Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Kaitlin Harris, Foster Care Coordinator with Homecomings Dog Rescue. She shares an insightful understanding and informative view of what fostering is and how you can help. She also shares the reasons why it’s important to these dogs that would otherwise not have a chance:
You’re the Foster Care Coordinator with Homecomings Dog Rescue since May of this year. Can you tell us who they are?
Homecomings is a nonprofit organization, working in the Denver Metro Area. We have no specific location, we are a foster-based rescue organization.
A lot of people are seeing requests by dog rescues these days to “foster” dogs. Can you enlighten us, what exactly is fostering?
Fostering is opening your home for a temporary period of time to a dog that’s needing their forever family. It’s not a long-term commitment; it’s typically a couple of days to a couple of weeks. You shouldn’t expect to have a dog for a month or two.
How much of a time commitment is involved?
I’d say a typical foster, anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks. It really depends on not so much the dog, but who’s looking for dogs at that age at that time. Dogs that are overly shy or have special personality quirks have to go to the right homes. We’ll hold onto them for a little bit longer. But I have fosters who always worry, If I have an emergency or I have to go out of town or if something comes up and I have to leave, am I responsible for finding them a new place? I always tell them no, if you can’t care for the dog and they need to be moved, then we’ll move them. I think that’s something that a lot of people worry about getting involved in is, Am I going to have this dog for six months? That really isn’t the case.
You’ve been fostering for about how long?
I’ve been fostering for this rescue for about 3 years now.
You’ve personally fostered about how many dogs?
Personally, maybe 80 to 100. The puppies, we would foster about 4 puppies for a couple of days – then they were adopted. The following week, we’d have 4 more puppies. Those were pretty quick stays. As I’ve gained more experience and involvement with the rescue, I’ve been taking more of the dogs that needed to gain weight, were sick or arrived battered and bruised. We have the experience to understand what to do. We’ve been taking those dogs who sometimes take a little longer to place as I need to get them healthy before we can adopt them out.
What’s the average time for an HDCR foster?
We have a lot of long-term fosters that have been around since before I started. We get one or two applications every couple of weeks. Typically, 50% of those end up turning out. I like to talk with all of them before we actually agree to give them a dog. My director interviews them, then I speak with them. Sometimes they get cold feet, or realize maybe this isn’t something that’s right for them, or we figure out that their living situation may not be the best for a dog. They don’t always pan out, but I’d say we get maybe 1-2 fosters a month that we can add to our list.
That’s a pretty high success rate.
Yes, we’re doing pretty well, but – it’s sporadic on who’s available. One available foster last week may be unavailable for this week’s transfer. I go through the entire list every week when I have transport and make sure I touch base with everybody, so I can save as many dogs as I can for that week.
Who can foster? Is it hard?
Anybody can foster, there’s an application form on HDCR’s website. It just depends on your schedule, how much you work per day would determine what kind of dog you could foster. We do follow the vet standard. A puppy that’s 3 months old at a maximum can only be left alone for 3 hours at a time. Someone who works a full 8-hour day wouldn’t be able to foster a puppy under 8 months old. We prefer that fosters are home more than that, but not everybody has that flexibility. We understand that.
Is there special training involved in fostering?
No, there’s not. We give out as much information through our emails sent out before and after transport arrives. We’re available to answer questions and we have an information page addressing much of that.
I have 3 dogs – is there a special assessment to ensure they’re all going to get along with the foster dogs?
Yes. The owners know better about their dogs, their behaviors and temperaments. I have some fosters who require only female foster dogs, or I have fosters that require only small males, whatever it is – it’s kind of particular to what they figured out about their own dogs. I base it off of that, so there isn’t a high energy stress level in the house between the current dogs and the foster dogs, otherwise it makes it a nightmare for everybody if nobody’s getting along.
We’re typically pretty good at making sure the right dog goes to the right foster home. The hardest thing that people don’t understand is that dogs are living, breathing animals and everyone has their own quirks. Of course, there’s not always going to be the perfect match. If I don’t take into consideration all those different things, then I’m getting a call within 24 hours from my foster saying, Hey, this isn’t working out, I need to trade fosters with someone else, or move someone else around. We base our transports on how many fosters we have available. It’s a juggling game to figure out where they go or whom I can move around to make things better. We don’t often have to do that, because we try to be really specific on where the dogs go.
Where are your fosters volunteers typically coming from?
Arvada, Lakewood, Golden, Denver, Aurora & Castle Rock. We don’t have any fosters in Boulder.
Many people won’t even consider fostering as they feel they will have another dog permanently. Is it hard, when you become attached and fall in love with one of the dogs?
