What I Learned When Fostering Dogs
Written by Kim Taylor
After watching a presentation from a sled dog charity at a dog show, my husband and I volunteered to become dog foster parents. The charity explained they get lots of Huskies and Malamutes that need new homes and they rely on foster homes to help assess them and get them ready for their new forever homes.
We didn’t need any special qualifications or even experience, we just needed patience and a willingness to learn. They assured us they’d be with us every step of the way and someone would always be on hand if we ever needed help.
After working for a show kennel that specialized in Huskies, Malamutes and Akitas in my college days, I knew the breeds well and loved them. We already had an Australian Shepherd and an ex-racing Greyhound at home so we knew we could cope with large, high energy breeds.
They sent someone round to assess our house, ask us some questions and make sure our dogs would be OK with sled dogs.
Here’s what I learned in the assessment:
Some dogs react to sled dogs because of the way they look.
This is more common with the high contrast black and white dogs as their face markings can be confusing to some dogs. This isn’t helped when most sled dogs use a long, growl like howl when they want to play.
Fences are nothing but a challenge.
Some Huskies can easily jump a six foot fence and some Mutes would happily barrel through a more flimsy fence. As we already had an Olympic High Jumping Greyhound, and a very bumbling Aussie, our fences were already pretty secure.
They can’t be let off leash but need lots of exercise.
I already knew this one from my kennel job, whilst sled dogs can (and should) be taught recall, they have a very high prey drive. They can come back 99 times out of a 100 but if something interesting crosses their path on that 100th time, they’re gone. Whilst this is true of a lot of breeds, these dogs are designed to pull heavy sledges for miles and you’ll get tired long before they do.
Our first foster dog
A few days after we were cleared as fosters, we were told there was a dog that needed our help.
This is the story we were told (it’s sad so be warned)…
A member of the public had reached out to the charity over a concern she had for some neighbor’s dogs. The neighbor had a litter of puppies but hadn’t separated the mum and pups from the other male dogs in the house. As a result, all but one puppy had been killed. When the neighbor heard the commotion she went round to try and help but the ‘breeder’ wouldn’t let her take the last puppy unless she was willing to pay. The neighbor contacted the police and the sled dog charity. The police seized the other dogs and coordinated with the charity for the puppy to be cared for.
Understanding the back story
This is the story we were told. Some parts might have been exaggerated or lost in translation but it was important we had as much information as possible. Knowing this meant we knew we had to be extra careful introducing the puppy to our male Aussie. We needed the puppy to learn not all older male dogs are a threat.
We would have been careful even without the back story but knowing this meant we knew it could take extra time for the puppy to feel safe.
The journey home
As the puppy was about a day's drive away, we met the transport team half way. We were greeted by a ‘puppy’ that was already about the size of our fully grown Aussie. The charity was told she was a two month old puppy but the vet soon confirmed our suspicions that she was at least three months old, probably nearer four.
My husband knelt on the ground to greet her and she climbed into his lap and all but passed out. The transport team said she’d been crying in her crate for several hours and hadn’t slept. Whilst we like to think she could sense we were going to take care of her, the reality was, she was exhausted both emotionally and physically.
Instead of putting her in our crate, my husband sat in the backseat with her clipped to a doggy seatbelt. During that journey home, she peed on my husband and we saw very quickly she had fleas, mange and worms. She didn’t make a sound though, she slept most of the journey and only lifted her head to give my husband's hand a gentle lick.
Getting her settled
We’d already talked to our veterinarian about what we were doing and she was booked in for a visit the next day. We had no idea she’d be in such a bad state but a quick phone call with the vet's office reassured us the puppy posed no risk to our dogs as they were up to date on all their vaccinations and treatments.
Introducing her to her canine foster siblings
We introduced our dogs to the puppy in a park next to our house. It was neutral territory, very quiet and although our two were initially interested in her, they were more concerned with all the sniffs that needed peeing on. Ideally, we wouldn’t have a puppy with questionable health concerns out in public, but it was more important she would develop a good bond with her canine foster siblings.
