Monday, December 6, 2010

Settling Fosters Into My Pack

I posted a photo on Facebook today of my new foster, Whiskey River, and Chey Miller mentioned that I have a pretty good success rate of fosters getting along well with my resident pack. She suggested that I share in a blog post. I'm not claiming to be an expert on the topic, but maybe what I do can help other foster families.

Whiskey River is actually a second-time foster at my home. I had him as a 4 month old puppy the first time, then he ended up back in the BRAT system recently as an 11 month old because his family is moving internationally. My resident dogs are Ike, soon to be 13 years old; Abe, soon to be 7; and Tippy, soon to be 6.

I've been a BRAT volunteer and foster for about 5 years now, and I've fostered somewhere around 12 dogs. I've only had one dog that I was unable to keep as a foster, because he and Tippy hated each other, for reasons known only to the two dogs. That foster went to another foster home, where he is doing well.

First thing when I take in a new dog - I never, ever compromise on the introduction process. (Well, okay, I did once...because Pona couldn't walk with a broken leg.) I usually get help from Wendy Hodges, a BRAT coordinator here in Austin. She brings the foster to my house and leashes him up out front, and I meet her outside with my leashed dogs. We do not let the dogs greet each other. Instead, we start walking. It isn't easy at first because the dogs are usually pulling towards each other, but they are not allowed to say hello until the initial excitement of seeing each other has passed. (Usually about half a block of walking.) Then we let them sniff each other a little, being very careful not to let the leashes tangle so that we can pull them away, if necessary. We walk some more, allow for another brief sniff, walk some more. After 20 minutes or so, any tension is gone, and the dogs are calm and bored with each other. That's when we all enter my house.

We let them off leash inside the house, and I always open the back door so that there is plenty of room to wander and no one feels cornered in any way. They usually sniff a little, then look for a warm spot to relax. Boring! That's when I get a chance to greet the foster myself, using a sweet, calm voice and soft pets. I never introduce treats or toys yet. I've found that if there are going to be issues, they usually revolve around treats and toys. Too soon.

I'm lucky with my resident pack, because my alpha, Ike, is the laziest alpha ever. He sets a very mellow tone in the house. I also walk my dogs twice a day, never fail, so that they are on the brink of exhaustion at all times. Tired dogs are good dogs.

I am self-employed, and I work mostly from home. When I take in a new foster, I plan to spend most of the first couple of days at home so that I can watch how things go without crating anyone. I don't crate my dogs, and I don't regularly crate foster dogs. I do, however, keep a crate set up when I have a new foster. I feed the foster there, and it's there for time-outs, if necessary. (I know that most Basenji homes have great success with regular crating, and I recommend it for most families. It's just not my style. I could write another entire blog post on this topic.)

For the first few days, I have a zero-tolerance rule when it comes to grumbling, hackles, and posturing. If someone grumbles over chew toys, I remind them who is boss (ME) by stepping between the dogs and nudging them with my shins. I pull out my deep, calm alpha voice and tell them to knock it off. That usually does the trick, but if it escalates, someone probably needs a time-out. Just a few minutes in the crate, alone in the spare bedroom, is enough to calm the situation. When I let them out of the crate I calmly greet and pet, so that the energy is once again cheerful. Similarly, "waking badly" or being possessive over a sleep spot means that the dog finds himself immediately on the floor. I'm the boss of the chew toys and the furniture, and I only share these pleasures with sweet dogs.

After the first few days, I allow a little grumbling to see where it goes. In my experience, grumbling between the dogs isn't always bad and can be an effective communication tool. My dogs grumble at each other, but really only to say things like "Hey, I'm under this blanket, don't step on me", or "Go away, I don't want to play now". No tension or anger. So I allow some grumbling, and once we reach the stage where there are no hackles or posturing, we're good. I know I can trust the foster and my dogs.

Sometimes there is tension between two dogs that lasts more than a few minutes, or occurs several times a day. In that case, I put leashes on the two "enemies" and walk them around the block. Works like a charm.

I have a reputation here in Texas of taking in some pretty banged-up fosters - both physically and emotionally. We make sure they are cared for medically, then I do my best to forget their history. I believe that getting the foster into the schedule and routine of the house is the best thing for them. I try to put their previous circumstances out of my mind, so hopefully they will, too.

I pretty much fall in love with every foster I take in, and so do my dogs. I still struggle a little with the mourning and mopey-ness around the house once a foster goes to his new home. I got some good advice from another BRAT foster mom on this problem...she told me to always remember that the foster is temporary, and that this state of mind will help me and my dogs. It works, but we still miss them when they go. It's the bittersweet nature of fostering.

To summarize, here are the rules I follow with a foster:
  • Never compromise on the introduction. Introduce them on neutral ground, and walk walk walk. Don't bring them into the house until everyone is calm and bored.
  • Watch for tension and grumbles, and don't allow any attitude for the first few days from anyone with four legs.
  • Walk every day! Tired dogs are good dogs.
  • Be a strong, calm alpha. A freaked-out human makes the dogs freak-out.
  • Get the foster into the normal schedule and routine of the house right away. Daily structure gives the dog something to hang his hat on, even while his world is turned upside-down.
  • Forget the sad circumstances that got the dog into rescue. His life just got awesome, and that's what is important.


  1. Thanks for this post. It's really helpful for me, as I've been harboring dreams of fostering but find it difficult to manage with one of my dogs being far less sociable than the other. I'm sure my pack can build up to that eventually, so I'm collecting tips in the meantime.

  2. Excellent, Staci! Circumstances may never allow me to foster, but knowing successful ground rules makes me more comfortable with the idea. Thanks for taking the time to write out these tips and sharing with everyone! (And thanks for all you do for basenji rescue, too!)

  3. Great blog, Staci! If any of the readers are interested in fostering basenjis in need, they can become a BRAT volunteer by going to this website:

  4. what great timing this is for me as i am going to become a foster mom,for the first time, as soon as Tonya decides which boy to send me. my Bella is about as laid back as is possible and still be a basenji so hopefully all will go smoothly but will definitely put your suggestions to use.
    mahalo nui loa