You do get attached. But it’s very rewarding knowing that they are finding their forever home, as opposed to just staying in a shelter. There are definitely ones that you remember or miss, much more than others. Perhaps they just kind of connect more in the house, kind of sink into the rhythm of things and you can just see that they just want love. So those are really hard to let go of. But it opens us up again to give someone else a chance.
Is that how you reconcile it emotionally, psychologically?
Yes, absolutely. We let this one go and then I can bring in another one and give them a chance. Otherwise, I’d have fifty dogs!
Without fosters, they wouldn’t have a chance at all, would they?
Exactly. Our rescue only functions on fosters. We don’t have a location or a building. All of our fosters are in foster care so they’re in a home, sleeping in a bed at night.
Absolutely. And into the right home, which is the most important for us. We don’t just adopt to first-come, first-serve. We base our adoptions off of what we think is best for the dog. The nice thing about having them in foster homes is that the fosters get to learn their personality traits, things about their behavior, things they do and don’t like – are they good with cats, are they bad with cats? Are they good or bad with children, good or bad in the car? These are all things that adopters look at. If an adopter wants a dog that wants to go everywhere with them, I’m not going to adopt a dog to them that constantly gets carsick. It’s just not fair to the dog, even if they’re a good fit, he’s constantly going to be put in a situation where he’s getting sick. Or if a dog is very high-cat motivated, I don’t want to put them in a house where they’re going to put the cats on edge and the people on edge for stopping the dog from chasing the cat. So, it really gives a unique perspective on placing them. We know what they do and don’t like, as opposed to just sitting in a shelter and not having any idea of what their behavior or personality is like and sending them home, hoping that it works out.
It makes all the sense in the world, you really get a chance to understand what they’re all about before they get their forever home and it gives them the best chance of success.
You’ve helped save approximately 219 dogs that would have otherwise been euthanized since May 25, 2017 (until today, November 12, 2017) from Texas & New Mexico and seen to their adoption, yes?
Are there any expenses involved in fostering?
No, not unless you choose to. I have some foster families that prefer to feed their foster dogs the same food as their own dogs, to eliminate separate feedings. That’s totally fine. If a foster dog is sick, we have vets we work with. The foster brings their dog to the vet’s office, our card information is on file so you don’t have to pay for anything. In case of emergency, that’s all covered by HDCR. Any home style can foster, it’s just which dog you can take in. People who live in apartments — we’re not going to give a 70 pound adult dog, we’re going to try to place them with a smaller, under 20 pound adult. We’re also not going to put a huge dog in a house with little children if we don’t know how they’re going to do around children. We want to make sure it’s successful — not stressful, not only for the adopters but also the fosters, or they’re not going to continue to foster.
Is there a lot of work involved?
There’s vet appointments – we work with a handful of vets – we send you to the one closest to your home. And yes, it’s definitely more work – giving food supplements, wet food, chicken for them, rice, stuff like that – but it’s all stuff that either we provide or if the foster thinks it’s necessary for them to purchase, we ask that they save the receipts and we reimburse them.
Do I need to have my own home to foster or a fenced backyard? What do I need to physically foster?
All the adults in the home have to agree that you’re going to foster. What’s most important is anyone making decisions needs to be on board. Second is being able to provide the environment for a foster dog. Not crazy, high-stress or high-energy places. We provide kennels and play pens for the puppies to help keep them contained. You don’t need a backyard, but we don’t ever encourage dogs to be off leash, especially when they’ve just gotten to us. Most of them will take off — they don’t know the surroundings or what’s going on. Long leashes and tethers are going to be good for people who don’t have backyards. We provide all the supplies — food, kennels, collars and leashes…we just ask that fosters are able to transport their dogs to and from HDCR adoption events every week.
We have families that are in apartments that foster for us, in townhomes and condos, houses in the mountains that don’t have property lines — we adjust to the situation. I’m not going to put a huge dog in a tiny little apartment, and I’m also not going to be put a 6-pound dog in the mountains where a hawk can enjoy a fast meal. We take that all into consideration. We don’t mind if there are children in the house, other dogs or other animals – just as long as other animals are not known to be aggressive with other dogs. All of our dogs are temperament tested. We do try to do our best to make sure they are happy with other dogs and around children. Sometimes, certain pairs just don’t match. There’s no way to know when that’s going to happen.
The house situation doesn’t really dictate whether or not you may or may not foster, it’s just what you’re willing to put into it. If you’re willing to walk the dog when you live in an apartment and it’s 30 degrees out, then you’re welcome to foster with us.
Would I need permission from a landlord, if I have a lease?