The disinterest all changed when we walked her home. Once we got through the front door, both dogs became very animated around the puppy and she was obviously scared of them. Although we allowed them to both sniff her, they weren’t allowed to play with her until she was ready.
My husband and I sat with her between us on the sofa for just over four hours. Although our two soon lost interest when they realized she wasn’t doing anything, it was important she felt safe and protected.
In this time we decided to call her Coco as her pure white coat and amazing ears made her look so effortlessly stylish. She didn’t have a name and although her new home would probably rename her, we had to call her something.
After four hours, Coco poked her head from between us and put a very tentative paw towards the edge of the sofa. Not wanting to add to her stress, we kept as calm and relaxed as possible. Our Greyhound simply lifted her head, decided this wasn’t more important than her nap and went back to sleep. Our Aussie came over and promptly sat in front of her looking up.
His heckles weren’t raised, his ears were relaxed and his shoulders were relaxed so we knew he didn’t feel threatened. Coco slowly put her paw on his head and that was it - that one little action sparked three months of inseparable friendship. He bowed down to her, she jumped off the sofa and in seconds they were playing and rolling about together.
Life with a foster dog
It is always very important that new dogs are introduced on neutral territory. In our case, we had to be extra mindful that Coco might be extremely scared of older dogs. We also had to be sure that our very playful Aussie knew she wasn’t a toy.
We made sure we didn’t need to do anything else that day. Coco could take as long as she needed to feel comfortable and at one point, we even started talking about sleeping on the sofa with her.
Puppies are hard work!
After a quick trip to the vets, Coco’s fleas, worms and mange soon cleared up (and nothing got passed to our two dogs). As no one had any record of her vaccinations, we had to start from scratch which meant she couldn’t go for walks for the first few weeks.
Most charities will cover any costs when you’re fostering so we didn’t need to worry about anything other than getting her better.
As she was just a puppy, Coco was still growing so she couldn’t join us on our longer walks but our Aussie loved keeping her company on her shorter walks. She’d follow behind him seeking out the best sniffs and if we encountered another dog who barked at us, she’d instinctively move behind us.
We were really lucky that Coco didn’t seem to have any lasting damage from her early experiences. She quickly grew into a happy, confident dog who loved a good cuddle and play time. Whether it was our tried and tested approach to training or her bond with our Aussie, she learned very quickly. We had very few accidents inside as she learned to bark near the door when she wanted to go out. With the help of some edible incentives, she learned her basic commands like ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘come’.
The only time she appeared to get agitated was when she was confined. When we tried putting her in a crate, she’d scream her head off and would be visibly shaking. As our Aussie no longer used a crate, we let her follow his lead.
She followed him everywhere and they’d curl up and sleep together. We’d be woken up every morning with her jumping onto the bed and waving her very large paws at us. She’d spend her day constantly asking the Aussie to play. In the five years we’ve had him, this is the only period I’ve ever seen him truly exhausted! He never once snapped at her and he always played when she asked.
To adopt or not to adopt
As close as Coco grew to our Aussie, we knew we couldn’t keep her when we saw how exhausted he became. When he wanted play time to stop, he’d always jump into our laps (even if we were working at our desks!) because he didn’t know how to tell her no.
We started separating them so he could have some alone time.
Coco was far too alpha for his submissive personality.
Time to go
The charity was great at keeping in touch. They were always on hand to answer any questions and made it clear everything went at our pace. Before she could be put up for adoption, it was important we felt she was ready.
As Coco was a young puppy (and incredibly beautiful), it wasn’t surprising she had a queue of potential homes wanting her. We took her to meet a few of the more suitable applicants and see how she’d interact with them and any pets or children they had.
By this time Coco had the confidence of a lion, nothing phased her and she loved meeting new people.
Her new home was found and the new parents asked if we could keep her for an extra month so her home coming would coincide with their time off work and kids school break. This made perfect sense so she’d have her new pack around her 24/7 as she settled in. We took a couple of their jumpers for Coco to sleep with so she’d get used to their smell. We also met up with them a couple of times so they’d all get used to one another.
