In our little dog fostering world, there are very few steadfast rules. When we picked up our first foster (Lollie Wonderdog), we kind of made it up as we went along, trusting our intuition to help us be good foster parents. We haven’t read much instruction or philosophy on good dog foster parenting so we can’t say for certain that our approach is the best one, but it feels right to us: first, teach the dog how to just be.
When a new dog enters our home, the only thing we can be sure of is that its most recent experiences have been new, stressful, and probably a little bewildering. These animals have been removed from any stability they once knew and have no idea, when they enter our home, that it will be a good, friendly, safe, comfortable place. So our first task is to help them learn how to just be. And we take this simple little primary mission very seriously.
Just be. It’s hard to explain what we mean by that. But there is definitely a bit of magic that goes on during the first few weeks of a dog’s time with us. In truth, there isn’t a process. And yet, those magical first few weeks set the tone for the rest of our time together. Somehow, it’s the time in which our foster dogs learn how to be house pets.
We spend no time on tricks and very little time on basic commands, but we do help them learn how to function in a household. By being around us in a low-pressure environment, they first learn how to relax. Period. Then, they learn how to not panic if one of us leaves the room. They learn how to eat in our presence and without our presence. They slowly begin to learn which furniture is dog-friendly and which furniture is not. We help them understand what a toy is and isn’t. They learn to get excited at meal times and when a person grabs a leash off its hook. They learn that barking or mouthing gets you no attention, but a nice, calm presence often does. They learn how to appreciate a good round of chase in the yard or a nice snuggle on the couch. They learn that begging for food is futile.
They learn how to politely initiate a game with a person. Just this weekend, Stevie learned how to properly return a ball to us to play fetch. This involved no formal training and no commands, but a consistent pattern of reinforcing the good behavior (dropping the ball at our feet) and ignoring the bad behavior (teasing us with the ball, running a few steps away when we look at her). That’s the beauty of this important, formative time. None of it involves commands or training. Just simple, no-pressure, consistency. Lots of patience, lots of rewards, and lots of love.
Of course. No dog is perfect, and most dogs have had a hard time with some element of our basic concept of how a good house dog behaves. Still, after a few weeks (and the length of time varies from dog to dog), we usually feel pretty good about a dog’s ability to just be, and we sometimes move on to obedience and commands. But truth be told, we didn’t teach Gonzo a single trick or new command during the entire 3 months he was with us. We knew there would be time for that later. But we did help him better understand how to be a good dog. After his time with us he knew not to get up on the furniture unless invited, he knew where to lay down to wait for his dinner, he knew not to steal shoes and run around the house, and he knew that climbing up on a person for a movie was likely to gain him a nice snuggle and some ear rubs.
And here’s the deal: I would be willing to bet that few dogs get returned by their adopters because they don’t know how to shake or roll over, but that many do because they don’t know how to interact with humans and behave acceptably in a house.
And avoiding that tragedy is the business we’re in.