top of page

Bringing Home a Foster (or a Failure)

The 'failure' is tongue-in-cheek... it's what foster people call the ones you keep. <g>  They're not failures.


First: I am TRULY a positive reinforcement trainer.  I don't 'usually' use positive reinforcement.  I ALWAYS use positive reinforcement.  I will never tell you to do something to your dog that might have negative fall-out associated with it later,

unless there is absolutely no other way to do it.  No shock collars, no prong collars, no choke collars.  No yelling, hitting, or doing other things that can make your dog 'not happy'.   I only say 'unless there is absolutely no other way to do it' because I've never been in a situation where my dog was being attacked or was attacking another, and I couldn't get them apart.  If that happened, I don't know what I'd do.

When I bring a strange animal into my home, I plan for safety above everything else.  I don't just 'throw them together'... I set things up so that it almost guarantees success.  I consider my animals, my Hubby (who is not a 'dog person', like I am), and the animal I'm bringing home... and I plan for everyone's safety and comfort.  So, for dogs (I've never brought home a cat), I make sure they have at least one crate upstairs (where I spend my waking hours) and another crate downstairs (for sleeping).  There is an area set up in the dining room, kitchen, living room, and my office to tether the New Guy, so that they spend almost all their waking time with me AT LEAST in the room with them.  There is at least a blanket, some toys, a water/ice bowl in each of these areas, and a food bowl in the kitchen.  I also utilize baby gates and half-doors so that I can keep my dog and the cats out of the room the foster dog is in, when I can't closely supervise them and reward the behavior I want to keep.

If the dog you bring home isn't good with cats, you don't want to find this out when you let him loose in a room with your cats.  If he's never seen another dog, you don't want to find out that he doesn't know what another dog is when you turn him loose with your dog.  And if he doesn't like men or women (or kids), you don't want to find this out when you turn him loose with these family members.  Plan ahead... it doesn't take much time or work, and you'll be glad you did.

My cats are dog-savvy... this means all of my cats have been around dogs for their whole lives.  Some of the dogs were loved by the cats, some not... they know how to get away if they need to, and they know how to approach if they decide that they want to.  Why is this important?  Because a cat that's dog-savvy knows Not To Act Like Prey.  My cats have lots of avenues to escape if they need to (the baby gates and half-doors, and also they have ways to get UP out of reach).  The foster dog is usually kept crated for introductions to any of my animals.  Understanding reinforcement (and how there are elements of competition between types of reinforcement), I give only half rations or no rations in the food bowl when I work on this with the foster dog, and I use the best food I can lay my hands on -- this is the most important stuff, these introductions between the foster dog and the beings living in my house.  I try to set things up so that I KNOW it's going to work, and I use everything I can to help guarantee this.

Just so you know... my cats are trained, too.  Not like the dogs, but enough that I can manipulate their behavior to make introductions and groom them without dying in the process.

So... the fostered dog is in the crate... everything is quiet.  Now what?


First, teach the fostered dog that YOU cause All The Good Stuff to happen.   You're strange to him, too, remember... no matter how nice you've been to him thus far, he's nervous, and you're new.  So, sit beside the crate (I usually camp out with a book for a little bit), and just Reward Him for looking at you.  Every time he orients (looks) at you, he gets a treat.  Pretty soon, you'll see a tail wag too... up the criteria.  Start giving him lesser treats (like kibble or cheerios) for just looking at you... but the tail wag gets the Good Stuff.  You'll start to see that tail wag more and more.  Then, he'll get up and move as close to you as he can get... you can up the criteria again.  See how this works?

Use the dog's name, and use really good treats.  This crate work at the beginning can serve more than 1 purpose... if you say the dog's name, and he turns his head toward you, Reward The Hell Out Of Him.  The next time you say his name, he'll look at you faster.  Practice doing this a couple of times Every Day, for just 3-5 minutes each time.  Very quickly, he'll learn his name, and he'll learn to always orient to you On His Name.  This is very powerful.

Next, put your personal dog on-leash, and hook him to a piece of furniture near the crate... he can't touch the crate, and neither dog is freaking out... they're just close enough to show interest in one another.  Reward them each at this distance until both dogs are relaxed and loose.  Then, move your dog closer to the crate.  Again, just close enough that there's interest, then spend a few minutes reinforcing the behavior you want to keep (reward BOTH dogs).  Continue this way until the dogs are sniffing at one another through the crate.  You might have to have a second person (who should have already been introduced before using them in exercises -- the same way you introduced yourself)... have the dogs turn their heads away from one another to receive their treats.  This helps to defuse potential problems where dogs become fixated on one another.  Each time they sniff one another, then they turn their heads away from one another to get the reward, you'll se that it happens faster and easier... continue doing this until you can call your dog a step away from the crate, relaxed and loose.  Keep practicing... you'll want to be able to call them away from one another, if things start to 'go south'.

Think about this: the animal you bring home doesn't have to be aggressive to cause a BIG problem, if you just 'dump him into the mix'... if he's nervous or stressed (and he probably is -- there's no more stressful situation for a dog than a rescue situation) he'll be on the defensive.  He may have lived in a single-dog home, or been kept in another way where he never saw another dog... he'll be stressed.  He needs time *and safety* to decompress.  Your personal animals are probably wondering WTF too.  It's a recipe for disaster if you don't plan things out.

So, when you get home, keep a short leash attached to his collar/harness, keep him tethered in one of his areas (wherever you are in the home), or put him in a crate when you can't have eyes on him.

While the fostered dog is learning about the other creatures in the house, they're also learning the very basic steps to becoming well-mannered companions to humans.  They're on a tether, usually hooked to something, so every few minutes I'll approach them... but I go slowly, and I don't approach close enough that they can touch me by jumping up.  I allow my dogs to reach me so long as they keep 4 feet on the floor, or if they SIT.  This is your personal choice... I usually require BIG dogs to SIT (unless they have suspected hip problems).  You'll see on his face when he starts to understand this... he'll 'assume the position' faster and faster, each time you approach -- he wants access to you, and he wants the Reward.  (And, every time you GIVE the reward, you're associating yourself WITH the reward -- this is a Good Thing!)

It's been a couple of days... the cats aren't being blind-sided by walking around a corner and finding a Strange Dog there.  He's starting to be let loose in the gated room (when you're in there to watch him).  You're understanding his behavior when he's looking for a spot to toilet so that you can take him out.  With him loose in a room, it's time to start practicing his Sit On Command so that you can approach.  If he's not sitting for approaches when he's on a tether, he won't be ready to start this... it's different for every dog.  Start looking for other behaviors that need modification... many dogs are surrendered to shelters and rescues because of their behavior.  Lots of owners don't understand how quickly changes can occur, when you put your mind to it.  Being loose in a room also means that it's time to start recall training... basically, you're just  building on the exercises you used to teach him to Orient To His Name.  I don't use a 'come' command... I use the dog's name as a recall cue.  If I have more than 1 dog, I use 'cookies'.  

At this point, you've got it.  The dog can be loose in the house for short periods (with you supervising), goes outside to potty, sits when you approach, and doesn't try to kill your other animals or spouse.

Well done.  Now you can start working on the real stuff. <g>

Brenda Rushman, CCBC


bottom of page