Three Tips for Choosing a Dog from Foster Care

One of the emails that I’m most delighted to receive in my capacity as All-Purpose Rescue Inbox Monkey is the one that goes “hi, we’re newbie adopters and we’re looking for some tips on how to choose a nice dog from a rescue group, can you help?”

This usually induces me to respond with a 3500-word spasm of joyful blatheration, after which those adopters flee in terror from my insanity and go hide in a closet somewhere and I never hear from them again. Alas. So, in the interest of just sending a nice friendly non-threatening link rather than a Giant Wall o’ Text, I am going to post the Giant Wall o’ Text on Team Unruly instead! This is what we call a Clever Scheme right here, kids.

And so I give you: three tips on how to maximize your chances of finding and adopting the perfect dog from a foster-based rescue.

1. Focus on dogs that have been in foster care for at least two weeks.

Probably the biggest temptation for adopters who come to my rescue group is adopting an adorable, newly arrived baby puppy straight off the transport van. I’ll talk about why I think it’s frequently not a great idea to adopt a baby puppy later; for now, I want to focus on the “straight off the van” part of that equation.

Straight off the transport and still in that paper tag? NOT the best time to make a final adoption choice.

The primary advantage of adopting from a foster-based rescue, as opposed to a shelter that houses its dogs in kennels, is that you can get a fuller picture of how the dog behaves in a normal home environment. Depending on the foster home’s level of obsessiveness, you might get a lot of information. (Exhibit A: look at all the crazy nonsense I write about my foster dogs!) But even if the foster isn’t quite that bonkers, you should still be able to get an idea of how the dog behaves in everyday pet life.

However, this information is only available if the dog has been in foster care for a sufficient period of time. It takes most dogs at least a week, and sometimes a couple of months, to decompress from shelter stress and begin exhibiting their actual personalities. Before that, there’s a high probability that the dog will be either shut down and unusually subdued, or frenetic and hyperactive. In neither case can you get an accurate picture of the dog’s normal demeanor or energy level.

Another factor is that if the dog has been in foster care for at least a couple of weeks, you should know whether the dog was incubating any illnesses. It’s (unfortunately) not that uncommon for dogs to harbor illnesses or parasites that they picked up before they landed in the shelter, while they were in the shelter, or before/during transport. The dog might have appeared healthy enough to pass a pre-transport health check, but only because symptoms hadn’t begun showing yet. Thus, every once in a while, adopters bring home dogs directly from transport and then are surprised and heartbroken when their new pet breaks with parvo 48 hours later or starts shedding tapeworms in their poop.

If the dog’s been in foster care for a couple of weeks, however, then any of those obvious diseases should have become apparent (and, hopefully, the rescue will have begun appropriate treatments). This gives adopters a much better chance of adopting a healthy pet.

2. Focus on dogs at least six months old.

Everybody’s drawn to adorable baby puppies, but oftentimes — I’d go so far as to say all of the time, honestly — an older dog is a safer bet. Puppies are always a dice roll, and shelter puppies moreso than most.

With an older dog (not necessarily a lot older, either; most of these things are apparent by about six months), you can get a much clearer picture of:

  • size (a common concern for people who live in apartments or condos that only permit pets up to a specified size, or for people who strongly prefer big or small dogs);
  • coat type (a common concern for people looking for no- or low-shed dogs, or who are worried about allergies; as puppy coats can be very different from adult coats, and allergies may kick in when Tiny Puppy grows into Ginormous Adult and produces more allergy-triggering proteins, I always advise such adopters to consider full-grown dogs);
  • temperament (shelter puppies of unknown background occasionally develop unpredictable fear or anxiety issues that aren’t obvious when they’re young; additionally, dog-dog aggression and predatory behaviors do not always become apparent until the dog reaches social maturity. Genetic factors play a HUGE role in temperament, contrary to the common misperception that “it’s all in how you raise them,” and those factors aren’t fully obvious when the puppy’s just a fluffball);
  • energy level (it’s hard to tell whether an 8-week-old puppy of unknown background is going to mature into a go! go! go! ultra-energetic overachiever or a couch potato. Almost all puppies are playful, unless they’re sick; very few of them stand out one way or the other at that age);
  • structure and conformation (seriously, this is just about impossible to determine at 8 weeks old. Look how often conformation breeders guess wrong about which puppies are going to mature into show champions — and those are breeders who do nothing but conformation and are evaluating purebred puppies from lines that they’ve studied and handled for years. By comparison, trying to guess the adult structure of a mixed-breed shelter puppy? Well, I sure can’t do it, I’ll tell you that much).

