Attach Away!

teenage boy lying on the ground w a dog lying on himThere is no shortage of things said or believed about dogs to make me, and others, cringe. Though I can understand “why” people believe the things they do, it doesn’t change the fact that I wish they didn’t. I understand why people would think the earth was flat, the sun revolved around us and because dogs are closely related to wolves they live in packs and follow a leader. Superficially these might make sense, but let’s not linger on the surface.

A reoccurring message that I am surprised to hear from trainers or people involved in rescue is that when providing foster care for a dog one must be careful not to let the dog form a strong attachment to the foster caregiver. Despite the fact that I have no idea how one would define what this meant for a dog, or how it would be implemented, the reasoning used to come to the conclusion seems shabby. It’s a sticky idea though, I wrote about it back in 2010 in the blog post BOND! and still find it in blogs and articles written today.

The conclusion seems to be that dogs who have been rehomed and institutionalized and suffer from behavior challenges, including separation anxiety, do so because they formed strong attachments with a previous owner, and had to move on. Really? I’m not going to argue that dogs don’t feel heart broken when they lose someone they loved and felt safe with, I’m going with the hypothesis that they do, but that this translates into separation anxiety or like a spurned lover they’d decide “never to love again” makes for great poetry, but not necessarily a manual for how to manage dogs. Is being rehomed more stressful because you lose a loved-one or because you are unprepared to find solace in the arms of someone else? What skills are gained having lived life on the sidelines while others bonded around you, or no bonding occurred at all?

I am not aware of any studies indicating that dogs who had formed strong bonds with a previous owner are more likely to develop behavioral challenges when they are rehomed. There are studies indicating that shelter dogs who are comfortable with people, are handled by a previously unknown person during their first 3 days at a shelter have lower cortisol levels than dogs who are not handled. Cortisol levels are indications of stress. Having positive associations with humans in the past would seem an important condition to see this effect.

What foster dogs need are skills and experience learning that humans predict good things to come. They need the skills pet dogs need so as to avoid being punished. As much a I think that my dogs would be unhappy about me not being in their lives I am also certain that should they (most of them anyway) find themselves in a new home they would quickly discover who can open the refrigerator or toss frisbees. I am not insulted by this, I find it comforting. This ability is likely to contribute to them experiencing lower stress levels overall. Lower stress is good. Stress can trigger mental disorders.

I am not suggesting that being repeatedly institutionalized and rehomed is good for the soul, but it’s more likely this experience, and not the attachments formed that destabilize a dog. Moving is one of the more stressful events a social animal can experience. If you want to help a foster dog navigate the maze of rehoming teach them how to; come when called, get off, or not get on in the first place, the couch, walk nicely on a leash, greet guests calmly, snooze contentedly in a crate, and how to play with people. There are plenty of other fish in the metaphorical sea when you have the right bait.

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18 comments so far

  1. crystalpegasus1 on

    I read a blog the other day which said the exact opposite of yours :-) Lol. As I’m considering getting involved in fostering after my current rescue is rehabbed (which is coming along nicely), I’m honestly a little torn and confused as to which way to foster. I know the foster parents of my current rescue treated him as if he was their dog, but the day that he was going to our home, they shunned him and urged him to look to us for support or information. He didn’t have any problems transitioning to our home whatsoever. He has trouble trusting people, but I believe that is more likely a consequence of his history where he suffered real trauma, neglect and abuse at the hands of humans. As a +R trainer I find it really hard to imagine not bonding with a dog you’re training, you know? I wonder if maybe a little bit of both is better, as in, play, love, praise, treat, reward, train as if the dog was your dog, but no bed sleeping or getting on the couch? Hm…more to think on I suppose!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I don’t follow you, what does allowing a dog to sleep on the bed, with or without us, have to do with allowing them to become attached? It makes sense not to allow a dog to sleep in those places because their new owners might not want them there and when the dog hops on, is likely to be scolded.

      • crystalpegasus1 on

        That’s sort of what I’m getting at with the bed and the couch and perhaps even eating people food. These are things my dogs are allowed to do, but maybe the dog won’t be allowed to do with a foster home. What I was reading though said that by requiring the dog to sleep in a kennel instead of your bed or not be on the furniture when your dogs are allowed will make the dog think his forever family is more fun than his foster family. I don’t know what to think about that, honestly. I feel like it would make ME sad to say here guys, come cuddle with mommy on the couch and leave my foster out. I also feel like that may be stressful or perhaps sad for the other dog as well, because he/she doesn’t know that he/she isn’t part of your family. I honestly am very confused with all of the advice I’m getting. I think I need to do some more soul searching

      • crystalpegasus1 on

        Sorry, won’t be allowed to do with at their “forever” home, jeez. Anyway, cuddling with us on the couch or in the bed in the morning is a way that we bond with our dogs very deeply. Every morning we have a wake up cuddle session where we just lay there and pet and talk to our dogs. It’s my favorite part of our routine. Them just laying on our laps on our couch and getting pet is quite a bonding experience, I believe at least. So, in some ways, not allowing a foster into that environment (i.e. on the furniture) would prevent you from bonding with them completely, at least, in my household I would say that.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Hopefully a rescue group will take a foster caregivers experience and understanding of a dog into consideration when placing that dog. If I learn that a dog I am fostering loves belly rubs and chasing balls I am going to recommend that the dog go into home where people want to rub bellies and toss balls.

