I was recently at a foster orientation and the usual discussion topics came up regarding how much to feed puppies, how often to take them out for housetraining, what happens if I have to go out of town, etc. Then someone asked something I hadn’t heard before: what skills were they supposed to teach foster puppies so they get adopted? Suddenly the conversation shifted into high gear and people started excitedly debating what were the most important skills, such as Sit, Down, and Stay. I felt a little lost. On some level I understand how people might think that a puppy with skills is more adoptable, but on the other hand…have you seen a puppy? Have you smelled a puppy? Have you held tiny little puppy toe beans and felt their velvety soft puppy ears? I’ve been working for a long time in shelters and rescues and I’ve never had anyone ask what skills a puppy knows. As soon as you post that your shelter has puppies, the phones are lit, email and social media is jammed and people are lined up before you open. Puppies are always the first to exit (aside from perhaps kittens) full stop. There’s often very little we need to do to get them adopted.
There are, however, absolutely things that we can teach puppies while in foster care that will a) help keep the foster caregiver a functioning member of society b) will help smooth the adoption process and c) will be beneficial for the foster puppy’s wellbeing. I would argue that teaching Sit, Down, Stay, etc. isn’t necessary (more on that in a minute) and we could better serve ourselves and our foster puppies by forgoing this kind of skill-building. What follows is not a comprehensive list of what to do with a foster puppy by any means, but I wanted to offer some ideas for those who might be wondering what to focus on.
One of the first things l like to do is create a space for the puppy to enjoy being in. This is not crate training necessarily. I use a second bedroom or ex-pen to create a space that is for the puppy to sleep in, chill in, hang out in. Yep, there is a crate in it, and yes I do crate training when it’s appropriate. But I like to give a puppy a place where they can move about more freely than if they were confined to a crate. There’s a comfy bed inside and outside of the crate so the puppy can choose where to rest, and appropriate toys for them to choose from. I feed the puppy from a variety of treat puzzles and objects, and try to vary their placement and incorporate Free Work ideas (Sarah Fisher). One thing to remember is that puppies have very little agency. They’re constantly being picked up, prodded, petted, moved from one place to another. Hands are usually trying to shove a treat in their mouth or take something out. They don’t choose when they eat, they don’t choose when to go outside. There is very little that they get to decide on their own. Providing a choice about where to rest, what treat puzzle to investigate, what toy to play with–it may not seem like it, but these sorts of activities can do a lot to build confidence and resilience.
Now, there’s also a practical aspect to this setup. In a house with two other dogs, a cat, and two adult humans, I want foster puppies to have a place that they can go not only when they want to, but a place that they are comfortable in when I need to have them out from underfoot. It’s also a place where the puppy is able to comfortably be alone, a skill that is important for all puppies to learn.
This one isn’t really an option. Help the puppy (and yourself) by giving them a particular space to be in to contain the accidents, watch your foster puppy like a hawk, take them out to potty with the same attention and focus that you would give a ticking bomb, and be ok with not sleeping through the night for a couple of nights. Even with a totally un-housetrained puppy, if you are consistent, you can usually knock out housetraining in a few days, but only IF you are consistent. That means going out every time after the puppy drinks water, eats, wakes up, takes a break from playing or running around, or anytime you realize they haven’t gone out in a while. Put a treat pouch by the door and give them a treat after they finish pottying. Do those first couple of days suck? They can. Get sleep when your puppy sleeps, take time to admire their tiny puppy faces, and know that you are an awesome human being for taking care of a defenseless puppy and keeping them out of a shelter. it doesn’t totally make you less tired, but it helps.
Your foster puppy’s name is probably going to change, so why not teach an attention cue that you can pass on to the adopter? Not only is this practical, but it’s an easy way to help the adopter make a connection with the puppy when they meet them. Make your Attention sound, then toss a treat. Easy.
Figure out how your puppy likes to play. Is it tug? Playing with a ball? Whipping a toy around? Adopters love to see a puppy having fun, and they love being a part of the game. Set the potential adopter and puppy up for a good interaction by giving guidelines to the potential adopter. Instead of saying “she loves this toy” try something more specific like “she loves it when you roll the ball just a little bit away” or “she likes playing tug with this rope toy but she gets scared when the human makes growly noises”.
What kind of behaviors does your foster puppy like to offer? My current foster puppy offered Sit when I was making dinner, which she got paid well for. Then she offered Sit while I was eating dinner. Paid well again. She’s started offering it in different places and situations. Here’s the thing: I would probably never teach a puppy a Sit cue (the reasons why are for another post). But if a puppy is in a high arousal situation and offers a Sit? Well, I’ll reward the heck out of that. I’ll also reward the heck out of Four on the Floor or Down. Each puppy is capable of offering valuable behavior, we just have to clear out our ideas of what a puppy should do as opposed to what they actually offer. This is also where I’m thinking of agency: dear puppy, what do you want to do in this situation? How can we have a conversation instead of me monologuing?
Targeting is when you teach an animal to touch a part of their body – usually their nose – to a specific target–like your hand, or a target stick. The timing of when to teach this depends on the puppy. If you have a very shut-down or fearful puppy, I would not recommend this until you’ve established a good relationship. However, if you have a happy-go-lucky puppy that is comfortable being around you, this is an easy skill that you can use in many different contexts. It’s also a great way to structure an interaction between strangers and a puppy. You can instruct a stranger to hold their hand out for a Touch (show them how to do this first, so they have a clear picture of what your Target cue looks like) and as soon as the puppy touches their nose to the stranger’s hand, make your Attention sound to bring the puppy back to you and give them a treat. Now we’ve avoided the puppy being manhandled by a stranger and we can go on about our business.
