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Taking a 'test drive' with shelter dogs

Study led by ASU examines how fostering impacts adoption, particularly foster-to-adopt programs

May 11, 2022

Pet adoptions surged during the early months of the pandemic, with more than 20 million American families welcoming a shelter dog or cat into their home.

A new study published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science has shown that a wave of fostering in April 2020 was driven in part by people who temporarily cared for a dog they thought they might want to adopt. Over 70% of the people who participated in these foster-to-adopt programs ended up adopting the dog they fostered. 

“The pandemic gave us a rare opportunity to examine fostering programs in a way that we haven’t been able to before. We found that foster-to-adopt programs, in which people ‘test-drive’ a dog they want to adopt, were very successful,” said Lisa Gunter, Maddie’s Fund Research Fellow in the Arizona State University psychology department and first author on the study. 

Fostering is a win-win for dogs

The researchers analyzed over 2,500 fostering experiences from 19 animal shelters located in 14 different states. The research team examined traditional fostering, in which people care for a shelter dog or puppy in their home for a time, sometimes until the animal is adopted. They also examined foster-to-adopt programs, in which people who express interest in adopting a dog first foster that dog. 

Over 93% of the dogs in the study were either adopted, returned to their owners or moved to a different shelter. The adoption rate for foster-to-adopt programs was 73%, which means roughly a quarter of these dogs were returned to the shelter after their trial period. This return rate is higher than traditional adoption programs.

“If the dog is not a fit, people should not feel bad about test driving and returning, because even short breaks from the shelter can decrease dogs’ stress,” Gunter said. “Fostering also provides more information about the dog in a home setting, which can help the shelter find a better fit in the future.”

Lowering the barriers to fostering 

The study shows that the high rates of adoption were not limited to just the foster-to-adopt programs. New community members who fostered for the first time adopted their dogs nearly 30% of the time. This rate was four times greater than adoptions by caregivers who already had a relationship with the animal shelter. Gunter pointed out that foster caregiving for shelter dogs is not without challenges. Only a quarter of new community members fostering for the first time agreed to foster again. 

“While this number was likely influenced by caregivers adopting their dogs, it’s possible that caregivers’ expectations may have not matched the realities of foster care. Dogs that had identified behavioral issues in the shelter were returned from foster care for behavior-related reasons over three times more often than dogs without these types of issues,” she said.

The study findings suggest that making it easy for new volunteers to participate in foster caregiving will benefit shelter dogs.

“We need to lower barriers for the community to be part of the solution to help homeless pets find new homes, even if people are only going to try it out once. Because of the possibility of adoption associated with fostering, especially among those trying it for the first time, it might be a good idea for shelters to fast-track new foster caregivers. These caregivers may be much more like people test driving dogs before they adopt than we realized,” Gunter said.

The other members of the research team include Clive Wynne, professor of psychology at ASU and head of the Canine Science Collaboratory; Rachel Gilchrist, Emily Blade and Amanda Foster of the ASU psychology department; Rebecca Barber of the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at ASU; and Jennifer Reed, Lindsay Isernia and Erica Feuerbacher of Virginia Tech. The work was financially supported by Maddie’s Fund.

Top photo: A study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science shows that people who participated in foster-to-adopt programs early in the pandemic adopted shelter dogs at a high rate. Photo by Karen Mork/Unsplash

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