For these reasons, my opinion is that an older dog is always a better choice for a family pet in a home with young children. In addition to all the points raised above (again, let me emphasize that one about “temperament”), mature dogs tend to be less fragile and more tolerant of clumsy handling, less jumpy and mouthy (toddlers + sharp puppy needle teeth = bad news), and much easier for the average owner to handle. Most parents with young kids don’t fully appreciate how much work is involved in puppy rearing, and how difficult it can be to devote that much time and effort to the dog while also wrangling a houseful of small children. An eight-week-old puppy needs to go out every two hours for potty training. A healthy three-year-old dog, by contrast, should be able to hold it for eight hours without too much strain. To me, that alone would make the difference.

3. Flexibility about what doesn’t matter enables you to focus on what does.

Whenever we get a litter of yellow-colored fluffy puppies in the rescue, inquiries pour in from all over. There might be a couple of brown or black puppies in the litter too, but those guys never get nearly as much interest as the yellow ones, no matter how fluffy or nice they are.

There’s nothing wrong with having a preference about your dog’s color or appearance. I have pretty strong aesthetic preferences myself, and I’m not about to tell anyone else that they shouldn’t care about how their prospective future dog looks.

But I will suggest that it shouldn’t be the most important thing. The top priority should always be finding a dog whose personality, activity level, and training needs are compatible with your own lifestyle. There’s no use falling in love with a dog who looks like Lassie if she acts like Cujo.

It’s generally wisest to make a list of what traits you want to live with — child friendly? cat friendly? quiet and low-key for apartment life? energetic enough to go jogging daily and big enough to keep people from bothering you as you run? (not a hypothetical: as a petite lady living in a big city, I have had to rely on my dogs to deter unwanted attention more than a few times when we were out late at night) — and then ask the rescue to help you find dogs that meet those criteria, while keeping an open mind as to what those dogs might actually look like.

The suggested matches might not be the breed mixes you were expecting. They might have floppy ears instead of pointy ones, sleek coats instead of wiry hair. But if you can keep an open mind as to the superficial things that don’t matter, you’ve got a better chance of finding a dog with the deeper traits that do.

There are lots of dogs who’d make wonderful pets for any home — but they may not always look exactly like your neighbor’s dog or the ones you’ve seen on TV. An open mind is as important as an open heart.

And that, in a (large) nutshell, are my three main tips for successfully choosing a dog from foster care.

Nothing can guarantee a happy adoption, of course. All dogs require work, and all relationships are two-way streets. No matter which dog you choose, there are going to be some lumps and bumps and roadblocks along the way (and the dog will likely feel the same way about you sometimes, too!). And of course the whole enterprise of dog rescue is run by imperfect people who make mistakes and guess wrong sometimes and don’t always see everything that they should.

But hopefully — hopefully! — with clear eyes and generous hearts and whatever guidance can be gleaned from these tips and others, you’ll have better odds of bringing home the dog or puppy who can learn to live happily and harmoniously with you.

Crating 101

Crate training can be a very controversial topic in the world of dog ownership. Some people even consider crating to be downright inhumane. I had someone on Facebook argue that, “I wouldn’t want to be locked in a cage!” I argued back, “Well, I wouldn’t want to eat horse manure, but that seems to be a delicacy to my dog.”