I did not teach this puppy targeting until she looked much more comfortable than she does in this photo. Even then, I used a target stick so she wouldn’t have to get too close to me: https://youtube.com/shorts/D0qh4G-wup4?feature=share
Now for some of the most important things you can teach a puppy in foster care. As some of you probably have guessed, these have to do with socialization.
People are safe
This is hands down one of the most important things you can teach a puppy. Please believe me when I say that this is infinitely more important than cues such as Sit, Stay, Down, etc. (more on this further down).
First, you can start by making sure that the puppy sees you as being safe. Did you know that most dogs and puppies don’t enjoy being petted on the head? When you interact with a puppy, try petting them softly once or twice on the shoulder, back, or chest, and then stop. Wait and see what the puppy does. Does it look like they wag their tail and move toward your hand? If so, that’s a green light to keep petting them! On the other hand, do they look away from you? If they stay perfectly still, look away, lick their lips, struggle, or start yawning, summon all of your restraint and leave them alone. Help that puppy understand that people can be safe to be around.
Once the puppy sees you as being safe, you can help them to feel safe around other people. We don’t want a dog who thinks that every human they see is a Pez dispenser and a playmate, because those are the dogs who become reactive because they want to meet everyone they see. On the other hand, we need to advocate for our puppy, and make sure that people who are excited to meet them don’t overwhelm, frighten, or hurt them–because those are the dogs who become reactive because they are afraid of strangers. We want our puppy to learn that people exist in their world and they’re going to be in the puppy’s environment, and that’s ok. And the people who approach them are going to be safe and fun to be around.
Dogs are safe
If you happen to have a fully vaccinated dog that enjoys hanging out with puppies and can interact appropriately with a puppy, this can be an invaluable experience for the puppy. They need experience with their conspecifics (other puppies and dogs) to learn how to communicate and play. Finding reputable puppy socials can be helpful, but you might also be able to network within the foster organization to arrange playdates with other foster puppies. If possible, I’d recommend finding a certified trainer to manage these social sessions as they can get out of hand if people don’t know what to watch out for. Never take foster puppies to dog parks or allow them to interact with unknown dogs. Puppies must learn that other puppies and dogs are safe and fun to be around, and even just one scary interaction can derail this for months or even years.
New experiences are safe
We can’t cram all that the world has to offer into the first 12-ish weeks of a puppy’s life. My current foster puppy isn’t going to experience snow, she isn’t going to see trick-or-treaters, and she probably isn’t going to swim in the ocean during her socialization period. But I can help teach her that new things are cool. I can leave the vacuum cleaner out and give her treats when she investigates it. I can give her treats when she sees a flag flapping the breeze, or when she notices the herd of pink plastic flamingos that stand guard at a neighbor’s house. I can make sure she has a good time when she walks around the yard after it rains and I can let her sniff the groceries as I put them away.
So yeah. I don’t care about teaching Sit or Down or, really, much in the way of cues to a puppy. The puppy has the rest of their life to learn those kinds of things. The sensitive period for socialization, however, ends somewhere around 12 weeks. After this point, puppies are more likely to be fearful of novelty. They are more likely to become anxious or stressed, or have difficulty regulating their arousal around new stimuli. They may react fearfully or even aggressively when encountering something or someone unknown. Sit, Down, and Stay don’t matter when a dog is growling at children, snapping at other dogs, or lunging at strangers. If you have a happy-go-lucky foster puppy that enjoys learning and you enjoy training, sure, go ahead and teach some cues. But if you are fostering a puppy, be aware that you have them during a critical developmental period that will shape the rest of their life. Making sure a puppy is well-socialized means ensuring they will more easily be adopted, stay in the home, and never see the inside of a shelter. If by some misfortune they do end up in a shelter, a well-socialized dog is much more likely to be adopted out.
If you are able to open your home to a foster puppy, I promise you it will be rewarding and it will be messy, and it will be worth it. There are some practical things that can make the experience easier and some things you can do to show off the puppy in the best light, but at the end of the day the only thing you really need to do is help that puppy understand that the world is a good place. That’s it.
One last note: the most common thing I hear when I introduce a foster puppy is some variation of “Oh my god, I could never foster, it would just be too hard to give them up.” Y’all, it can hurt to let them go. That’s real. But it’s worth it. It’s really, really worth it. If you are concerned about overcrowding in shelters (a massive issue right now), if you love dogs, if you have the bandwidth to keep track of a puppy for a week or so, please consider contacting your local rescues and shelters to inquire about fostering a puppy.
- For more information on the socialization period and how to work with puppies, please check out Puppy Socialization by Eileen Anderson and Marge Rogers. It’s excellent.
- To learn more about the importance of socialization please see the AVSAB Position Statement on Socialization here.
- For ideas on games to play with your puppy, Control Unleashed, the Puppy Program by Leslie McDevitt is a great resource.
- If you’d like help with a puppy or young dog, or if you have a dog that you suspect missed their socialization window, please reach out to us. We’d love to help.