House guests bring stress.
Is there enough milk? Will you run out of hot water after the third long shower? And how will you keep everyone from getting on each other’s nerves in tight quarters?
What’s a dog’s version of house guests? A foster pet.
Fostering From a Dog’s Point of View
When I write about the dogs we’ve fostered, I get a few comments from readers who wonder how their dog would do with foster pets in the house. I thought some of you might want to know what Honey thinks of fostering.
Since I’m not clever enough to write a cute post in her voice, however, you’re stuck with my observations of her behavior when we have doggy house guests.
But you should know Honey’s background first.
Born to Volunteer
I got Honey from a responsible hobby breeder. Why? Because I wanted to volunteer with dogs and needed a canine partner at my side.
I don’t mean to say that a shelter dog couldn’t have the trainability and affectionate personality I was looking for. But I wasn’t skilled enough to evaluate a dog in a shelter for the traits I was looking for.
So I stacked the deck.
I started with a well-bred dog, socialized from birth. And she’s been a gem.
The very first puppy we fostered showed how well prepared Honey was for her job. She dialed back her exuberance and showed Scooter a romping good time. I like to think Scooter’s early experiences with Honey started him on a good path. And that he has positive feelings about other dogs as he grows up.
But Honey’s responsibilities involve more than just playing with foster dogs. All our routines change when a new dog comes home with us.
Everything Changes When a Foster Dog Comes
When a foster dog comes home, barriers go up.
We get out doggy gates and exercise pens to help with house training and to provide safe separation until we know how the new dog will interact with Honey. Instead of eating when we do, Honey gets her Kong behind closed doors while the foster dog is fed in another room.
And every toy and bone is picked up and put away. We don’t want anything to stimulate a squabble.
If the foster dog turns out to be mellow, things slowly return to normal. Cherie and Honey used to sit side by side on the couch each chewing on their Nylabones with no problems. Other dogs are snarkier, like Eddie, and need careful watching during their entire stay.
But what really keeps the peace is the way Honey senses how she needs to treat each dog differently.
Honey Changes Her Behavior
Our first two fosters, Scooter and Buster, were puppies. They were playful and fun-loving. Honey had to make her play style more gentle and less scary to a dog 20% of her size.
Eddie, our third foster, was also a puppy—but a puppy who didn’t like other dogs too much. No amount of play bows or wiggle butts would entice Eddie to play. And too much exuberance in Eddie’s presence would cause him to snarl a warning.
Cherie came to us while she was recovering from her spaying surgery. They both wanted to play but doctor’s orders said no rough behavior for at least a week. Luckily, Cherie made a good recovery and the two spent the summer wrestling and playing all over the yard and house.
But now Honey has a new foster sister. And she’s learning another dog’s body language.
Understanding Dogs Who Don’t Speak Clearly
I was told Layla was surrendered to the SPCA because she didn’t get along with the other dog in the house.
She’s doing ok with Honey. But Layla’s learning how to speak dog. Honey is patient while she’s in school. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for her.
Layla has started initiating some chase games the past few days. At first I was worried. Layla had a stiff little tail. I wasn’t sure she unambiguously wanted to play. And Honey wasn’t either. Here’s what I’ve noticed about their play sessions:
- Layla doesn’t chase Honey; she only wants to be chased.
- Layla has a stiff posture, especially in contrast with Honey’s loose, playful style.
- Each of them interrupts their chase frequently to shake out tension.
- Although Honey loves to wrestle, she keeps her paws off Layla.
- Layla body blocks Honey but Honey never does it back.
- Eventually, Honey will stop to lie down and chew on a stick–a sure sign of stress.
And yet, I’m seeing changes in Layla. She’s getting fewer hackles when she plays. Her tail is loosening up. And she’s even started play bowing, even if she looks a little stiff and awkward compared to Honey.
I think she’s learning something new.
Hopefully that will make things easier on Honey. But until then, Honey has some reliable stress relievers.
How a Golden Retriever Deals with Stress
All toys are still put away. Which means Honey doesn’t have one of her favorite stress relievers available to her.
How can I tell she’s feeling stress?
The other day she walked into my office with something in her mouth. When I looked closer, I found one of my balled up socks from the laundry hamper.
Toys and balls are like pacifiers for mouthy Golden Retrievers. It feels good for them to have something to carry. And without any toys, Honey resorted to a behavior she hadn’t shown since she was a puppy.
How a Person Deals with a Golden Retriever’s Stress
Seeing Honey with the sock in her mouth showed me I need to do a better job of giving her some outlets. Every day, we’ll play tug and fetch in the yard while Layla stays on the porch or inside.
But I need to do more. And try to reintegrate some of our regular routines (letting her lick out my yogurt cup in the morning, off-leash walks) into our lives.
Even if our house guest has to find some other way to amuse herself for a little while.
Eventually the Foster Dog is Adopted
If I thought Honey found fostering extremely stressful, I wouldn’t do it. As important as it is to help perfectly nice little dogs be more adoptable, my first job is to advocate for Honey.
Some fosters are easier for Honey than others.
But Honey is a resilient dog. And the occasional foster dog causes her about as much stress as a house full of close friends or family causes any person.
You’re glad they came. But you’re also glad to see them go home.
How does your dog react to “house guests?” Would fostering be tolerable to him or out of the question? How do you know?