. What if I need to stop fostering before my foster dog is adopted?

Hey, life happens! While having a foster dog stay with you until adoption is ideal, rescue groups understand that circumstances can change unexpectedly. In non-emergency situations, they’ll typically ask for at least 3-4 weeks’ notice so they can line up another foster home. The more notice you can provide, the smoother the transition will be.

That said, a reputable rescue group will ALWAYS accept a foster dog back into their care immediately in the event of an emergency. While bouncing back to the shelter environment can be stressful for a dog, your safety and well-being have to come first. Foster parents shouldn’t feel trapped or guilty if an unforeseen situation arises. Speak up and loop in the rescue staff right away so you can make a game plan together.

Final Words

Dog fostering is truly a labor of love. It will challenge you, inspire you, and expand your heart in ways you could never imagine. You’ll lose sleep, clean up messes, and tear up a time or two. But you’ll also be rewarded with adoring gazes, joyful romps, and the unparalleled satisfaction of knowing you made a tangible difference.

As someone who’s fostered more dogs than I can count, I can say unequivocally that welcoming these animals into my home and heart has been one of my life’s greatest privileges. Every foster dog has taught me something about patience, resilience, forgiveness, and unconditional love. Each one has left an indelible paw print on my soul. So what are you waiting for?

Still have questions about fostering? Feel free to leave them in the comments! And don’t forget to reach out to rescue groups in your area to learn more about their specific foster programs and policies. Every organization does things a bit differently, so it’s important to find one that aligns with your needs and expectations.

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About Zelda D.Nelson

As a lifelong dog lover and proud mom to two energetic rescue pups, I know firsthand how important puzzle toys are for providing dogs with much-needed mental and physical stimulation. After over a decade of experience raising well-adjusted, happy dogs, I joined the Loobani Pet team to help other pet parents discover the joy and benefits of dog puzzles. Through my work at Loobani Pet, I've become an expert on the ins and outs of various interactive dog toys. My goal is to simplify the selection process so you can easily pinpoint the perfect puzzles to match your pup's needs and lifestyle. Whether you need a toy to challenge your brainy breed, keep your power chewer occupied, or simply provide some rainy day fun, I've got you covered.