Foster field trips

Can just a few hours outside the shelter make a difference for a dog? Data from an ongoing study suggests foster field trips can help improve welfare in dogs, increase adoption chances and create other advantages for the organization caring for the dogs.

Here’s the background: About a year ago, Austin Animal Center received a grant from Maddie’s Fund® to study the effects of foster care on the behavior and length of stay of shelter dogs. While the full study is ongoing, data collection from one of the shelters participating in the research, Louisville Metro Animal Services, is complete.

Foster coordinator Stephanie Jackson piloted Louisville’s field trip foster program in April 2017 after learning about the programs during one of the Medium and Large Adult Dog Foster apprenticeships. The program allows foster caregivers to take a dog off the shelter’s grounds for a period of several hours to all day. It focuses on the long-stay dogs in Louisville’s intake shelter, many of whom are at risk of euthanasia for stress-related behavioral deterioration.

“We’re getting more information on long-stay dogs to market them for adoption, increasing awareness of medium to large dogs in need at shelters and giving enrichment for their emotional wellbeing,”she reported.

The study was based on 51 field trips that lasted about three hours each. Before each trip, shelter staff completed a brief survey on the dog’s behavior in the shelter; the foster caregiver later completed the same survey on their behavior during the outing. Participants were asked to rate aspects of the dog’s behavior on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 indicating that the behavior was not seen and 5 indicating that the behavior was seen all the time. Behaviors that were rated included “relaxed, shakes or trembles,” and “friendly to people.”

Significant improvements in behavior were shown on 15 of 21 survey items. Trembling, barking and repetitive behaviors such as jumping, walking in circles and barking were significantly reduced. Dogs who went on field trips were rated:

  • More highly on happiness
  • More highly on playfullness
  • More highly on relaxation
  • More highly on confidence
  • Lower on fearfulness
  • Lower on anxiety
  • Lower on insecurity

Less than a year after the program began, Louisville Metro Animal Services has tripled their total number of fosters, sent dogs on over 350 day-outings and cut behavioral euthanasia in half. Over 70 dogs have found homes as a direct result of their field trips.

One of these dogs was Daffodil, a dog who had been placed on the shelter’s euthanasia list for behavior. In order to learn more about her behavior outside of the shelter and as a last-ditch attempt to save her life, she was taken on field trips with several different foster caregivers.

Outside the shelter, Daffodil thrived. Because of field trip foster, she was not only removed from the euthanasia list, but she found her forever home with the parents of one of her foster caregivers.

“Field trip fostering has brought a whole new group of people to our shelter that would have never visited otherwise,” said Jackson. “Over 80 percent of the people attending field trip orientations have never stepped foot in our intake shelter. The idea of getting to hang out with a dog and not have to make a long-term commitment has drawn people to us.”

There are many reasons why short-term foster care is great for shelters and rescues. It enables organizations to learn more about the behavior of the dogs in their care and to market them in new ways. The flexibility of short-term foster options makes it easy for people to make a commitment, which can help to increase the total number of foster caregivers. Foster field trips increase the visibility of homeless dogs in the community, which often leads to more adoptions and increased engagement with the organizations that care for them.

“It’s a feel-good program!” says Jackson. “Folks are ready and willing to help a shelter who asks for it. Helping animals in need and seeing their growth and adoption really excites and empowers people.”