Yes, if you’re a renter, we require that your landlord is aware that you’re fostering. If there’s a pet deposit, unfortunately HDCR doesn’t cover that, we’d ask that you cover that or work out arrangements with your landlord. For owners, we need all the adults to agree that this is something they all want to do. It’s unfortunate, but if someone has allergies we’d prefer not to put them through fostering a dog, even though it might be fun. We typically end up getting calls saying, My allergies are too bad, I can’t do this.
The least transitioning we can do with the dogs, the better. The more we’re moving them around, the harder it is for them to settle in. We don’t like moving them around if we don’t have to.
What happens to the dogs in the shelters that can’t come up with you?
Every shelter’s different. Most shelters have gotten to a point now where they work with a good amount of rescues, so they are able to keep any euthanasia rates very low, if at all. Unfortunately, those dogs have to wait for us to come back the next time. They’re left behind and we pick them up when we have the space or another shelter or rescue will tag them, which is the ideal situation that someone else steps up and takes them, so that they don’t end up just staying at the shelter or seeing something worse.
Euthanized for space, like after the Hurricane, especially. After Hurricane Harvey, they were euthanizing all of the dogs that were currently in the shelters so that they could make room for the dogs that were displaced. They had to put a 30-day hold on them. A lot of those dogs were euthanized. When we went down there, we pulled all the dogs off that list, dogs that didn’t have another chance. That’s what a lot of other rescues did too. But, it’s never enough. There’s never enough space for the dogs that are coming into the shelters every day.
People don’t spay and neuter their animals. Or they are irresponsible pet owners, so they take on a real cute little 6 or 7-week old Husky thinking it’s going to be a great little pet for their family, not realizing that they are working animals and they’re high energy, that they need training. People don’t look that far down the road when they’re adopting a puppy, unfortunately, so a lot of those dogs end up being brought back. It’s careless owners.
So, really, it’s not their fault?
No, it’s absolutely not their fault, they’re not “damaged goods.” It’s 100% people’s fault.
There’s a big overpopulation problem right now, mostly because of spay and neuter issues?
Exactly. There’s just no requirement for it down there.
Some people also say, they want a fresh start, they want to go to a breeder, they want to buy a purebred that doesn’t have any “issues” and they don’t want to take on other people’s “issues”?
You still see issues with breeders. The problem stems from being uninformed and uneducated on spay and neuter requirements, the importance of it. A female dog can have a litter every 4 months. A litter can range between 2 and 5 puppies, sometimes even more. Imagine that happening 3 times a year – she can be having upwards of 20 puppies a year, if she’s not spayed and just running loose and constantly being berated. It happens. Luckily, when the shelters do find moms and puppies, they spay the moms right away so it doesn’t happen again, but there’s not so much they can do when there’s just so many dogs running around down in Texas. It’s just unreal.
What would you say to somebody who was thinking about getting a dog and wanted to go to a breeder as opposed to a shelter?
I’m not going to discourage someone from going to a breeder. I think every animal deserves a home. However, there’s nothing wrong with the dogs in the shelter or at the rescues. They’re just as in need of homes, if not in more need, because they’re not being brought into this life specifically just to be sold. They didn’t choose to be born and they are the ones that really need the homes. I like to push people more towards the rescue side, but I’m not one of those people that chooses to bully people for going to a breeder, even though it’s not one of my particular choices. But I think that there is that misconception that dogs in the shelter are sick or have behavioral issues. What people don’t realize is that they’re sick because they’re in the shelter, they’re being exposed to things that are treatable with very cheap medication. The behavioral issues are typically just present because the shelter is high stress, there’s a lot of smells in there — they can’t relax. There’s a lot of noise and they’re not getting love. You bring them out of that environment and there’s a new dog that emerges. I just don’t think people give them a chance in that regard.
Have you ever had anybody who didn’t work out, or got returned?
Yes, we do have returns. As always, we stand 100% behind our dogs. We never want them to go to a shelter. We always want them to come back to us. It happens, sometimes the living situation, it just doesn’t work for the family or the dog, or they are introduced to children and might not be so gentle with the kids – not necessarily aggressive, just excited – so we have had returns before, but I think the Director is really good at being picky about who she adopts to. I think that as compared to other places, our returns are much fewer…Maybe one every couple of months. It’s really not often. It’s typically because the owner wasn’t as interested in doing the training that we recommended. It’s generally not the fault of the dog, unfortunately, or if the dogs got along fine at the meet & greet – the current dog and the adopted dog – and then they got home and just after an extended period of time, they’re not getting along, we’ll always take our dog back. We don’t want anybody to have a hostile environment, it’s not fun for anybody.
Do you believe that fostering is better than a shelter?
I think so. I think it helps dogs heal from whatever they’ve been through. Dogs are pack animals. They want to be around their people, around other beings. A foster home gives them a better chance at finding their forever home, being more comfortable in the transition.
