Looking to make a difference in the life of a dog? Why not become a dog foster? Many animal shelters and rescues deploy volunteers who are willing to open their homes for a few weeks or months, giving cats and dogs love, care and stability before they reach their forever home. According to the ASPCA, some 3.3 million dogs and 3.2 million cats enter animal shelters every year, and fostering pets makes a big difference in helping pets transition to their forever homes.
What fostering looks like depends on the needs of your local shelters and animal rescues. In many cases, fosters help large shelters care for animals that need one-on-one attention. What that often means is taking an animal into your home that needs extra medical attention or supervision for certain behavioral issues.
Fostering also relieves overcrowded facilities. For example, a smaller organization may have limited to no facilities to house animals 24/7, so they rely on their fleets of volunteers to help carry out their core mission of saving homeless animals from untimely death.
Fostering is crucial to give many animals a second chance that shelters can’t provide. For people who love animals, fostering is a satisfying way to get involved with the animal welfare movement. Think of how many lives you can touch just by opening your home to a dog or cat. Once someone adopts that animal, that family’s life will change for the better, while a homeless dog or cat finds a forever family.
Fostering a dog or cat may be a temporary gig, but it does require a big commitment. Before you take the plunge, be sure that everyone in your house is on board with the idea. It also helps to take time to reflect on these questions.
Often, but not always, foster animals may have behavioral issues that require extra care, attention and patience. The training, routine and loving patience that you can provide through fostering can be a game-changer for these animals. Consider what you have the time and bandwidth to take on, along with your limits. Are you available to tend to a pet with special medical needs? Can you handle a skittish dog? What about separation anxiety or food aggression? Such issues can result in damage to one’s furniture or property or even an injury to yourself or a family member. A good program will provide plenty of support and training to help you. But if any would be more than you or your family can handle, then you’re not doing yourself or the pet any favors.
Many have successfully fostered with pets already living at home. Consider their personalities, age, and how they respond to stressful situations — especially if another animal enters “their” home. Still, spending time with other animals is great for every animal’s social skills, so don’t let the presence of pets hold you back. A high-quality foster program will take time to know and understand what your home life is like, so you can be matched with an animal that’s a good fit.
While the foster will benefit from plenty of structure and routine, the main benefit of fostering is human interaction. Fostering means opening your home and your heart to a temporary traveler, so be ready to make them feel at home!
Once you’ve made up your mind that you do want to become a foster, it’s time to approach your favorite local animal shelter or rescue group and offer your help. Keep in mind, you’re also entering a relationship with them, with a shared goal of helping a homeless animal transition to a new home. A well-established group with a well-organized foster program should be able to provide you with all the support and information you need. (For more help, check out our blog series about preparing your home for an arriving dog or cat.)
How will the animal welfare group help and support you?
Because you’re working with a nonprofit organization that relies on donors and fundraising, it’s important to be mindful of what they can and can’t do to support you. Groups that offer extensive training and support for foster families can make this new chapter in your life much easier to handle. Expect them to provide all basic necessities for the dog or cat: crate, toys, food dishes, leashes and food, along with any veterinarian expenses that the animal incurs while in your care.
Some fosters choose to pay for the food and other necessities themselves because it’s one thing they can do to reduce the workload and financial pressure of the nonprofit. If you choose that route, your purchases can be considered a donation. Just verify that the group is officially registered as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3), and hang on to those receipts for tax time!
An experienced rescue organization will make every effort to make sure the dog is a good fit with your home environment, your family and your work schedule. They may consider your house and yard, your ability to be home with the pet (though the fact that you work will not eliminate you from the running!), and whether there are children or pets already living in your home (and how many), before they find you a match.
Even if you’ve lived with dogs and/or cats for much of your life, a foster guru in the organization can be of tremendous assistance. That person can be a valuable sounding board and source of support, providing answers and advice when you run into challenging situations with your foster pet. Make sure and ask to speak to a foster mentor.
Once the foster goes to their forever home, you may find that your heart (and energy levels) are ready and willing to take in the next dog. Or, you might be ready to take a break, so you can start that remodeling project or plan your vacation. Think about what’s ideal for you, and whether that aligns with the nonprofit’s fostering program. Some groups can handle flexibility, via weekend fostering programs, while others prefer a stronger commitment. Some programs even allow you to test drive fostering to make sure it’s for you before they invest time and resources into training you.
That depends on the policies of the organization you’re volunteering with. If you find yourself bonding with the dog or cat, most groups offer volunteers and fosters a path to adoption. Learn the policies ahead of time, so you can cushion the disappointment if the answer is no.
The reality of being a foster means eventually saying your goodbyes. Is it difficult? Absolutely! Heartbreaking, even. But for many foster pet parents, what helps them through this sad time is knowing they've transformed and touched these lives, along with doing their part to give a deserving animal a second chance. What could be more satisfying than that?