Foster Care for Companion Animals

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Shannon Winter had never planned on fostering dogs, but when told of a 12-year-old nearly blind and deaf bulldog, she didn’t hesitate. “I didn’t want him to end his life at a shelter,” she said. She took him in and, working with a rescue organization in a large metropolitan area, found him a permanent home. That was five years ago. “My most recent foster was adopted last Friday and I’m scheduled to pick up my next foster either tomorrow or next week. I am in the sweet spot of having a bit of down time to decompress and clean the house before the next dog arrives with his hobo knapsack at my front door.”

Fostering dogs and other companion animals isn’t for everyone. It can be stressful to bond with a dog and then to give it up, even to a loving home, said Winter. Some dogs come from abusive or neglectful situations; others may suffer from separation anxiety. Some have serious health problems and puppies–and sometimes older dogs–can need house training.

Dogs come to rescue organizations for a lot of reasons–divorce, death, job loss, an illness or an unexpected move. Too often, someone adopts a dog and then decides the animal is too much trouble. Dogs purchased, sometimes unknowingly, from puppy mills–factory farms for dogs–can develop expensive health problems. Some people surrender their elderly dogs when they’re not the lively puppies they once were.

Deanna Jarvis, who has been at the helm of Noah’s Hope Animal Rescue in Sioux City, Iowa, for eight years, tells people who want to foster that the work can be heartbreaking. “Fostering is not for people who are too soft-hearted,” she said. “You see the dogs coming in in rough shape. Some don’t make it.”

Why foster? Jarvis says that people who welcome these dogs into their homes know that often there is no other alternative. The need is great. During last May’s puppy season, Noah’s Hope’s 20 foster homes took care of 68 dogs, including four litters of nursing puppies and a number of elderly dogs.

Foster families are expected to provide a safe environment, transportation to veterinarian appointments, exercise, food, socialization and sometimes training. While rescue organizations are always in need of volunteers, families must meet certain requirements that differ from group to group. Prospective fosters must fill out forms, usually on line, and answer questions from rescue organizations. Some even require a home visit. If a family doesn’t qualify to foster for one group, they might for another, and rescue groups will work closely with new foster families to find a good fit for any lifestyle or living situation.

Sometimes foster families end up adopting; they’re known among rescue groups by the tongue-in-cheek term “foster failures.” Margie was a breeding dog, spending her first three years with little attention or socialization. When she could no longer produce puppies, she was placed with a second family, but they did little to rehabilitate her and she spent much of her time in a panic, hiding under the bed. Frustrated, they surrendered Margie to Rita Guthmiller, coordinator of the Bulldog Club of American Rescue Network–Minnesota. Guthmiller contacted a family who had just lost their elderly dog. “I asked them to foster Margie for a few weeks,” she said. “They ended up falling in love and keeping her. They’re happy. Margie’s happy. That’s not a bad thing at all.”

People looking for an opportunity to foster a dog should contact local dog rescue groups, including breed-specific groups or groups that specialize in types (terriers, small dogs, etc.). In many cities, there are dozens from which to choose. Most of these take in dogs from high-kill shelters, so there is always need for foster homes. In some places, there are also rescue groups for cats, ferrets and other companion animals.

There are also specialty groups such as Dogs on Deployment, a network connecting dog-owning members of the military to foster volunteers. Service members in need of a temporary home for their dog– whether it’s for a deployment, boot camp, a move across the country or another reason–can find someone willing to foster their pet. “Service members have to prove that they’re in real need, serving their country. We have foster homes in every state and if you’re willing, you can apply,” said the group’s PR director, Corynn Myers. The group can be contacted online at

For those who are willing and able to foster a pet, the rewards can be great. “These dogs come in to us, sometimes with a lot of problems, and we get them ready to go to their forever homes,” said Jarvis. “Our local animal control once had an 85 percent kill rate. They just didn’t have the resources to keep dogs for more than a few days. Now, it’s down to about one percent.” We save a lot of dog’s lives. If we don’t do it, who will?” HLM

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