Short-term foster programs save lives
Looking to make a life-saving impact for homeless dogs in your area, but not sure where to start? Consider participating in a short-term foster program!
A line of participants wraps around the shelter for Friends of Detroit Animal Care and Control's Detroit Dogventures day trip foster program in 2019
In this article:
1. What is a short-term foster program?
2. Benefits for the dog
3. Benefits for you
4. Are short-term foster programs confusing or stressful for the dog?
5. Short-term foster FAQs
6. Finding a short-term foster program near you
7. Check out our foster gear!
What is a short-term foster program?
A short-term foster program allows you to take a shelter dog home for a set period of time - often a single day, overnight, a weekend, or a week. This gives the dog a break from the shelter environment while also engaging the community and raising awareness about local animal welfare.
Benefits for the dog
Short-term foster programs drastically increase the likelihood that a dog will find a forever home. Not only does it provide exposure for the dog, it helps the shelter gather vital information about the dog to help match them with the perfect forever home.
It is nearly impossible to see a dog's true personality in a shelter environment. Even the best shelter is a tough place to be - they tend to be noisy, chaotic, full of different smells, with people and other dogs walking by throughout the day. Many dogs struggle to get a good night of sleep, which, just like us humans, can make them crankier or less social than they'd usually be. Some dogs who end up in shelters haven't been around many people or other dogs, and being in such a busy environment is incredibly overstimulating.
In a foster home, a dog has a chance to decompress. They can truly rest and sleep, enjoy a meal, and simply relax. They also get individual attention, exercise, and enrichment that is often impossible to adequately provide in a shelter that is bursting at the seams with dogs.
The information that a foster brings back to the shelter is incredibly important. Does the dog get along with other animals, kids, or people? Do they like to play fetch or go for walks? Are they couch potatoes? House trained? Cuddly? Do they know any cues, like sit? The more a potential adopter knows about a dog, the easier it is for them to imagine what their life would be like with that dog.
Potential adopters are also attracted to photos and videos of dogs in home environments. A photo of a dog laying on the couch, enjoying the backyard, or hanging out with other animals is evidence that a dog will be a great companion - something that can be hard to imagine when a potential adopter's only reference is seeing the dog in a kennel.
Getting a dog out of the shelter also increases that dog's visibility. Many shelters will provide a bandana, leash, collar, or vest with a phrase like "adopt me" or "I'm a foster dog," inviting the public to ask questions about the dog when out and about. Sharing photos and videos to your own social media page can also reach a wide range of people - and people love knowing that the dog has spent time with someone that they trust before they bring that dog home. Even if you don't happen to meet your foster dog's new forever family during your foster period, you are raising awareness about your local shelter, which can lead to adoptions down the road.
Benefits for you
Short-term foster programs are great for the humans, too! Fostering is a great way to enjoy the companionship of a dog without making a long-term commitment, and knowing that you'll only have the dog for a set period of time can make the process of bringing the dog back to the shelter a little easier.
Most shelters will cover the costs of care and provide supplies for foster homes. This may include a collar, harness, and/or leash; food, dishes, and/or treats; toys, crates, and/or other supplies. Most shelters will require that dogs have basic vet care before they are eligible to participate in a short-term foster program, which typically includes vaccinations, microchip, and spay/neuter. This makes fostering much more accessible for those who may have limited income or are otherwise unable to afford adopting a pet.
If you are considering adopting in the future, fostering is a great way to get a better idea of what you'd like in your future dog. Perhaps you think that you want a young, active dog, only to discover that an older, calmer dog better fits your lifestyle. You may find that you like a dog that is more cuddly, already house trained, enjoys long walks, or any other number of traits that can be difficult to consider when you don't already have a dog in your home.
And, yes - some people will 'foster fail.' 'Foster Failures' are people who bring home a foster dog that they decide to adopt - and it's the best kind of 'failure!' If you already have pets in your home, fostering first is a great way to make sure that everyone will get along. If you specifically don't want to or can't foster fail, consider first seeking out programs that only last for a day, overnight, or weekend. Knowing that you'll only have your foster for that short amount of time can make it easier to keep yourself from getting too attached. As you get used to fostering, it gets easier to hold on to each foster for a longer period of time before letting them go to their forever home.
Short-term foster programs are also just plain fun! Getting the chance to give a dog a break from the shelter is so rewarding, and watching their personality shine is a joy. It's a great way to get involved in animal welfare in your spare time.
My personal 'foster fail' and soulmate dog, Ezi, who I initially brought home 'for the weekend' shortly before moving across the country in 2020. Ezi is one of the major inspirations behind Detezi's mission.
Are short-term foster programs confusing or stressful for the dog?
A common concern with short-term foster programs is the effect that it has on the dogs. A study published in 2019 found that as little as one night out of the shelter decreases a dog's cortisol levels, a hormone that is related to stress. While most dogs' cortisol levels returned to their original baseline once they returned to the shelter, the break from shelter stress along with the additional benefits of time out of the shelter was beneficial to the dogs' chances for adoption.
A study published in 2023 by the same team found that dogs who participated in one-day foster programs (often referred to as 'day trips' or, in the case of this study, 'brief outings') were 5 times more likely to be adopted. Dogs who spent 1-2 nights in a foster home were 14.3 times more likely to be adopted.
Short-term foster FAQs
Who can participate in short-term foster programs?
Each shelter will have different guidelines and regulations on who can participate in short-term foster programs. Some shelters may require you to attend an orientation or register as a volunteer; others allow the general public to participate. Some shelters may have restrictions in place when there are other pets and/or children in the home, may require a lease agreement for renters, or have other limitations in place. It is best to reach out to your local shelter to learn more about their individual program.
Can I decide to turn my short-term foster into a long-term foster?
While exact rules will vary by shelter, most shelters are more than happy for you to hold onto your foster dog for longer than you originally intended. Not only is being in a home great for your foster dog, it frees up kennel space for other incoming dogs.
What happens after the foster program is over?
In most cases, you'll return your foster dog to the shelter and fill out a questionnaire to provide information on the dog for potential adopters. Some shelters may allow you to extend your foster period until the dog finds a forever home, in which case you may be able to transfer the dog directly to the adopter. Your foster dog may have the opportunity to transfer to a longterm foster home or to another foster-based organization. The information that you provide makes all of these outcomes more likely.
Can cats or other animals participate in short-term foster programs?
Some shelters are experimenting with short-term foster programs for cats or other animals. In most cases, cat programs will have a longer minimum timeframe as cats are commonly believed to need more time to adjust to a new environment, however, peer-reviewed evidence on these programs is limited. It's best to reach out to your local shelter for more details on their available programs.
Is it hard to return the dog to the shelter?
It can be, especially the first time. Most people find that it gets easier to manage their own emotions with time, though, especially with the joy of seeing a foster dog find their forever home. Some people will find that fostering isn't for them, though, and that's okay, too; there are always other ways to help!
Finding a short-term foster program near you
Thanks to the advocacy of organizations like Maddie's Fund, short-term foster programs have drastically grown in popularity over the past several years. There's a good chance that your local shelter offers some type of short-term foster program. Most organizations will list their current programs on their website or social media pages.
If your local shelter doesn't currently offer a foster program, Maddie's Fund provides fantastic resources for getting a program started.
Foster-based organizations - those that do not have a shelter or primary facility - may be less likely to offer day trips or overnight programs, but may be in need of volunteers to assist existing fosters who are going out of town for a few days or need help transporting their foster pets to the vet or adoption events. It never hurts to ask what opportunities are available!
Check out our foster gear!
Planning to bring a foster pet home? Check out our conversation-starting foster gear!