The fact is that crate training, when done properly, is a wonderful tool. Dogs are den animals by nature, and enjoy the safety of an enclosed safe space to call their own. Crates serve a variety of purposes from helping with house training to helping curb destructive behavior to ensuring the safety of the dog in a slew of situations.

The key to successfully using a crate, however, is choosing the right crate for your dog and situation. Unfortunately, I have seen many instances of dogs in too-small crates, or dogs in too-big crates, or dogs in just the wrong type of crate all together. That’s why I’ve created this guide.

Why Crate?

There is a variety of reasons to crate train a dog. Crate training takes advantage of a dog’s natural instinct to use a den.

  • House training: The primary use of crates is to help with the house breaking process. Because dogs naturally don’t want to soil their sleeping area, putting a dog in a crate encourages the dog to ‘hold it’ until an appropriate potty time.
  • Curbing destructive behavior: Because a crate puts a dog in a restricted area, it can prevent a dog from chewing on furniture, eating clothing, digging at carpets, etc.
  • Protecting the dog: Dogs who display behaviors like those listed above put themselves in danger of injury. Crating a dog prevents him from hurting himself or ingesting harmful substances.
  • Putting the dog at ease: Once a dog is comfortable in his crate, it provides him with a safe place. Dogs who are crate trained properly will often choose to sleep in their crates, or retreat to them when they feel uneasy or threatened. For example, Herbie will run right to her crate if we start the vacuum.
  • Managing household traffic: Crates can be useful during busy times, as needed. For example, you can use a ‘crate and rotate’ system in multiple dog households where not everyone gets along all the time, or you can crate dogs for the peace of mind of guests who are afraid of them. Alternately, dogs can be crated to keep them away from the prying hands of friends’ children, who might be overwhelming to your canine companions.
  • Transportation: Crates provide a safe way of transporting dogs. A dog that is secured in a crate is safer in your car than one that is loose.
  • Realm of possibilities: Dogs who are crate trained get to go more places. Not only is a dog better able to travel safely if he knows how to crate, but you are also more likely to be allowed to stay at hotels/inns/friends’ houses if you are willing and able to crate your dog when you are not there to supervise him.

Crates should not be used as a form of punishment. A crate is not a substitute for training and addressing the root of any existing behavioral problems. A crate can be used as part of a management program while bigger issues are addressed, but it should remain a happy and safe place for your dog.

Types of Crates
Crates come in various shapes, sizes, and colors to match their various purposes. The main types of dog crates are wire crates, plastic crates, soft crates, and heavy duty crates. There are pros and cons to each type of crate, and what crate you should choose depends on your individual dog’s needs, habits, and preferences.

  • Wire crates: Wire crates typically consist of a plastic floor tray with four wire walls and a wire ceiling. These crates allow for the best air flow for dogs with heavy coats, but can also leave a dog feeling exposed if they’re not covered. Wire crates are great for dogs who like to see their surroundings. For example, Julio’s wire crate is positioned in front of our bedroom balcony, and he loves to watch the world go by outside when he’s crated. The plastic tray in the bottom of a wire cage makes for easy cleaning, but the wire sides mean some dogs can pee through the side of the crate and onto the surrounding floor/furniture. Additionally, some dogs figure out how to pull blankets, toys, and clothing in through the wire, and can end up displaying destructive behaviors while their owners think they’re contained. The good thing about wire crates is that they can fold flat for easy storage, but some people find them unsightly, and they definitely don’t blend well when they’re set up. I like a wire crate because I can set it up either in the tent or in our SUV when we’re camping, allowing the dogs to have lots of air flow, while being safely contained in our site. When we’re done camping, the crate folds flat in the bottom of our trunk, allowing for us to pack our additional gear neatly on top of it. With that said, some escape artist dogs can work their way out of a wire crate, and moving the crates can be a hassle. This is my favorite type of crate, and it’s easy to buy accessories and even dividers that work with various wire crates. I will admit, however, that wire crates tend to be the noisiest when dogs move around in them (or even wag their tails).

