Choosing the Right Foster Dog

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WAGS rescues a tremendous variety of dogs: puppies, adolescents, adults and seniors; males and females; big dogs and small ones; high-energy hounds and couch potatoes; dogs who looooove other dogs and mutts who would really rather have your attention all to themselves.

But they do have a few traits in common:

  • They're mostly young. Most dogs in the Southern shelters that WAGS pulls from are 2 years old or younger. The two most common "origin stories" are either that they were dumped at the shelter as 6- to 12-week-old puppies because their owners didn't spay or neuter their parents and couldn't find homes for the litter, or they were abandoned as adolescents (6 to 18 months) because their owners couldn't be bothered to train them properly and found some excuse to dump them when the puppy cuteness wore off.
  • They're mostly mutts. Purebreds do come through the rescue, but mutts predominate. Mostly they're descended from working or hunting dogs: beagles, coonhounds, German Shepherds, heelers, Labrador retrievers, and spaniels. Pit bulls and their muttly offspring are also very common.
  • They are good dogs. These dogs are overwhelmingly sweet, affectionate, people-oriented animals. They aren't aggressive. They may be a little shy at first, but they typically do not suffer from severe fear or undersocialization. All they need is some love, security, and basic training to blossom into truly wonderful pets.

So how do you decide which one is right for you?


Amber, a Treeing Walker hound, pulled with all her pups from Robeson County Animal Shelter, North Carolina, by Kobi's Promise rescue in January 2012

Generally speaking, puppies under 4 months require a ton of attention, need to be positively and safely socialized to as many new experiences as possible, will pee everywhere constantly, and get adopted fast. Older puppies, adolescents, and young adults (4 months to 2 years) like to chew chew chew!, will need a ton of exercise to burn off their youthful energy, are much easier to potty train than younger puppies (mainly because they have better bladder/bowel control and can actually hold it for a couple of hours), and are at a prime age for training. Adults (2 years to 8 years) are past their puppy silliness, often already house trained (although given how many Southern dogs are "yard dogs," this is not a guarantee), and frequently have the most stable temperaments. Senior dogs (8+ years, sometimes a little younger for the very large breeds who age faster) tend to be calm, laid-back, undemanding companions perfect for less active homes.

There is absolutely no truth to the myth that adult dogs don't bond as quickly or closely with their fosters or adoptive homes. If anything, in my experience, they're even more grateful, because they've seen enough of the world to appreciate what they've been given.

Although adult and senior dogs typically require much less work and make easier fosters than puppies and adolescents, they take the longest to find permanent homes. Most adopters want young dogs -- the younger, the better -- and overlook the wonderful qualities of older dogs. Despite the fact that adult dogs (being less hyper, less mouthy, and more tolerant of poking and prodding) are often the best choice for families with young children, they tend to get passed over.

This means that by fostering an older dog, you're saving a dog whose chances of making it out of the shelter alive were considerably slimmer than a puppy's. You're also setting yourself up for an easier and less stressful foster experience. But you'll probably have this dog a lot longer than you would a puppy: it will likely take months instead of weeks to find this dog a home.


Gender-wise, there are no major personality differences. Male dogs can be every bit as docile and sweet as any female, and females can be pushy and aggressive. The sex of the dog doesn't matter for that. Intact male dogs (or those who were neutered late in life) can be prone to marking vertical surfaces, but that is best assessed on a case-by-case basis. As noted below, the only issue in which the gender of your foster dog really matters is in trying to set up a compatible match with a resident dog. Same-gender rivalries, when they occur, tend to be more intense and difficult to resolve.

Other Considerations

Vinnie, a 10-week-old hound mix puppy who was found covered in fleas, suffering from sarcoptic mange, and with bleeding sores on both ears. Pulled from Liberty County AC by Carpathia Paws in July 2011

If you have specific behavioral or physical requirements -- for example, your neighbors are sensitive to noise, so you would prefer to foster a dog who doesn't bark much; or your apartment has size restrictions that limit you to a small dog -- WAGS will make every effort to accommodate those. (A quick caution here: it is extremely difficult to evaluate a dog's personality and habits in the shelter environment. The noise and stress of being in the kennels can cause a dog to exhibit abnormal behavior that he doesn't display in a home environment -- or, conversely, to shut down and exhibit no behavior, so that his quirks don't reveal themselves until he relaxes in foster care. The rescue coordinators do the best they can, but there are no guarantees.) If you have a preference for a particular breed, gender, size or age of dog, WAGS can work with that too, although rare breeds seldom end up in rescue and tend to be pulled by breed-specific rescue groups when they do.

If you have a resident dog, it is generally advisable to select a foster mutt who is of the opposite gender, slightly smaller, and slightly younger than the resident dog. There aren't too many universal rules in dogdom, but in most cases these pairings are the easiest. Of course, you know your dog best, and you probably already have a good idea who he's most likely to get along with in the house.

If you have small pets or cats, it is probably wise to avoid dogs with high prey drive.

Some foster cases are more difficult than others. Dogs can arrive sick, malnourished, or (uncommonly, but it does happen) beset with behavioral problems that no one spotted earlier. "Special needs" cases -- blind, deaf, limited-mobility, or medication-reliant dogs -- are always in need of exceptionally caring fosters. If you have the patience and skill to open your home to such a dog, you're doing a rare service.

On the other hand, if you would prefer to handle an easier animal, there's nothing wrong with that! Every dog in the rescue network needs a home, and making good matches is the paramount concern.