When dogs are in shelters, it seems the stress level is high. When people are looking at adopting a dog in a shelter they’re not really seeing the kind of dog that they’re going to have. Is that your experience?
Exactly. Typically, they’re exposed to so many more elements. They can get giardia, coccidia, kennel cough that’s really contagious. The longer they stay in the shelter, the more possibilities there will be of them running into something that can make them sick. Some shelters down south, they don’t treat the sick dogs. They just euthanize them, unfortunately, because they either don’t have the funds or the space to take care of a sick dog.
How many fosters does Homecomings have now?
We have fifty, however, they all rotate availability. I have a lot of fosters that are only available in the summer, or in the winter, or certain months, or just sporadically – I’d say out of the fifty, typically 10-15 are available on any given week.
When you say, ‘the transports,’ can you explain what you mean by that?
We work with a handful of shelters, mostly in Texas and New Mexico. New Mexico is a little different than Texas. The shelters — about every week or two weeks — transport 50-60 animals from New Mexico into Colorado. They’re able to get a large amount of animals — dogs and cats — out of their shelter every two weeks. With that transport, they post who they have available online, we go through and tag who we can place in available foster homes. They are seen by a vet, given any appropriate shots, neutered or spayed if they are old enough and micro-chipped. We pick them up on Saturdays from the designated meeting point.
Our Texas shelters, we get the information of the available dogs, and we pull the dogs based upon available fosters. If we only have 6 fosters available, we’re only pulling 6 dogs. If we only have fosters available for adults, we’re only pulling adults. If we have fosters for puppies, we’re only pulling puppies.
It’s 100% dependent upon who is available at that time, who gets to come up with us.
And you have weekly need?
About how many dogs are coming up per week?
If we’re taking a litter of puppies, between 5 and 15. I had 5 come up Saturday, for instance. This week, I have 5 coming up on Thursday, and 7 on Saturday.
So, the number of dogs coming up is between 10 and 25 per week?
About 10-15 every other week.
From the kill shelters, where they would otherwise die?
Yes, if they aren’t tagged by another rescue in time or adopted, they will be euthanized. Especially Texas. Luckily, our New Mexico shelter doesn’t euthanize for space because they’re able to get out as many as they can. Unfortunately, the ones in Texas aren’t so lucky.
Dog-wise, is it small dogs, big dogs? Can you tell me about the types of dogs?
Mostly mutts. Sometimes, we’ll get a purebred Shih tzu or a purebred Labrador. We don’t specifically look for those dogs. We just pull any dog that we think is going to be a great pet to own. They come to us as young as 4 weeks. The puppies we had come in Saturday – they’ll be with the foster until they’re 8 weeks and ready to go home – all the way up to 7 or 8 years old. Size doesn’t matter. I have fosters for small, medium size and big dogs, male and females. We really don’t discriminate based off of that. We try to determine who will fit into our Colorado environment.
Is there any risk to our own dogs here of getting sick?
I’d say typically, no. Sometimes, we have a dog with kennel cough that wasn’t caught at the shelter so we do get them treated with antibiotics. If your dog shows symptoms, we get them medicine for that too, to take care of them. The foster dogs are all seen by a vet, so if they are coming up with something, it’s not something we were aware of. If it needs to be treated, we’ll treat it. And, we try to avoid taking any dogs that are dog-aggressive, because most of our fosters do have dogs. We look for ones that do well with other animals and children.
Is there anything else that would be helpful for fosters to know?
Do it with an open mind. I think a lot of people go into it just expecting to have this fun, little cute puppy over for a couple of days. They don’t realize that a lot of these dogs have been abandoned by their owners. Things like getting into a car trigger the feeling, I’m being surrendered again! We have a lot of adult dogs coming to us where when you put them in the car for the adoption event, they instantly freak out because it brings them back to that feeling of, My people left me and this is what happened when they left me. I don’t think people understand that a lot of the adults are hurt. They just need some patience, some love and consistent food and they need to realize that they’re going to be taken care of from here. Typically they weren’t very well taken care before this. I think that’s really the hardest thing that people don’t understand is that they come to us pretty bruised and battered and they just blossom once they get into foster care and get some good food in their tummies – it’s always the most rewarding – usually after the first bath, you wipe them down after the first bath – they hate the bath – but you’re starting to dry them off and they just give you that look like, Okay, I kinda get it. After that, it’s just so much better.
That part right there, that’s my favorite. Especially with the puppies, they hate the bath. But when you get them out and you wrap them in a towel, every single one of them just looks at you like, Okay, I think I kinda get it now.
And that’s the reason to do it.
Yeah. I think so. In my opinion. Makes life fun. Exciting. Messy, but fun.