Saying goodbye is really sad
By the time Coco went to her new home she’d been with us for three months. We’d watched her grow from the terrified, shaking puppy we first met to the most playful, confident young dog. By this time she was larger than our Aussie and nearer the size of our Greyhound. The vet had suggested she was most likely a Husky crossed with a German Shepherd.
We packed up her favorite toys (and some of the Aussie’s), her food and all her new vet records.
The day she left was terrible. Her new owners showed up and explained they’d just gone through a family bereavement and Coco was their little ray of sunshine they were looking forward to. After hearing this I felt awful. I was trying so hard not to cry for the dog I’d known for three months when the person in front of me had just lost a member of their family. But they were lovely people and I knew Coco was going to be very loved and well cared for. It wasn’t about me, it was all about giving this wonderful young dog the start in life she should have had from the beginning.
For almost a fortnight afterwards, I found myself having a little cry here and there. I missed her catapulting herself onto our bed in the morning. I missed the way she’d wave her paws about when she wanted to play. Even our Aussie seemed quieter than usual (although that might be because he slept for a solid week when she left).
Rinse and repeat
We gave ourselves a few months to catch our breath but decided to have another go.
This time the charity gave us Shadow. A five year old male who needed a new home because his owners had split up and neither could take a dog with them.
While it’s still a sad story, this is a common reason for dogs to need rehoming. It meant we knew plenty about Shadow’s history. He was a gentle boy, he’d grown up around young children and was great with them.
Getting Shadow used to us
Unfortunately, because he was a bit older it was harder on him than it was on Coco. He didn’t understand why he had to leave his old pack. He’d spend most of his time curled up by our front door as if he was waiting for them to come back for him. He showed little interest in our other two dogs but there seemed to be an understanding that he just needed time and space.
After a few weeks, I started taking my laptop into the hallway and I’d sit near him and work. I didn’t bother him but I kept some treats in my pocket and I'd occasionally talk to him about what I was doing. I’d read an email I was about to send out loud to him or ask his advice on the best Excel formula to use.
He soon started moving away from the front door slightly to sit a little closer to me. He’d take the occasional treat and started becoming more comfortable. He relocated to lying in my office doorway and started spending more time away from the front door.
Because he was so unsure of us, we asked the charity for advice. Should we continue trying to bond with him knowing it would be harder for him to then bond with his new family or should we start looking for his forever home? He was a calm, peaceful Husky who would settle into any family really well.
This is when Lockdown hit. We didn’t know how long it was going to last, when we’d be able to have people round to meet Shadow or when we could take him to new homes. As the volume of Lockdown dogs increased, the charity made the decision to pause any new adoption. The worry was that although it would be quick to find lots of new homes, many would end up being returned when life returned to normal.
Coronavirus made the decision for us. Shadow would be staying.
It took over a year for Shadow to start seeking our company. One day, he walked into my home office and curled up next to my desk where he’s been almost every day since. He sits behind the couch when we watch TV in the evening and he greets us at the front door when we come back from the grocery store.
No two dogs are the same
Coco had a horrible start in life but she bonded with us in a heartbeat. Shadow was well cared for before he came to us but earning his trust has taken ages.
Not every dog that needs a second chance has done anything wrong, some haven’t suffered any neglect. And just because a dog has been mistreated, it doesn’t mean they can’t still love.
Of course, there are plenty of dogs looking for new homes that do need more time and attention. Working with the sled dog charity, we’ve heard of plenty of dogs who now live with the charity coordinators because they’re not best placed to be family pets. A reputable charity will always try and match a new home to the most suitable dog.
One thing that is consistent across every dog charity is supply far outweighs demand. If you’re thinking of fostering or adopting a dog, there’s bound to be one (or hundreds) out there that will suit your situation perfectly.
Now Shadow is nicely settled and seems very bonded to us, maybe it’s time to foster again…?