Leslie Doyle has never been a dog owner. For a long time, she fulfilled her need to be around animals by volunteering at Baypath Humane Society of Hopkinton as a dog-walker.
Then one day the shelter manager confided that she was particularly worried about a small dog who shivered and barked a lot. She asked Doyle to take him home for the weekend.
“That’s what started me on this journey,” Doyle said of her now extensive experience providing foster care for dogs.
During the six weeks that dog stayed with Doyle, she witnessed firsthand how useful it can be for a shelter animal to be moved to a short-term home. “At Baypath, we have excellent staff, incredible volunteers, nice walking trails, and places for the dogs to play,” Doyle said. “But at the end, it’s still a kennel setting. That works fine in the short term for most dogs. But for those who arrive anxious, scared, with medical or behavioral problems, being in a shelter is not ideal, no matter how committed the people who work there or how lovely the environment.”
Now Doyle is on a mission to expand Baypath Humane Society’s foster program.
Most pet shelters in Massachusetts welcome the help of foster volunteers and try to make it easy for them by matching the dogs with what the household can offer in terms of company, environment, and the presence of other pets or children. Foster dogs may be puppies who need extra attention; senior dogs awaiting medical procedures; or dogs for whom a short stay with a foster household can iron out some basic behavioral issues like constant barking or food aggression.
“When someone fosters a dog, they generally have a good experience and come back,” said Elizabeth Jefferis, executive director of Baypath. “And it’s helpful to that dog. But what sometimes goes unrecognized is the ripple effect on the whole of animal welfare. When a dog who needs extra attention goes to a foster home, we can devote more staff and volunteer resources to the other dogs in the shelter. Moreover, a dog who is stressed and barking affects the other dogs, the cats in the shelter, even the staff and volunteers. So when you take in one animal for foster care, you’re helping the entire organization.”
Interest from potential foster families has increased during the pandemic, said Elizabeth Booth, foster care manager at Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, who estimates that she has received more than 1,000 new foster applications over the past year.
“More people are able to help with foster care because they’re home more now,” she said. And with fewer options for entertainment, Booth said, playing with a puppy or taking a dog for a hike can seem more enticing than before the pandemic.
Maryann Regan, executive director at the Scituate Animal Shelter, said that she has a list of about 30 households willing to foster dogs, though with a shelter capacity of 19, she seldom has more than four dogs placed in foster care at a time. “The length of a foster stay varies based on the reason for it,” Regan said. “A medical stay might be very short-term; if there’s a behavioral issue to be worked out, it might be longer.”
Jeanine Lorusso is a trained dog behaviorist who consults for Baypath Humane Society of Hopkinton and helps volunteers with any questions they may have about the dogs they take home to foster.
“One of the key factors in modifying any behavior is consistency, and that can be hard to provide in a shelter environment,” Lorusso said. Moreover, foster families serve as a good resource for providing potential adopting families with information about a dog’s personality.
“I basically provide a pit stop for dogs,” said Justina Puntini, who recently became a foster volunteer for Baypath. “It’s an honor to be able to provide a sanctuary for shelter dogs, where they can unwind, relax, and decompress until they go to their forever home. Each dog is unique, and their best personalities come out when you take them home.
“I had a foster dog recently who arrived at my house jumpy, mouthy, and anxious. I was able to provide time and attention and patience to help him be who he wanted to be, and he turned out to be an awesome dog with a huge personality. I joked that Hollywood was waiting for him because he was nonstop entertainment.”
Marissa Casillo of Quincy has lost count of how many dogs she has fostered, but she thinks it’s around 30. “Dogs that are shy can shut down in the shelter environment,” she said. “When you bring them home and get them around people, without the bright lights and loud noises of the shelter, you can see them start to relax and enjoy life. Then their adorable personalities begin to shine through.”
“There are so many benefits,” agreed Booth, at the Northeast Animal Shelter. “Some of our dogs are transported from down south. When they get here they’re overwhelmed: nervous, anxious, unable to settle down. We can put them in a foster home to decompress. Sometimes it takes as little as 24 hours before they begin to blossom and flourish.”
Interested in fostering? Time, patience, and space are the main requirements. Shelters generally do not impose rigid guidelines but ask that the dog not be left alone for more than a few hours a day; be given care, attention, and recreation appropriate to the pet’s needs; and be brought to the shelter when requested for meetings with potential adopters. Most shelters provide volunteers with food and supplies for the dog and cover medical care. Use the following links for more information on fostering at any of the shelters mentioned in this story.
Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem northeastanimalshelter.org/get-involved/foster-care-program/
Baypath Humane Society of Hopkinton baypathhumane.org/foster-animal-in-need
Scituate Animal Shelter scituateanimalshelter.org/volunteering
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.