The ups and downs of fostering

by Cliff Kerr

This article first appeared in Celebrating Greyhounds: The Magazine
(Spring 1998, Volume 3, Number 1)

Let's face it, fostering is inconvenient. Managing the logistics of a fostering program is a bit like juggling flaming torches. You never know when a "cat-safe" dog is going to start chasing the family feline or decide that peeing and pooping are acceptable behaviors in the foster family's living room. Before we can bring in new dogs, we have to have a foster family lined up for every one. We also need a couple of back-up families that don't have cats just in case.

Prospective adopters can see the dogs either at a meet-and-greet or at the foster family's home. This means that the foster family must transport their dog to a store front every weekend or have people visiting them where they live. Again, when transportation problems arise, they must be dealt with. Now let's throw another monkey wrench into the works. The foster families are not allowed to release a dog without the permission of a placement rep. So, when an adoptive family wants to take a dog on the spot, the foster family has to find a placement rep who is familiar with the dog and get a decision. This could mean a series of hasty phone calls. If the rep allows the dog to go on a visit, the foster family has to get a signed release form and sends all of the dog's paperwork along with the adoptive family. Now the foster family is left without a dog until we find out if the visit is going to turn into a placement. Of course, all the time this is going on, the placement rep is in regular communication with the adoptive family as is the foster family. Finally, if the placement is made, the foster family becomes available to take in another new greyhound. This just about covers the management end of things.

Being a foster family has an awesome responsibility. First they are responsible for the safety and well-being of the dog and must be dog-savvy enough to keep him/her from making a mistake that could lead to a bad reputation. In other words, the foster family must use a crate so that the dog won't have the opportunity to become destructive. They must not allow the dog up on the furniture thereby creating bad habits for the adoptive family to deal with. They cannot allow the dog to become a picky eater. They may or may not need to teach the dog about stairs. They may or may not want to start some basic obedience work. They must be sure that the dog is well behaved and under control at all times. Failure to meet the above standards only results in problems. The foster family is supposed to help the dog prepare for placement, not make it impossible. During the foster period, we have the opportunity to learn about the dog's personality and can therefore make a better match with a potential adoptive family.

Fostering, the way we do it, is a very tough chore that must be a labor of love or it just won't work. Our foster families keep coming back for more and some will call and ask why we haven't sent a dog if we give them a two-week break. Some families burn out after a while. Some families just can't part with their foster and end up adopting a second, third, or fourth dog. Some families just never say no. Because of attrition, we are constantly looking for new foster people. We keep an average of 6-8 dogs in foster at all times, and have had as many as 19 at one time.

My knowledge about fostering comes from firsthand experience. Everything we've done in our group has been on a "ready, fire, aim" basis. We got into fostering because we didn't have a kennel and it just seemed like the logical way to go. I know that there are other ways to run a foster program. Some groups place their dogs straight off the track and then foster the fall-outs. This can result in an astronomical return rate and a lot of disgruntled adopters.

But what about using a kennel? Since we don't have one, I can only speculate from what I have seen and heard secondhand. I do know that the track prefers to send their dogs into foster homes because the process puts them on the adoptive track faster than going into another kennel situation. While a kennel is much more convenient from an operational standpoint, the resident dogs are constantly being compared. Offering an adoptive family a selection to choose from never allows any single dog to stand out on his/her own merits. "Well this one's too big, and I don't exactly like the color of that one, or this one doesn't seem as friendly as the others." In a foster home, each dog is viewed one at a time in a family setting. Each dog is allowed to stand on his/her own merits without being compared to 10 or 20 others. When people are able to pick from a large selection of dogs, there will always be 1 or 2 that just get left behind.

I don't necessarily believe that we should be making things more convenient for our group or for adoptive families. I do believe that what we are doing is trying to find homes for dogs and not trying to find dogs for homes. Therefore if we can make more quality placements by fostering, then I think we are on the right track. Our system is far from perfect. When you factor in the personalities and opinions of our foster families, dealing with our program becomes a never ending series of phone conversations. Constant communication becomes an exhausting necessity.

Is there any such thing as a perfect set up? I think there is, and I have harbored a vision of a two-sided program that could utilize the convenience of a kennel and the effectiveness of fostering. If I had a kennel, it would be a plush vacation place for dogs whose parents are off traveling. It would be used to receive dogs from the track and could hold them until they went into foster families. It would be a fall out shelter for dogs that are being returned and need a spot right now. It would not replace our foster program but would serve to support it. Of course, operating a kennel would bring its own set of logistical nightmares. So I guess it will just have to remain a vision for now.

A brindle greyhound relaxes in her crate, a fawn greyhound lays on her back with paws up in the air.