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Fostering a rescue dog

Lisa Johnson with her foster dog, Ruby

It takes a very special person to become a foster carer. A dog lover, yes, but also someone who is compassionate, knowledgeable and patient beyond belief.  Someone who is able to set boundaries and is prepared to devote time and attention to an animal that has special needs.  Above all, it takes a person who is totally selfless and ready to put the dog’s welfare above his or her own emotional needs.  Lisa Johnson is one of those very special people. 

When I first met Lisa she had in her charge a beautiful little Staffordshire bull terrier called Ruby.  Ruby was friendly, confident and well adjusted.  It was natural to assume that this little pet had been with Lisa from a puppy and had always received the love and care that evidently she had now, but Ruby had been with her for only 6 weeks and soon was to be re-homed.  I noticed a slight wistfulness in Lisa’s voice as she told me, then she explained that she had almost decided to keep Ruby herself. I was curious to know why she hadn’t.  Like most people, having bonded with a dog, I could never give it up for re-adoption.  Lisa’s response was instantaneous.

“I would have to stop being a foster carer!  And besides, it would mean a total change in lifestyle.  I would have to give up my job because a large part of the year I am away travelling the world. I’m not quite ready for that yet.” 

She added half-jokingly,  “One day I will probably end up an eccentric old lady with a huge house and garden filled with rescue dogs!”

Lisa was born in Australia and, surprisingly, was not brought up surrounded by family dogs as I had expected.  Nevertheless she yearned for a dog of her own and when she was about 12 she came across a litter of pups and begged her father to let her bring one home.  She hadn’t approached her mother, as both she and her dad knew that permission would never have been granted! 

Her first dog was a cross between a Labrador and an Alsatian. Lisa had always wanted an Alsatian but that definitely would have been out of the question, so she opted the next best thing.  The original puppy she had chosen looked very Alsatian-like but, once her father had given her the go ahead, the puppy had gone, so the one she came to own looked more like a ‘Staffy’.  The human/dog relationship came naturally to Lisa who is a born animal lover. In taking on this first pet, her interest in dog behaviour developed and she started reading avidly on the subject, learning more everyday. 

Lisa came to this country in 1991 but because of her work and the fact that she lived in rented accommodation, she was unable to keep a dog.  She satisfied her need for canine company by taking long walks in the nearby park to meet other people’s dogs and would offer herself willingly as a pet sitter to friends’ and colleagues’ dogs when the occasion arose.  Finally she bought her own property but still felt it would be unfair to take on a dog knowing that for part of the year it would have to go to kennels.  Then a friend told her Battersea Dogs Home was always looking for foster carers. Since August 2008 Lisa hasn’t looked back and, to her credit, has rehabilitated six dogs that have all found loving permanent homes.

I wondered what rescue centres looked for in a potential foster carer.  Lisa, an attractive young woman is vital, healthy and overwhelmingly sensible, but never in the boring sense of the word!  It was common sense that the Battersea Dog’s Home official recognised in her.  Although she does not have a garden she spends at least two hours everyday in the park and on days when she walks to work, her exercise period is extended to four hours.  Lisa works as a music tour manager hence the reason for her travels, but much of her time is spent in preproduction in London.  She is lucky to have a dog-friendly office and one of the producers where she works adopted one of her earlier protégées!

Obviously it takes more than being healthy and sensible to become a foster carer.  First an application form must be filled and this is followed by an interview lasting over an hour held in the potential carer’s home.  Other attributes looked for in an applicant are a good knowledge of dog behaviour and experience of handling different breeds.  Dogs that need to be fostered are those that cannot cope with the kennel situation.  They are severely stressed and the fear can manifest itself in many different ways. It can cause a dog to be extremely timid, destructive or even aggressive.  Some dogs have medical conditions that need constant management, and, through no fault of the person in charge, a dog can die while in care. One colleague of Lisa’s has had to cope with four deaths, although Lisa has had no personal experience of this happening.  It is reassuring to know that the rescue home will cover any expenses that a dog incurs while being fostered, but Lisa feels awkward about compensation and prefers to pay for the dogs with her own money. 

I wondered on what grounds an applicant might be refused. 

Lisa thought carefully and said, “I believe that if someone showed the wrong motivation for wanting to foster, they would be instantly rejected.  For example, if someone was fulfilling there own emotional need without wanting the commitment of owning a dog themselves.” 

Lisa craves canine company and the pleasure she gets from just being with a dog is evident but her motives are totally unselfish.  She knows it would be unfair to take on a dog full time at this stage in her life, but, by being a foster carer, she can give 100% to the time she has with any dog in her care and is aware of the important role she plays in securing its good welfare.

 “The greatest pleasure in fostering,” she says, “is seeing the transformation.” 

Prior to letting a dog go to a new foster carer, the rescue home will hold another interview. Once they are satisfied that the dog is going to a suitable temporary home, they will supply the dog’s bedding, leads, food and toys and will pass on its history, as far as they are able.    Most of Lisa’s dogs have experienced terrible trauma in their lives.  Some have been beaten and the scars of abuse are visible both mentally and physically.  Foster dogs may not have been socialised or trained and therefore are extremely insecure.  .

“Week one is always very difficult and it usually takes three weeks before a dog really begins to settle down.  At first its entire body language will tell you it’s constantly on alert. That is not good.  Then one day, you notice that the ears and tail are down and the dog is trotting beside you in more relaxed way. And it’s a great moment because you know it is the first stage of the transformation. It’s amazing the way in which dogs learn to trust a human despite what has happened in the past.”

Lisa explained the importance of setting boundaries if a dog was to be re-homed successfully.

“It is a question of developing a trust but not allowing a dog to become over bonded to its temporary carer.  Also you must be careful not to encourage behaviours that might be unacceptable to a new owner.  Allowing a dog on the bed or sofa and feeding it titbits at table are definitely discouraged.  The most difficult thing is explaining to strangers that the dog is being retrained and must not made excited in any way.  A dog is not happy when it is hyperactive and over-excitement can lead to snapping or destructive behaviour.  This is when accidents can happen. “

I asked if there had ever been a dog with which she had been unable to cope? 

“Only once, but usually the home is very careful to match a dog with the foster carer.  The dog I was given was a young and very hyperactive Jack Russell terrier and, despite the hours of exercise I gave him, he required a garden where he could run off his surplus energy.  After 36 hours I told Battersea that I couldn’t cope and immediately they found someone more suitable to foster him.”

After putting so much into the dog’s rehabilitation, I was anxious to know how she felt when handing it over to its new owners.  She admitted readily that the first time she wasn’t mentally prepared and wept buckets as she packed together the dog’s things, but as soon as she saw the dog playing happily with the children of her new family, she knew it was for the best. 

“Now when I walk into the home with a strong and healthy dog ready to be handed over, I leave feeling a little sad. But then I’ll see a new dog being brought into the home cowering and trembling with fear and I know that is what fostering is all about.”

If you would like to foster and believe you have what it takes, then please contact your local animal rescue centre. Special people like you are few and far between and you will be welcomed with open arms. 

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