Foster Dog 101: Our Experience Fostering Dogs for Adoption
I’m taking a rare moment here to write about something other than food and wine… because my husband and I recently fostered our first dog! If you follow me on social media (Instagram @thericeloverblog), you may have noticed a big, goofy dog. We are new volunteer foster humans for See Spot Rescued (SSR), a Jersey City-based nonprofit that rescues dogs from the South. If you’ve ever wanted a dog but aren’t ready to commit permanently, I highly encourage fostering for a rescue in your area!
As fosters, we provide temporary homes, love, and training to dogs that are awaiting their forever homes. Read on to learn about our experience from application to send-off. In true finance fashion, I’ll be discussing tax deductions for fostering dogs as well.
There are two main kinds of rescues, those with a physical shelter and all-foster based organizations. Both types likely have foster opportunities. In most shelter-based organizations, fosters are focused on special needs dogs, like puppies too young for adoption, medical cases, etc. On the other hand, all-foster organizations will have all dogs that are awaiting forever live with fosters like us!
Dog Foster Application Process
The first step to becoming a volunteer is an application form (SSR’s form is here). We detailed our living situation:
- home size
- outdoor access
- transportation situation
- expected hours away from home every day
- children and other family members
- other pets
In addition, if you rent your home, you’ll need proof of your landlord’s approval. It’s also good to note on your application if you have any breed restrictions. These may arise from your landlord, condo / homeowners’ association, or insurance. Our property insurance had a list of non-allowed breeds, which we provided to SSR. The final element of most foster applications is a description of your own dog / pet / animal experience level, as well as some personal references who can vouch for your good character and love of animals.
Since I left my finance job to pursue my own thing, entrepreneur life for me fortunately means a lot of work from home. We also bought our first home — complete with a rare urban yard! — last year, so this is really the perfect time for us to foster dogs. We told them about our sassy cat Meatball and also provided her usual vet as a reference. SSR was able to provide some good tips on introducing her to the new foster dog, and they helped steer us toward foster dogs with a higher chance of cat-friendliness.
After the rescue approved our initial application, we set up a 30 minute virtual interview / home visit. This way, a SSR foster coordinator could meet us “in-person” to check out our home situation and help prepare us to welcome the arrival of future foster pups. If you have no pet experience, now is the perfect time to explain why you want to become a foster! I’ve been extremely impressed with See Spot Rescued’s level of volunteer dedication and coordination. Even though Kevin and I don’t have a lot of prior dog experience, we’ve felt completely welcomed and supported along the way.
Foster Dog Preparation: A Little Retail Therapy
To prepare for the arrival of our first foster dog Frasier, we had some shopping to do! This is an exciting time, but try not to go overboard! We focused on universal items, suitable for a wide range of future foster dogs. For us, that meant a larger-sized crate, multi-packs of toys, and treats that can be cut up into small pieces for training. I went way overboard on research to welcome our first foster, so I’m happy to share the results with you. Read on for our must-haves!
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A Note on the Importance of Crate Training
A new foster dog may be coming out of a shelter situation where they’ve spent most of their time in a kennel without regular walks. Others may be coming from hoarding or breeding situations where they haven’t had much space. Until you know more about your new foster’s behavior like house training, separation anxiety, and destructive chewing, you’ll definitely want a contained space for when the humans aren’t home. In addition, crate training is a great skill for your foster dog to have when you send them off to their future forever homes.
Most dogs actually like to have a small, safe, enclosed space to call their own. I recommend putting the crate in a space where you spend a lot of time, like the living room or kitchen. Fill it with toys, serve meals inside, and generally make it a happy place for your foster dog to be.
Dog Crate and Crate Mat
Buy a crate suitable for the largest dog you expect to foster. Choose a double door model so that you can use either orientation in your house. The Frisco crate has two doors and a divider to make a big crate cozier for small dogs.
We bought a 36″ crate, and it was just big enough for Frasier (a lanky 60 lb. hound mix). If we could do it again, we might buy a 42″ crate for extra flexibility. We prefer to foster medium to large dogs!
Inside the crate you’ll want a washable plush mat for extra comfort. Ours has raised sides to help it stay in place. Frasier has jaws of steel, and he chewed on the mat once. It tore a bit, but I easily patched it up with a needle and thread. There are chew-proof mat options at a higher price point if you don’t want to tackle sewing.
