Fostering Success: Do No Harm

black dog playing with a plastic food toy

Food toys are a great way to show a dog a good time

The most important role a foster caregiver can play in the life of a dog in transition is to ensure that the dog, at the very minimum, does not develop new fears, concerns or reasons to distrust people.

Every dog in the rescue system would have a unique tale to tell, were they able to do so. Some will have had enough positive experiences with people that they are able to withstand a few minor bumps and bruises and not be worse for it. There will be others whose background with people is spotty. Some people have been kind and gentle with them, obviously some have cared enough to get the dog into a foster home. But other people have been less than kind. This lack of kindness may have manifested in neglect, in other cases abuse. When these dogs roll the dice they may not be expecting lucky sevens. They may be disproportionally prepared for the worst. A foster home should prove to these dogs that their luck has changed, that betting on people being good to them is worth the risk. And there are the dogs who despite everyone’s good intentions remain wary and unsure.

What might constitute too much pressure or punishment for one dog, may not for another. It’s best not to assume that any pressure put on a dog to engage socially or any punishment, even if only a raised voice, is tolerable for a dog. Behavior that might be ok with a dog you have developed a positive relationship, may not be with a dog newly introduced to your home. This is true for dog/dog relationships. Fear is unfortunately easy to install in animals and nearly impossible to remove. This is true of all kinds of fears; other dogs, people, cars, storms, etc. And you are not seeing the dog at their best. As addressed in my previous post Fostering Success, these dogs are stressed and stress can negatively impact them in a variety of ways.

Consider the first impression you will make with a dog. Will you be snapping on a leash and pressuring them to follow you with no other incentive other than because you say so? Will you be touching them or putting your face close to theirs without knowing if that is what they feel comfortable with? Are you immediately bringing them into your home and ordering them around; come here, get off of that, leave that alone, go this way? Do you have a pocket full of treats or a squeaky toy at the ready?

If you hold outdated beliefs about dogs and how they relate and interact with other dogs and people, it’s time for an upgrade. Dogs do not need pack leaders, they do not behave in ways to gain domination over the household. They do what works for them, like every other organism on the planet. If their behavior does not work for us, it’s up to us to teach them what does. If you are unfamiliar with the risks of using force, coercion and punishment when training dogs, it’s time you became familiar with those risks. If you do not know how to use positive reinforcement to teach dogs new behaviors you might want to brush up on those skills before you take on a dog whose life may be depending on that you do.



9 comments so far

  1. jan on

    Very well stated. It should be required reading for anyone hoping to foster a dog.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks! I hope it gets into the right heads.

  2. scarlybobs on

    Brilliant! Shared the last paragraph (and link to the blog) on my facebook, hope plenty of dog owners read it 🙂

  3. 4theloveofdog on

    Great post! I completely agree that it is so important to treat each dog as an individual and not think that just because a training technique or approach worked well with one dog, it will work the same for another.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks! Thing is that all dogs learn the same way. All animals learn the same way. They behave a certain way and there are consequences for their behavior (in a nutshell). The consequences are either good and so they are likely to repeat a behavior, or the consequence is bad and they are less likely to repeat the behavior. How bad is bad is up to the trainer. In some cases the consequence is that the behavior doesn’t get the dog something good. So the dog tries a new behavior, which a trainer who prefers to use force-free methods takes advantage of by providing a good consequence for this new behavior.

      That dogs are not necessarily motivated by the same thing as another dog does not change how they learn. We do not need to reinvent the wheel for every dog we train. All we need to do is find something they are sufficiently motivated to perform behaviors for, make sure they feel safe performing them and then watch them take off!

  4. Linda Trunell on

    Well stated and very important! I will be sharing this and hoping it “gets into the right heads”! Thank you for posting.

  5. Catherine McBrien on

    I’ve lost count of how many dogs I’ve fostered (just had one go to a fabulous home in less than two weeks!!!!!), but any thoughts about domination never ever occurred to me. I just want to make them feel secure as best I can, and make them feel protected which I think is the best way to make them adoptable.

    That is my concept of leadership and all of the other volunteers in the rescue I volunteer for seem to be like-minded. IMO leadership does not equal brutish domination and has not been anything that has ever informed any decision I’ve made regarding a foster dog.

    I think that potential fosterers are best helped by following the underlying principle of positive dog training which is to give them advice about what to do–having a general, low-pressure attitude towards the dogs. Based on my own experience, I have found that giving foster dogs lots of classical conditioning– rather than operant conditioning–really helps alleviate insecurities which underlie negative behavior. Nobody–people or dogs–wants to feel like they’re being scolded.

    • Debbie on

      Thanks for sharing your view on fostering and being part of the challenge to bring these dogs to a good life.

      Debbie Jacobs

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