        It is certainly possible, and not too difficult to teach a dog that they can get on the couch, when they are invited, and to get off when they are asked. Now if you were bonding with your dog by letting them steal food off the counter, they’d likely find themselves having more trouble when they moved on.

        On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 2:29 PM, Fearfuldogs' Blog

  2. Hannah B. Meyers on

    Nothing makes me happier than waving good-bye to one of my foster dogs – who doesn’t even look back at me because they are so in love with their new, forever home! Yes, I am sad and I do miss the heck out of them. But it’s the “Thanks for saving my life/paying my medical bills/taking me to class but don’t let the door hit you in the butt as I leave” attitude that makes me know I’ve made the perfect match. When I see the dogs again, even after many years, they are always extremely excited to see me again. They do remember us. They do know who saved them. And they do appreciate being somewhere safe, where they are loved, and – if I were to be anthropomorphic – they think we’ve given them the best playthings in the world!

    Practically speaking, I think it is mentally (and physically) much harder on dogs when they are placed in shelters/rescues where they aren’t given a lot of individual attention. I wonder if they are then much more likely to suffer separation anxiety when they do go to their forever homes. The variety and type of stimulation they experience while in foster care could help them become more able to adapt to a new change in circumstance as they’ve already had a positive experience in such a situation. It would make an interesting study.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I too have been happy to see dogs move on, and if I didn’t think they had the skills to cope with life as a pet dog, I kept them. This decision was not based on the fact that I was “attached” to them or they to me, but that given who they were, were not likely to thrive in the households that were available to them.

  3. Hazel on

    I don’t see how you can help them unless you bond with them (or at least work on bonding in fearful cases). Someone that gives them only food, water and a sleeping area but no bonding can be good? You might as well put them outside alone or in a room alone or just leave them at a rescue place. This is not fostering. Fostering is the nurturing or promoting of growth and development. This takes trust and that comes from bonding. I hate this concept as much as the no comfort for fear concept.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes, it bothers me too Hazel. It seems to be among the “fast food” advice given out about dogs.

  4. rangerskat on

    I don’t do fostering as it just isn’t something that fits in our lives at this point. Both my dogs, however, were adopted through the local shelter. My calm confident nearly perfect Ranger needed to be rehomed due to a death in his previous family. He was obviously strongly attached at his previous home, stressed by the shelter environment and fairly easily transitioned to our home–there was a period of about a week where he grieved but we were there for him and honored the fact that he did miss his previous family. My fearful bitch Finna was surrendered to the shelter by animal hoarders, credit to them for trying to reduce their number of dogs to something manageable, she’d obviously never attached to anyone. By day two at our house she was exhibiting serious separation anxiety and was terrified to let me out of her sight. As her attachment and trust in me has grown her separation anxiety has disappeared. My experience with my two matches with what you’re suggesting about attachment and the value of same.

    I would think that fostering would be a lot like raising kids, you invest yourself in doing your best for this dependent creature knowing that when the time is right they will go on to lives of their own. Just because your child is going to grow up and move out doesn’t mean you don’t want them to be attached to you. You want them to be very attached so they’ll listen to you, learn from you, and become their ownselves because of you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Years ago I read an article about kids who were adopted. The kids who had been cared for and had formed attachments with their caregivers generally did better in their new homes than the kids who had been neglected by their caregivers or grown up in institutions.

  5. KellyK on

    My husband and I are on our third foster, and we’ve always treated them as though they were our own dogs. They might have different rules because of different personalities (e.g., the dog who’s content to sleep in the bedroom while we’re at work can have free roam of the house, the dog who chases cats and chews on everything can’t), but not because one is a foster and the other is “ours.”

    The dog doesn’t *know* you’re not his “forever home,” just like he didn’t know his previous owners weren’t, or that the shelter wasn’t. I vaguely recall reading that dogs show at least some awareness of unjust treatment, so it seems needlessly cruel to interact differently with them than the other dogs in the household because they’re “temporary.”

    I’d always thought the stuff about not attaching was more about you than the dog. You know, guarding your own heart so you’re not crying your eyes out every time a dog leaves.

  6. Katrina on

    As a reasonably experienced rescuer I am delighted when dogs bond quickly with their foster carers. To me it shows their capacity for attachment and their willingness to offer humans affection. It also indicates their capacity to transfer that attachment to their new families. The dogs we’ve had who haven’t been much interested in humans have been a much tougher proposition. For anxious or fearful dogs attachment and trust in foster carers is crucial to building their confidence.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks. Good to hear that other experienced folks support the idea.

  7. PureSnickety on

    I have to say that I believe if it’s done with kindness, compassion, knowledge, and hopefully love a foster dog will be pretty well adjusted whether it bonded deeply with its foster caregivers or not. Giving a dog the skills it needs to get along well in another household while showing it that humans can be loving can only be a positive thing in my eyes.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I agree. Also showing a dog that humans can toss frisbees, go for walks, hand out cheese and give good scratches, goes a long way too.


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