We left the door open at all times, and Frasier often napped in his crate on his own. He chose to sleep in his crate every night as well, and we’d shut the door when we went to bed.
Dog Food and Treats
Kibbles (Dry Dog Food)
For most rescues, you’ll be in charge of providing dog food, toys, and treats. I recommend purchasing kibble from a membership club in bulk. Costco, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club all carry Blue Buffalo. In addition, Costco also has a high-quality, grain-free house brand, Kirkland Signature Nature’s Domain. This website has ingredient analysis, nutrition profiles, and recall history for many different brands.
To make the kibbles more palatable, SSR recommended adding water instead of pricey canned wet food. Canned food costs a lot more than dry, and some dogs refuse to eat kibble once they’re used to wet food. It turns out that Frasier loved eating everything we fed him and drank plenty of water on his own, so we never had to try wet kibbles.
Finally, a nutrition tip: measure out your foster dog’s food for meals to prevent unhealthy weight gain. Follow the quantity instructions on the bag, or use a dog food calculator to calculate the ideal amount based on your foster dog’s weight and the brand of dog food.
Dog Food Storage
Big bags of dog food are unwieldy and easy for dogs to rip open. So you’ll definitely need a dog food storage bin. We use an Ikea Knodd 11-gallon metal trash can. It comfortably holds the full 35lb bag of dog food with room to spare. To keep the lid on, we use a short bungee cord.
There are many other options with a wide range of prices, like this simple plastic container with wheels or this fabulous Simplehuman model. Regardless of which storage option you choose, make sure it has a lid and a way to keep it securely fastened. Your foster dog may try to help himself to extra meals otherwise!
Bowls for Food and Water
To serve your new foster dog food and water, you’ll need some dishes. For water, we use an inexpensive serving bowl, the 9″ Ikea Oftast. Buy several; they’re super cheap, nest for easy storage, and are dishwasher-safe. I prefer using human-grade dishes, plus these are both cheaper and higher quality than most dog bowls! (Our cat has a stack of the small Ikea Oftast plates for wet food as well.)
Your foster dog may have had a tough life before arriving in your loving home. If your dog ever went hungry (or even if not), he will probably be a ravenous eater. Eating too quickly can lead to bloat, a dangerous condition that requires medical treatment. To slow foster pup’s championship eating skills, invest in a slow feeder bowl for daily meals.
I recommend non-skid trays over non-skid dog bowls, or non-skid waiter’s serving trays from the restaurant supply store. They help to contain spillage and mess, and human dishes fit much better in the dishwasher. To further protect hardwood floors, place non-skid trays over a washable rug / door mat / bath mat.
Early on in your new relationship, you’ll likely want to confine your foster dog to a smaller part of your home so you can keep an eye on him. This is super important if you have kids or other pets! The best way to do this is a baby gate. Make sure you pick a walk-through model for the humans to get through.
With a high-quality tension model, you can remove the gate between foster dogs. The ones I’ve picked come with support cups to drill into the wall for extra stability. In addition, I recommend placing the gate in front of a strong door frame. If you must place your gate in an area with smooth walls, then either choose a screw-installation gate or install the support cups with strong drywall anchors / into a stud.
Skip the dog gates with a built-in cat door; almost any cat will be able to jump over these gates. At most they’ll need a jump-off point on the “safe” side to encourage them to take the leap.
After extensive gate research, these are my top picks:
- Extra wide tension model (we have this one): Regalo Home Accents Super Wide Walkthrough (29 – 58″ opening)
- Regular width tension model: Regal Easy Step Arched (29 -35″ opening)
- Extra tall model, for extra tall foster dogs: Regal Home Accents Extra Tall and Wide (30 – 41″ opening, extra 7″ height at 37″)
- Angled to wall, permanent installation: Cardinal Gates Stairway Special (27 – 42″ opening, screws into wall, up to 30° angle to wall)
This is the fun part! My number one dog toy recommendation for foster dogs is the Kong, a hollow rubber toy that’s meant to be stuffed with food. It’s part toy / part treat, a perfect aid for crate training, and a great distraction if your new foster dog has separation anxiety. The red model will survive most dogs, but there is also a black Kong Extreme for strong-jawed pups. Pick up one of these as soon as you know the size of your foster dog! The simplest stuffing choice is layered kibbles and unsalted peanut butter. Freeze for an hour so the peanut butter is solid. This will add significantly to the entertainment / distraction value.
