A Long-time Foster Shares Her Secrets

Shae's foster, Rex

Fostering a pet can seem like a challenge: you don’t know the pet, how they’ll act in your home, or maybe you worry about getting too attached. But for every challenge, there are rewards that outweigh it.

We recently caught up with an active foster, Shae S., who shared her experience and tons of amazing advice for anyone out there considering becoming a foster. Read on to find out how she got started, why baby gates are her best friend and her tips for what to expect in 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a 33-year-old introverted graphic designer. I love the mountains, traveling, gardening and just being outside. I’ve lived in Colorado, Arkansas, Minnesota, but I bought a home and found my dream job in Utah so I’ll probably be here for a while!

Did you grow up with pets, and how many do you have now?

I grew up with Saint Bernards, a Rottweiler, a couple very feisty rescued small mixed breed dogs, and when I was a teenager my parents ended up with an older destructive, aggressive and very independent Dachshund who had been through a lot of homes before he was given to my family.

To be honest, I didn’t really like him at first, and he didn’t really like me. But over the years we bonded very deeply so I brought him with me when I moved out. He lived to age 18, so we grew up together and I learned a lot from him. He was the first dog I was fully responsible for, so I made mistakes but he loved me anyway, and I loved him no matter how much mischief he got into.

Now I have an eight-year-old Red Heeler (Australian Cattle Dog) and an eight-year-old Australian Shepherd/Boxer Mix, both rescued when they were two, and the lights of my life. They’ve learned to accept perpetually sharing their home with an ever-rotating foster dog, and one of them is a perfect confidant and gentle “helper dog” to teach shy fosters that everything is okay and show them the ropes much faster than I could alone. Dogs learn easily by observing other dogs.

How long have you been fostering and how did you get started?

About 10 years ago, I first started volunteering on Sundays at the local animal shelter, just walking dogs and cleaning. Then a few years later I joined a rescue group who went to the municipal animal shelter, picked up a dog or two per person/vehicle and drove them to the nearest Pet Supply Store. We stood there with the shelter dog on a leash and talked to people about them, hoping to find them good homes.

A lot of people avoid animal shelters because it makes them sad, so these pups aren’t seen otherwise. They eventually asked me to foster a small, shy, Boston Terrier Mix named Oreo who was scared in the shelter, and we found him an amazing home with three sweet kids who radiated joy because they were so excited and in love with their new dog.

He seemed happy with them from the beginning, and I was hooked. Now I’ve fostered for three different rescue groups (at different times) for the past seven years. I’ve had some foster dogs for only a few days, many for a few months, and in two cases I fostered dogs for an entire year. I’ve fostered sick or scared cats and litters of kittens too, but unfortunately, I’m allergic so I focus more on dogs. I’ve also volunteered to do social media and photography for rescues. But fostering is really where my heart is.

What do you love most about it?

I don’t have children but I do have the drive to nurture something. I get these dogs who are going through a rough time, who may be very shy or frightened and stressed, and to begin with I show them a lot of love and let them decompress. It takes up to three days for all the stress hormones to flush out of the body (this doesn’t just apply to dogs by the way).

We work on positive training to give them confidence and make them more manageable for me and their owners. I give them treat dispensing toys and puzzles to keep their minds busy, and we have fun outside exercising to keep their bodies healthy. Every dog has their own quirks and it’s fun to get to know them and problem-solve if there’s an issue.

Over the years I’ve read so many books about dogs to help with various fosters, and I love to learn. The more I learn about dogs the more I love them and the better I can help them. I love the camaraderie between all the foster Moms and Dads — a great community of pet lovers with kind hearts. Some of the best people I know I met through fostering or volunteering. Also, there’s nothing like having a new dog in your home to make you laugh and cheer you up with the pure joy that radiates from them. My phone is full of cute videos/photos of fosters doing the silliest things.

What are some of the challenges?

Letting go of a dog who you’ve become attached to is hard, especially for the long-term fosters. It’s easier to let go of them when you know they’re going to be loved and cared for, and for me, since I already have two dogs, I think that they will be better cared for in their home with their owner than at my house as the third dog.

It helps to think “I have to let this dog go so I can help another dog”. The trick is to immediately get another foster dog so you don’t have time to be sad, you’re busy learning about a new dog and getting him settled. It gets SO much easier each time, but you will probably always miss the dog when they leave. I still think it’s worth it, because of how rewarding it is to give love to an animal in need, help people and their pets, and make the world a little bit kinder.

I’m also very introverted, so I’ve grown a lot as a person and become more comfortable talking to strangers by fostering and volunteering. I have under-socialized dogs often and I’ll go around my neighborhood and stop people to ask them to give my dog a treat to help him be more comfortable around people he doesn’t know.

I can talk confidently with potential adopters and have even gone on the news to talk about my foster pets and the organizations I support, which I would never have imagined to be something I could do… until I did it. A common thing people say to me is, “Oh I could never foster, I love animals too much and would want to keep them all!” I love every one of my past fosters, and that’s why I help them.

If you go into it knowing that you can’t keep the pet, you won’t try to keep the pet when it’s time for them to go home. I might want to keep them all, but that’s not realistic. So far I’ve fostered about 20 dogs (some long-term), 10 kitties and even a rabbit and I’m still going strong!

What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about fostering a pet for the first time?

Never blame the dog. It’s important to remember that almost every issue can be managed by you through problem-solving, routine, and gentle consistent training methods, but it might take some reading and some practice, and plenty of trial and error. Dogs often don’t generalize, so, for example, they might be housebroken in their home with their usual routine, but need a quick refresher at your house to know that those rules apply there also. I don’t give them free-run of the whole house unattended until I’m confident they’re not going to have an accident in some far off seldom-used part of the house. Baby-gates are a lifesaver.

A lot of dogs will have no issues at all, but some do. When they do, I ask myself what can I do better to make sure this dog gets it or better manage them? Not, “What’s wrong with this dog?” A lot of them are well-adjusted adult dogs and there’s very little you need to do. Puppies and young dogs are more challenging. Small dogs often have smaller bladders and physically can’t hold it as long so I use puppy pads and grass mats.

Be understanding because some dogs handle transition much better than others, but dogs are very adaptable given time, so if you have the patience to hang in there it will all be alright.

Remember: Three days, three weeks, three months.

Three days: A dog is just getting used to his new environment and flushing the stress hormones, so don’t take their behavior during this time as an indication of how they will really act in your home once they’re more comfortable. They might be very subdued or very manic. They may need to be kept on a leash if they are athletic enough to jump a fence, or small enough to slip under or through a fence because they may feel a need to look for their people or escape an unfamiliar place. Just be patient, watchful and give them time.

Three weeks: They start to recognize your patterns and let their guard down. There will usually be behavioral changes during this time, some good and some bad. They are still trying to figure out the routine though, so wait until…

Three months: Most dogs will have adapted to their new routine, family, and environment by this time and everything is more peaceful. They will have bonded with you by now and you’re used to their quirks and they’re used to yours.

Now maybe you give them up and start all over with a new foster, but you know that because of your love and generosity that pet has ended up where they can thrive and be happy, and you’ve changed someone’s life for the better too. In the process, you will have learned a lot and had a lot of fun.

If you’d like to learn more about becoming a foster for Pets Empower, please contact us. Our fosters not only help pets, they help people. One of the top reasons victims of domestic abuse cite for not leaving is the worry for pets and children.