Fostering a dog can be such a rewarding experience. Being a foster parent allows you to be an integral part in a rescued dog’s journey to a forever home. Being a successful foster parent entails equal parts patience, consistency, understanding and the ability to love an animal without getting too attached. It also entails setting not only your foster dog up for success, but your resident dogs, as well.
So, how do you set dogs up for success? We like to take things slow and pay close attention to what dogs are telling us. When we let the dogs “vote”, the process of adding a temporary housemate can go smoother for all parties. And, when we say to take things slow – we mean you can’t go too slow.
Some dogs are bombproof – they just go with the flow and happily share their homes with dog after dog. And, if another dog does bother them, they are able to let the other dog know appropriately. If the other dog listens, everyone is able to carry on with no issues. This is a wonderful thing, but many new fosters are straight from the shelter, may have health issues and are stressed. So, giving a new foster some time to decompress and resident dog(s) time to get used to the presence of a new dog in the house is time well spent. Many people assume that if their dog and the new foster did well on a meet-n-greet that they can just go on to co-exist easily and peacefully. The truth (in most cases) is that the initial meeting is only a tiny snapshot and in no way indicates each dog’s new reality. So, we would do well by them to take. our. time.
Setting dogs up for success means being prepared and not taking for granted that everyone will just get along. Try to empathize – what if you suddenly had a new roommate and got less than an hour to decide whether or not you liked that person? We ask a lot of dogs whenever we make changes to their environment, so preparation, patience and realistic expectations are key.
Minimally, you should be prepared to let each dog have some down time. We are fans of a structured system that involves allowing the foster some time to decompress and get used to being in a home environment – without the pressure of becoming best buddies with another dog he has just met. Separating the foster dog in a dog-proofed room is great for this, but a crate will suffice if the foster will be unsupervised. Allowing your new foster dog access to chew toys can help alleviate stress, and give him the opportunity to release some energy appropriately. You may need to use this space for a period of time, which can vary from dog to dog, but planning on using it for 2 weeks is a good estimate. Within that 2 week period, you can walk your resident dog and foster dog together and during those walks, bomb them with food and happy-talk for appropriate interactions. Remember that on-leash interactions can be stressful for some dogs; keeping interactions short and sweet is best. If these interactions are going well (i.e. the dogs are relaxed in each other’s presence), you can move on to the next step.
It is totally acceptable (and desirable) to give your foster dog attention, love and definitely some training while they are with you, although we have seen/ heard otherwise. The goal is to help this dog be move-in ready, so why not ease them along in the process by showing them what it means to be part of a family? We are not fans of merely warehousing foster dogs and think that the “parent” part of the job description is important. Might it make things more emotional for you when it’s time for your foster to move on? Sure, but remembering that you are part of the journey and not the destination helps. Might it make things more difficult for the foster dog himself? Most dogs prove amazingly resilient, and if your foster has issues with things like separation anxiety, hopefully this would be something you would be honest about with potential adopters. By the way, following a similar process if a dog is adopted into a home with other dogs is highly recommended. More changes equals more stress, so recommend to adopters that they take things slowly, as well.
The next step is for the dogs to be separated by a baby gate. You can use the baby gate as a barrier that the dogs can see each other through to great advantage. We use LAT (Look At That) or just praise, petting and treats for good behavior when the dogs are on opposite sides of the gate. This builds positive associations about each other and keeps arousal levels low. They habituate to each other’s scent and have good experiences when they are side by side. This part of the process can last up to a week and you can continue your walks during this period. Always remember that you want the interactions to be positive and upbeat.
More on LAT here: http://clickerleash.wordpress.com/2009/08/23/look-at-that-a-counterintuitive-approach-to-dealing-with-reactive-dogs/
Once you have assessed that the dogs are comfortable with each other and there is relaxed body language on walks, wags and curiosity at the gate, along with appropriate taking of treats, you can move on to the next step, which includes supervised interactions. For this step, you want to remove any toys that might be laying around and have dogs on-leash. Again, this is about setting the dogs up for success: toys could set up some unexpected guarding and the leashes will allow you to remove a dog quickly if necessary. We like to keep these initial “free” interactions short and sweet, too. What seems to be part of a recipe for success is more of a “oh, hey, you’re here” reception rather than super-excited, amped up dogs who could misread each other’s body language. Because, remember they still don’t know each other all that well and it’s not out of the question for play styles to not match or for one dog to be more sensitive to the other’s presence. In my own home, it’s typically been my oldest dog, Rocco, for whom going slow benefits the most. Building up the amount of time of these interactions while closely supervising is important. But, if one or the other dog seems uncomfortable, there is no harm in taking a step back. One thing that has benefited us tremendously is that Hazel has always been a dog who likes some alone time. In those early days (before she was a foster fail) being able to put her in the bedroom after some free time with the other dogs helped Rocco not feel overwhelmed by the presence of a dog who was 10 years younger than him and therefore, moved faster and was more active. To this day, Hazel puts herself to bed and it’s something that we have always appreciated (and so does Rocco!).
Sometimes despite our best efforts, dogs just aren’t a match and having the ability to keep them separated and happy is helpful. If dogs are not a match, using a spare bedroom for fosters is a great way for them to have a comfortable space, one in which you can also work on training and spend time together. Give your foster dog outlets for energy, just like you do your own dog. Walks for stimulation, chew toys, work to eat toys and training can go a long way towards helping your foster dog along on his journey.
Understanding of body language can not be stressed enough. If you are reading the dogs appropriately, the use of punishment will not be necessary. Working on behaviors like “Touch” and “Watch Me” can help redirect dogs if you catch unwanted behaviors before they happen. And, remember, we are trying to set these dogs up for success, so waiting until they screw up to punish them really isn’t fair and can undo the work that you have put in if the dogs then make negative associations with each other.
There are some really good resources out there on integrating dogs, including Pat Miller’s book “Do Over Dogs,” which can be found here: http://www.dogwise.com/ItemDetails.cfm?ID=DTB1154
Despite it’s rather daunting title, Jean Donaldson’s “Fight” includes excellent information on play styles, leash manners and socialization.
As we are committed to promoting pit bulls and bully breeds in the most positive light, we feel a strong responsibility for setting our dogs up for success. Gameness is a real factor for some bully-type dogs and it would be irresponsible not to mention it in a post like this. Genetics play as strong of a role in a dog’s development as anything else, if not stronger. This is not a failure on any dog’s part, nor is it a failure on yours, should you foster or adopt a dog with a propensity towards it. But, pretending that gameness doesn’t exist is not only irresponsible; it’s dangerous. When integrating bully breeds with other dogs, a history of dog-dog interactions is helpful as is a contingency plan should problems arise. Having this awareness can help you, your foster and your resident dogs towards having a safe and productive journey.
Fostering can be more than just saving a life – it can be the beginning of a whole new way of life for a dog. We believe that life should be full of lots of good stuff – like reward-based training, an understanding of body language that allows us to proactively intervene (rather than letting dogs screw up and then punishing) and knowing what is comfortable for each dog. Knowing what is comfortable and respecting it is crucial. If we approach fostering as if we are giving a dog a new life, which we are, we would do well by them (and our residents) to do it with kindness and use methods that meet each individual dog where they are.