But as much fun as it is to buy dog toys, I recommend pacing your shopping. Wait until you have a better idea of your new foster dog’s personality before you go too crazy with toys. Some dogs don’t like toys. Others like to chew and need ultra durable toys. Some like squeaky toys. Some like chew toys.
To build up a small toy box so you’re prepared for your first foster’s arrival, I’d recommend picking one each of a variety of toys like these:
- medium squeaky ball: about the size of a tennis ball
- durable hard chew toy: I like Nylabone
- relatively durable plush toy: Kong Wubba line with reinforced stitching
- durable tug toy
In addition to a crate, you may want to buy a dog bed for your pup to nap on during the day. This will give him a place of his own to relax while you’re working. I keep a plus Kirkland Signature rectangular dog bed from Costco next to my desk so the foster dogs can hang out. This increases my productivity and allows me to keep an eye on them!
If you don’t have access to Costco, this Frisco dog bed is similar.
Dog Foster Volunteer Tax Deductions
Head’s up: I am not a tax professional. The statements on this website are not tax or financial advice. We encourage you to consult with an appropriate professional regarding your own tax situation.
Great news — fostering a dog is a labor of love, but there are also financial benefits! As a volunteer dog foster, you will likely be spending your own money for food, treats, toys, and certain supplies. Most reputable dog rescues are 501(c)3 non-profit organizations; verify status on the IRS website.
If you itemize your taxes, the expenses you incur out-of-pocket are deductible as non-reimbursed volunteer expenses. These items are treated as a charitable donation if you pay for them out of pocket in your role as a volunteer dog foster, and they are for use in this role only.
- Dog food
- Dog treats
- Supplies above like crate, mat, dog beds, food bowls, water bowls
- Dog toys
- Collar, harness, leash
- Unreimbursed veterinary expenses
Maintain all receipts for purchases to substantiate your spending.
In addition, vehicle mileage solely related to volunteer work is tax deductible at a rate of $0.14/mile (IRS standard mileage rate for charity in 2021). As a volunteer foster, this might include picking up your new foster dog, attending adoption events, trips to the vet, and delivering your foster dog to the adoptive family. Parking and tolls related to this travel is also eligible. Keep a record of your mileage with the date, location / purpose, miles driven, and starting/ending odometer numbers. For parking and tolls, keep receipts and EZ-Pass toll statements.
Substantiation of Volunteer Status
If your total non-reimbursed expenditures, including mileage, are more than $250 in a year, you’ll need a written acknowledgement from the rescue to show your volunteer status. Most larger rescues should be familiar with this process, but make sure the letter includes:
- name of the rescue (preferably on letterhead
- description of your volunteer service as a foster
- any reimbursements or goods/services provided to you in exchange for your contribution, plus an estimate of their value,
- or acknowledgement that no goods/services were provided to you in exchange for your service
As long the rescue does not reimburse you for spending, you can deduct foster dog expenses on your 1040. Only expenses and mileage are eligible for deduction, not your time or professional services! Keep in mind that out-of-pocket expenses are reported with cash contributions when you file your taxes. For more information, this article on Nolo is helpful. And most importantly, consult with your tax professional!
Foster Dog Success!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our foster dog experience — dog proofing the house, training tips, and sendoff to forever family. After only 2 short weeks, we just sent Frasier (now Rinn) on to his forever family. It was an incredibly rewarding experience becoming his people, sharing in his unbridled exuberance for life, hamming it up for the camera together, and upping my social media game to help him find a home. I can’t wait to share more about his time with us.
Now that our foster pup’s found himself new best friends, I’m ready to finish my upcoming recipe for Instant Pot Red Braised Lion’s Head Meatballs. Keep your eyes peeled for the new recipe… and a new SSR foster dog arriving later this week!
If you have any questions about our dog foster experience or have stories to share, please let us know in the comments below! And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram @thericeloverblog for more foster dog photos and updates!
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