Wire dog crate.

  • Plastic crates: This type of dog crate closely simulates a dog den. It has three mostly solid sides and a hard, plastic ceiling and floor, with a door at one end. These crates are good for dogs who feel secure in an enclosed space, but can be frustrating for dogs who like to see their surroundings. The solid sides mean dogs are less likely to break out or make a mess (either by peeing through the sides or destroying things stored near their crate). These crates are most commonly used for transportation, especially for flying, and they come in a variety of sizes and colors, so you can individualize for your tastes. Typically, the top and bottom of the crate come apart, so they can be stacked in each other for storage, but even so, the crates take up a lot of space and don’t lie flat. In my opinion, they are bulky and unsightly. They can also be hard to take apart, and especially to clean. Plastic crates make for a nice, cozy environment on a cold winter night, but can get stuffy and hot in the summer, and don’t allow for much air flow.

Plastic dog crate.

  • Soft crates: These are personally my least favorite crates. Soft crates come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns, which makes them an eye-catching option for trendy dog owners. They can work well for small, well trained dogs, but come with a lot of downfalls. While soft crates can be attractive and are typically light, easy to store, and very portable, they are also the easiest crate to escape from. A destructive dog can chew through a soft crate in no time flat. Additionally, most soft crates are closed with zippers or, worse, velcro and are not very secure. They are my worst nightmare at the clinic! On top of that, a soft crate can be a horror show in the event of a potty accident. Porous surfaces make for great hiding place for odors and stains. Honestly, if a soft crate gets soiled, you’re best off just throwing it away! Soft crates can be a good option for car transport or for providing a happy place for a dog at home.

Soft sided dog crate.

  • Heavy duty crates: These crates are specifically designed to hold the most destructive escape artists, and they are best suited for that purpose. These crates tend to be bulky, unattractive, hard to store, and expensive, but they are the best option for dogs who are notorious for getting out of other types of crates. Additionally, these crates are typically approved for airline travel, and give you a better chance of being able to fly with Fido.

Heavy duty dog crate.

Of course, there are companies that make custom and/or decorative crates. These crates can serve many purposes for dogs who are already crate trained, while also matching your home’s decor.

Picking the Right Size
Once you have chosen the type of crate you want to use for your dog, it is important to select the right size as well. People typically make one of two mistakes when crating their dogs.

The obvious mistake is picking a crate that is too small for their canine companion. A dog should be able to sit up in his crate without hitting his head on the ceiling. He should be able to stand up and turn around comfortably. The dog should have enough room to circle in order to lie down comfortably. Additionally, he should have enough room to lie on his side with his paws outstretched without being cramped. If your dog cannot do these things, his crate is too small! 

However, people make the opposite mistake as well, and get a dog a crate that is too big! How is this detrimental? If you are using crating as part of the house breaking process, you want to take advantage of your dog’s instinct to not soil his sleeping quarters. A dog with too much space may soil one end of the crate, and then sleep at the opposite end, where it’s still clean, defeating the purpose of crate training.

Of course, if your dog is already house broken, and you are using your crate for a different purpose (camping, over night sleeping quarters, to provide a den space, etc.) giving a dog a ‘too big’ crate is not necessarily a bad thing.

This chart provides some excellent guidelines for picking the right crate based on your dog’s breed and weight.

Teaching your Dog to Crate Happily
This is a topic that could be an entire post in and of itself, but it is something I want to touch on briefly here. Here are some important points to remember during the crate training process.

  • Crating, done properly, should always be a happy, stress-free experience for your dog.
  • Don’t ever use the crate as punishment, or your dog will learn to fear and resent what is supposed to be a safe space.
  • Use positive reinforcement (treats!) when introducing your dog to the crate.
  • Don’t close your dog in until he is comfortable going in and out of the crate.
  • Start by crating for short periods of time while you are home before moving up to longer time frames and eventually leaving the dog locked up.
  • When crating puppies, use this general rule of thumb: crate a puppy for up to one hour per month of age for the first six months. Do not exceed eight hours at a time for any dog. If you have to be away for longer than eight hours, hire someone to let your dog out!

