Dogs belong in homes – even temporary ones

You may have noticed lately that I have a propensity to write columns related to our local animal shelter. Well, get used to it.

My latest activity to fill the abundance of time I have since retiring is volunteering at Homeward Bound Pets Adoption Shelter on Northeast Loop Road, McMinnville. I am thoroughly enjoying it and “farming” many topics for Happy Tails at the same time.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Skeeter, one of the dogs waiting to be adopted. I reflected on the problem behaviors dogs kept in shelters tend to develop, and I mentioned that, for Skeeter, this could all be put to rest if we could find someone willing to foster him in their home.

For many reasons, fostering is the best arrangement for most companion pets waiting to be adopted, and at the moment, we could really use more people willing to become foster “parents.” This week, I’m going to make a pitch to recruit more folks, so if you are vulnerable to this kind of thing, you are forewarned.

Let me begin by saying there is absolutely nothing wrong with the treatment pooches receive at the shelter. In fact, quite the opposite. The kennels are cleaned thoroughly and frequently. Each dog receives appropriate kinds and amounts of food (some start off too thin; a few arrive rather chunky), and, of course, fresh water. But those are just the basics, and the shelter goes far beyond that.

From the staff and volunteers who train and exercise the dogs on a daily basis — in addition to taking them on occasional field trips to Petco or Lowe’s for socialization — they have formed a dog team, of which I am a proud member. Members of the team work with potential adopters, helping them get acquainted with dogs and problem-solving with them to set aside any worries, such as introducing a foster dog to their other pets and children. So it’s not like dogs at the shelter are stuck in their kennels all day.

But a shelter, no matter how safe and humane, does not offer the comfort of a living room, the fragrance of a kitchen, the comings and goings of people in a household. And dogs don’t reflect or plan. They don’t think about how their stay at the animal shelter won’t last forever, how they can just relax and wait for someone to get them out of the fix they’re in. Dogs live in and for the moment. A dog in a shelter acclimates to it and develops behaviors based on that environment. A kennel is not and cannot be a home, and dogs belong in homes.

I visited Petfinder.com and found a wealth of topics and questions for folks considering opening up their homes and hearts to a foster dog. (What did we ever do before Petfinder?) Let me see if I can organize some of it for you to read here.

Specific qualifications for fostering a pet will depend on the shelter or rescue group you offer to work for, but in general, you need compassion — not just the feeling but also the need to act upon it. You need the people living with you to get on board with this, because the fur will be on their stuff as well as yours. You need to have a plan for safely supervising your foster pet and containing it when you can’t, but the shelter staff will work with you to set that up.

I’m going to recommend you assess your current level of patience and sense of humor. I have talked to many people who bear witness that dogs they foster enhance and enrich their lives. But I’ve never heard anyone mention that fostering a dog made their lives more convenient.

Some legitimate concerns cause people to hesitate before offering their homes as foster havens. I’ll address these here as though you’re helping one of the animals at Homeward Bound Pet’s shelter. This may not apply to other rescue groups.

The cost of adding a pet to your household is always a consideration. Most people offering to foster a dog already have at least one pooch, so probably have already invested in pet beds, food and water bowls, leashes and the like — you may even have a crate or a pen mothballed in the garage. But you are still going to need more food, more chews, more toys. The money for these will come out of your pocket, but all your expenses can count as donations to the nonprofit Homeward Bound Pets, and so will be tax deductible.

For me, veterinary costs are the largest expense in dog care-giving, so let’s talk about those. Dogs at the shelter waiting to be adopted or placed in foster homes are current on vaccinations, have been treated for parasites such as worms and fleas, and have been spayed or neutered, so those costs won’t empty your checking account as they do the first year you own a dog. The shelter bears responsibility for costs beyond that while dogs remain in foster care — for example, medications for chronic health problems or newly diagnosed serious but treatable illnesses. Happily, Carlton Veterinary Hospital is generous with its time and supplies and keeps costs to the shelter at a minimum.

If you have kids or other pets, you just need to use common sense. Dogs relinquished at the shelter undergo temperament testing shortly after they arrive, so staff have a pretty good handle on what situations are easy for each dog and which ones cause stress. You need to do the same kind of assessment with your kids and your own pets, followed by a frank and open discussion with shelter staff about the compatibility of all involved.

In truth, most dogs readily adjust to having another dog in the household — many even enjoy the company; these are pack animals, after all. Kids are a little more iffy, with so many variables like ages, maturity, activity levels, allergies, interests — the list goes on and on. That said, kids can and should be taught safe behavior around dogs, and they should demonstrate they’ve learned these lessons, whether or not you decide to foster. We live in a dog-infested society, and dog safety should be as natural to a child as looking both ways to cross the street.

The most common reason for people’s reluctance to foster is the anticipation of the painful parting moment — watching the dog ride away in someone else’s car, perhaps looking out the rear window as he leaves you for his new life, after you have come to love him and worked so hard with him to become adoptable. Who wants to choose that kind of sadness?

The folks at Petfinder.com have thought about this, and Jane Hamill, associate producer, has five suggestions on how to make that painful parting not quite so painful. Her ideas are pretty good.

First, don’t foster a dog you would want to keep. I love dogs, but I don’t want to share my life longterm with a lot of them. You’re never going to see me buy a Jack Russell, a lab or a boxer — lovely dogs, but not for me. They would be the perfect dogs for me to foster. When they are adopted and leave for their new homes, I’ll be sad, but I didn’t want to keep them, anyway.

Second, make sure the dog you are fostering doesn’t become “your” dog. All members of the household should share in the walking, feeding, cleaning up, training, playing and loving on the dog. If an intense attachment doesn’t form, it’s not going to be so devastating when your foster goes to her forever home.

Third, be active in finding and screening potential adopters. Put Poochie’s picture on your Facebook page, or write an engaging description of her for Petfinder.

Fourth, keep in mind that you are a part of a humane movement bigger than you and the dog you foster. When you find this dog a forever home, you may foster another and maybe give him the same shot at a better life.

Finally, you can keep in touch with the person who adopts your foster animal and follow his progress as he becomes a beloved member of his forever family.

All five of Hamill’s suggestions seem very practical means to maintain a certain objective distance from the dog you have taken in to spare him the trauma of living in a shelter.

Of course, there is a tongue-in-cheek term “failed foster,” coined by folks who, despite their determined efforts and willpower, fell in love with their foster dogs and wound up adopting them. Homeward Bound Pets is glad to let foster homes become forever homes.

Nancy Carlson can be reached at nancy.carlson935@gmail.com.

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