Finding foster caregivers for pets who have behavioral needs can feel daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are six strategies animal welfare organizations across the country are using to do just this!
1. Prioritize “unicorn” fosters who have ideal home set-ups for some of your more challenging pets (people who don’t have children or other pets). Be responsive and treat them like VIPs, much like Gateway Pet Guardians does. Not every pet with a behavioral challenge needs a home with these specific requirements, but they can be difficult to find when a pet does need to be an “only,” so proactive outreach is key.
2. Avoid unnecessary barriers. At Austin Pets Alive! (APA!), there are no blanket restrictions on who can foster a dog with a behavioral challenge. Potential fosters receive 1-on-1 training that’s tailored to the dog’s individual needs. “It starts by understanding that what we are looking for in a behavior foster is a desire to help,” says Aaron Caldwell, Dog Behavior Program Advisor for American Pets Alive! “We are not specifically seeking out trainers, those with past behavioral experience, or an immense knowledge in this sector. If someone comes in with the desire to help, it is our responsibility to support them by providing the knowledge and training they will need to be successful. What we have found is that often some of our best behavior fosters come in with no experience at all. What they do have is a passion for the dogs and desire to be a hands-on part of the lifesaving process.”
3. Create emotional connections. Write a plea for an individual pet, telling their story and letting potential fosters know why this pet needs their help. Ask a foster caregiver if they’d be interested in fostering a specific pet. Hold a personalized matchmaking session with a foster to introduce them to the pets who need them in a location that lets them shine. The emotional connection they make may be just the motivation they need.
4. Make behavioral fostering cool! If you have current fosters who care for pets with behavioral needs, ask them to post about their experiences in your foster social media group, or interview them for your newsletter or blog. Give them the kudos they deserve and let supporters know it’s easy for them to become heroes as well. Make sure pets in behavioral foster homes are marketed heavily—this will not only go a long way in making their caregivers feel “seen,” but when these pets get adopted, their caregivers may be able to take on another pet.
5. Give them the training and support they need to feel confident. Depending on the pet they’re taking home, this may be general information about canine body language and handling specific behaviors, access to a mentor, online resources or even 1-on-1 consultations with staff. Make sure you use everyday language when you talk about behavior and define any terms that may be new to them (for example, terms such as “leash reactivity” may not be familiar to people outside our field). “APA’s philosophy has always been, ‘helping people, help pets’,” Caldwell says. “We see it as our responsibility to provide the support through hands on training, emails, documents, videos, and correspondence over the phone and via email as the least we can do to help ensure that the caretakers and the pups will be successful in their new homes. This often starts with a consultation around our past experiences with these dogs, focusing primarily on what we know about them in their previous homes. When talking about these things it is important to provide context for why/how these behaviors have displayed themselves in the past as well as a clear plan of both training and management that is feasible for an adopter or foster to practice. Not everyone wants to take on a dog and train with them 24/7 and that is okay.”
6. Make it easy for your current volunteers to foster pets. Who may be the most motivated to work with pets who have behavioral challenges? The people who already know them and are handling them in the shelter! If your volunteers aren’t automatically made fosters when they’re onboarded, consider this. Make it easy for them to foster and make sure they know it’s an option. Additionally, consider offering them short-term options like weekend foster so they can try it out for a short period and see if they like it.
“It is important to acknowledge that a home is a far better environment for our dogs for countless reasons, Caldwell says. “The shelter is an unnatural environment for our pups. It is stressful and often is doing a poor job at preparing them for the real world and the life experiences they will encounter on a daily basis once we can get them out of this space.”