Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fostering: Tips & What to Expect

Fostering a rescued basenji is always an emotionally-charged experience for me.  After every foster I let go, my husband makes me swear that we’re not going to foster anymore, but in my heart I always know that I will.  And of course, the next time a situation comes along where a basenji really needs a foster and there’s nowhere else for the dog to go, I beg my husband to let us step up to the plate to help out.  We’ve learned that our insecure-dominant male basenji, Biko, will accept a female foster much better than a male foster, but every time I bring a new dog home and start the difficulties of facilitating proper dog introductions (trying to avoid having Biko and Reef, our female basenji, attempt to eat the newcomer), I start to question my sanity and wonder why the heck I’m doing this again.  But, after the first day or so, when the dog finally gets settled into the pack and a household routine is established, I take all my doubts back and I know for sure that I am doing a wonderful thing.  And then, when it seems like I have finally created a trusting, loving pet, my heart does ache to give the dog up but I know that I’ve picked the best family possible and I’ve given the her a wonderful life.  I follow-up with the adopters, make sure my foster is doing well with them, and I’m still sad for a while that I didn’t keep her but I begin to slowly see that there is someone else who really does love her just as much as I do.  In my distress of giving her up I have sworn off fostering, but when I see how well my former foster is doing in her new home, I start to think about the next dog I might save….
Of course, everyone’s fostering experiences are different, but generally that’s how mine go.  The first few days are always the toughest, but if you can get through that initial difficulty you’ll have a month or more of a wonderful and rewarding experience.  And there are certainly ways to help make the first few days go more smoothly – I’ve gotten much better at it with practice.  Here’s what I’ve learned, which might help you too.
When I first bring a foster home, I try to have done some bonding time individually with the dog, usually on the car ride home.  We talk, I pet and give treats, and if the dog will sit in my lap, I encourage that.  By the time we get home, the dog hopefully is looking towards me as a source of trust and comfort, in a new and scary environment.  I try to have my husband bring our dogs out on leashes while I let the new dog sniff around the front yard, which always results in our dogs lunging towards the new dog like Cujo while the new dog hides behind me in fear.  To combat this, we walk all the dogs around the neighborhood for a while, just a little bit apart, to distract the dogs while they get used to being near one another without going for the jugular.  When we get home, we bring the new dog into the backyard first, and let her sniff around on-leash.  Then, we commence with the doggie introductions. 
Reef tries to eat the foster dog's head
Facilitating proper dog introductions can be done many ways, and it’s the first step towards having a good foster experience.  The way I usually do it is to keep the foster dog close to me on-leash, protecting her with my body and my squirt bottle, while we let one of our basenjis at a time come into the yard.  I keep my dogs leashed just in case we need to pull them apart, and my husband sticks close by in case I need him to assist me.  One dog sniffs the foster at a time, and if there are any growls or aggressive stances I immediately protect the foster by brandishing my squirt bottle.  Once the foster and one of my dogs seems comfortable enough around one another, they get to run around the backyard while dragging their leashes.  Then, as soon as they seem okay together, we repeat the process and introduce my second dog.  After the foster is okay with each dog individually, we slowly put everyone together again and let them play in the backyard, dragging their leashes and keeping the squirt bottle handy in case they play too hard and fights break out – which they inevitably do, but it’s a normal part of the process of the dogs establishing pack hierarchy.  
My foster Talley (Pippa), in her harness during her 1st week
 Once everyone is good and tired, we introduce the dogs to the house by allowing the foster to come in first, sniff around the kitchen and living room (the rest of the house is gated off at first to prevent accidents), and decide where her “safe spot” will be.  Usually we try to make a den-like area for the new foster to retreat to, where she can feel safe and claim as her own in her new and scary environment.  Dogs will instinctively seek out a den-like safe haven in a new environment, and it does a lot towards preventing nervous “bad” behavior in your foster if you provide him with this safe den.  When the foster is settled in her den we allow the other dogs to come into the house, and we protect the foster in her den by again brandishing the squirt bottle at any dogs that would attempt to mess with her.  The foster dog is initially fed in her den and is allowed to stay in her den as long as she wants, and we don’t mess with her if she’s in there.  However, we do leave her leash attached for the first few days so that we can gently tug her out if coaxing doesn’t work when we need her to come out for mandatory potty breaks.  Eventually she will decide to come out and see what the other dogs are doing or she’ll want to follow the humans around the house, but until she decides on her own it’s best to leave her undisturbed. 
It's not bedtime yet! 
When it’s finally time for bed, we bring everyone upstairs to our bedroom, where our dogs sleep in the human bed with my husband and me, and where we make another doggie “den” in a corner near the bed for our foster.  Basenjis in particular often get distressed (and may howl or be destructive) if they are separated from their packs, so I’ve learned that it’s best to keep the new dog near the pack at night.  Sometimes the new dog may pace around a bit at first since the nighttime sounds of the house are all unfamiliar to her, but eventually she will take a cue from the other dogs and will settle down to sleep.  
In the morning we may have to do a mini-version of the dog introductions again, so I do keep a squirt bottle handy near my bed.  I get up and walk the dogs to be sure that everyone’s emptied, then I gate the dogs apart for the day (double-stacking and tying the gate to be sure it’s secure) while I’m at work.  For the first week or so, I try to come home at lunchtime to let the new dog out, until she learns that if she holds her bladder I will eventually come home to let her release it.  When I get home from work, all dogs get taken on an hour-long walk together to tire out their pent-up energy, so that they don’t try to play too roughly and start a fight in the yard.  
 There may still be some fights that come up between the dogs from time to time, but after the first few days they seem to remember each other and there will be less and less jostling for territory. Eventually I will stop needing to carry my squirt bottle around the house with me, and I will remove the foster’s leash (which she’s been dragging) because she now knows our household routine and she comes willingly when my dogs do.   
Within a few hours to a few days, all of the dogs will be genuinely playing with each other, and I will start to look forward to coming home from work so that I can join in their clownish antics.   I will enjoy our long walks together, the pride I feel when people ask me if I got another dog and I tell them I’m fostering, and I will feel my heart swell with love when the foster dog starts to willingly snuggle up to me on the couch.    
I will take lots of pictures of her to show people how cute my foster dog is, and how wonderfully the dogs all play together.  And of course, I will cry as the time nears when I have to give my foster to her new family, and I will want to keep her, and I will wonder again why in the world I foster when I know I have to go through this.  But then I will see that she is loved just as much in her new home, and I’ll be gratified that I’ve given her that home.  I’ll be sad and swear off fostering for a while, but then another dog will come along who has nowhere to go….
So, for those of you who have never fostered before or who say it’s too emotional for you, I promise you that you’ll be okay.  Your dogs will be happy to have a playmate, and for the rest of your life you’ll think about your foster from time to time and you’ll smile, knowing what a wonderful thing you’ve done.  I encourage you to give it a try.  

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