This post was originally published in 2019. We are republishing today as foster care is as important as ever. 

Button had been at the Kansas City Pet Project for about a month, and he wasn’t doing well. He was displaying alarming signs of kennel stress, including pacing, spinning, vocalizing and jumping up and down over and over. The shelter has an excellent enrichment program that includes play groups, walks, puzzle toys and more, but this didn’t seem to be making a dent in Button’s stress levels.

When Button was placed in foster care, his quality of life improved immediately (you can see his transformation in this video).  “His compulsive stress behaviors completely and immediately disappeared,” says Sara Gillette, foster coordinator for the Kansas City Pet Project. “He ended up getting adopted shortly after going to foster, where his adopter was able to see him for who he truly was – not who he was in a shelter kennel.”

Kansas City Pet Project was one of six shelters nationwide to participate in a study of canine foster care funded by Maddie’s Fund®. The goals of this study were to assess the effect of foster care on medium to large dogs and impact of the foster program on staff morale.

“For this study, we selected large, open admission shelters where fostering adult dogs could really make an impact,” says project consultant Kristen Hassen-Auerbach, Director of Pima Animal Care Center in Tucson, Arizona.   “We wanted to focus on busy shelters where dogs spend most of their time in kennels and don’t receive tons of one-on-one TLC. We believed that if we can make something like this work in big, busy shelters, it will also be effective in smaller organizations.”

The study asked shelters to put 30 dogs into foster care for one week or more and tracked 30 dogs that did not go into foster as the control group. A behavior questionnaire using a five-point rating scale was used to assess dogs during the study. The questionnaire asked respondents to rate dogs on 21 items such as confidence, friendliness toward dogs, friendliness toward people, attention-seeking and fear.  Shelter staff completed the first questionnaire for dogs between three to five weeks of their stay in the shelter, or at the time of enrollment for dogs who had longer shelter stays.  Dogs in the control group were assessed in the shelter in the same way one week later. For dogs in the foster group, the same survey was given to foster caregivers on day 1 and day 7 of their foster stay.

Morale was assessed using a separate survey. Staff, foster caregivers and volunteers were surveyed before and one year after the initiative was implemented to evaluate its impact on staff morale.

Dogs who stayed in the shelter did not show significant improvement on any of the behavior or wellbeing items. However, there was a significant decline in one area of behavior from the first survey to the second 7 days later: they were rated as being less sociable and displaying less friendly behavior toward other dogs.

Significant improvements were found for the dogs who went into foster care. When both groups were compared after seven days, dogs who went to foster care showed a significant improvement on 17 out of 21 behavior variables compared to dogs who stayed in the shelter. Dogs in foster care were rated as more playful, happier, friendlier to people and more confident than dogs in the shelter. Dogs in foster care were rated as being less insecure, anxious and insecure and doing less barking and repetitive behavior.

There was no significant difference in staff morale after implementing foster care at the shelters as a whole. However, these results could be due to staffing changes, organizational changes or other factors. Although there was no difference found, the questionnaire gave organizations a way to gauge stakeholder satisfaction and hopefully implement efforts to address any difficulties that were expressed in the survey.

The results from this study suggest that dogs benefit dramatically from foster care. Organizations should utilize foster care to improve welfare and find homes for dogs because it has a significant impact on behavior and well-being.

“We were pleased, but not surprised, by the study results as they reflected what we thought was true. One of the words most commonly used to describe more challenging shelter dogs is ‘smart’ and it’s just common sense that a highly intelligent, energetic dog would be happier, healthier and more adoptable outside of the constant confinement of a kennel. It’s a gift to have science back up what we already felt and thought,” Hassen-Auerbach says.

It’s unknown whether social contact and a change in environment impacted the dogs’ behavior or whether the differences reported occurred because people subjectively perceive dogs more positively and less negatively when they are in homes. However, it is important to note that both are important when it comes to finding homes for dogs as a positive attitude about dogs is likely beneficial in finding them homes.

“If I could place every single dog into foster care, I absolutely would,” Gillette tells us. “Every dog deserves the opportunity to be able to express themselves in healthy ways outside of the confines of a shelter cage.”

Interested in learning more? View the full study results.