Of course, crate training varies from dog to dog. Some dogs have separation anxiety or fear issues and need extra care during the crate training process. Consult with a professional if you need help!

What to Put in Your Dog’s Crate
Once again, this is a topic that varies from dog to dog.

One thing’s for sure. Nothing is sadder or less inviting than an empty crate with a cold, hard floor. My stomach drops when I see people posting pictures of their dogs crated with a bare floor.

My dogs are spoiled, and their crates feature fluffy dog beds full of blankets.

Herbie loves her crate.

Of course, it’s not a good idea to give soft, destructible bedding, especially with fill, to a dog who chews bedding. Chewing blankets, towels, and mattresses can lead to intestinal blockages. Thankfully, there are products out there designed specifically for destructive dogs. One example is Vetbed. These products are designed to be safe, durable, and washable, and provide a comfortable alternative for dogs who suffer from boredom/separation anxiety or aren’t completely house broken yet. The bottom line is that all dogs deserve to have some kind of bedding in their crates.

Speaking of boredom, separation, and anxiety… It is a good idea to put toys in your dog’s crate, especially if he is going to be alone for more than an hour. Toys provide boredom relief and a safe alternative to chewing bedding. With that said, it is important to choose crate toys carefully since your dog will be playing with them unsupervised. Generally speaking, stuffed and soft toys are a bad idea because they can be destroyed and ingested. Tough chew toys such as Kongs are a better idea. For dogs who are particularly hard to keep occupied, there are entire lines of toys designed as puzzles, which reward dogs with treats. For my destructive, easy to please pups, I generally include Kong toys and bones for chewing. When I crate to give company a break from my pups, I stuff the bones with a tasty treats to keep the dogs occupied.

But what about food and water?

Typically, dogs are not crated long enough to need food or water in their crates. Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to leave water and food with a puppy who is being house trained. Filling his tummy and bladder can back fire, and isn’t fair to the puppy. Additionally, food and water left in a crate can be easily spilled and create a mess and, worse, leave your dog sitting on wet, dirty bedding.

Of course, there are instances when it is necessary to provide food and water to a dog in a crate. For example, a long day on the road or at a trial may call for, at the very least, water access. Additionally, dogs who are crated for extended periods due to medical reasons may need to eat and drink in their crates. In these circumstances, it is important to provide food and water safely and securely. There are specific bowls and bottles designed to hook to the inside of dog crates to contain food and water in these instances.

Finally, you’ll want to make a decision about whether to cover your crate or not, especially if you are using a wire crate. Once again, this decision depends on a variety of factors, including temperature and the dog’s personal preferences. Some dogs like to be able to watch the world around them and panic if they can’t see their surroundings. Others won’t settle down unless they are covered. Leaving a crate uncovered can provide good air flow on a hot day, but covering a crate on a cold winter night can provide extra warmth.

Choosing what to cover your crate with is just as important as deciding whether to cover it at all. Herbie and Julio’s crates are covered with large, fleece blankets, but that option wouldn’t work for dogs who pull things through and chew on them. One idea is to place a crate in a corner, using the walls to block two sides, and using a piece of plywood to cover the top and/or third side. This method allows the top of the crate to be used for addtional storage space, like a shelf!

As with everything else, there are dog crate covers specifically designed to keep your dog cozy and secure. They come in a variety of styles, colors, and materials, which means the perfect option is probably out there waiting for you!

In conclusion, a crate is a vital tool in dog keeping. When used and introduced properly, it provides a safe, happy place for a dog to spend time unsupervised. However, there are many factors that play into setting up the best den for your pooch. Choosing the right style, size, and accessories can make all the difference to man’s best friend. Remember, a crate is a tool, and not a replacement for training or exercise. Crate training is a good thing, but only if it’s done properly!