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Fostering programs greatly enhance shelter dog adoptions

Researchers at Virginia Tech and Arizona State University have made a significant breakthrough in increasing adoption rates for shelter dogs. Supported by a $1.7 million grant from Maddie’s Fund, the study reveals that short-term fostering programs greatly enhance the chances of shelter dog adoption.

Time spent out of the kennel and in a foster caregiver’s home can reduce physiological measures of stress in shelter dogs. The research team, led by Erica Feuerbacher and Lisa Gunter, explored the impact of brief outings and overnight fostering on adoption outcomes. 

Critical insights 

The results showed that brief outings increased the likelihood of adoption by five times, while temporary fostering boosted the chances of adoption by more than 14 times. 

According to the researchers, these programs were more successful when a greater proportion of community members were providing outings and stays to the shelters’ dogs as well as when these programs were carried out by shelters with more resources.

“Our data show that these programs can help the dogs not only have an improved experience in the shelter, but also dramatically increase their likelihood of adoption, and for the shelters that get their communities involved in brief outings and temporary fostering stays, better performing programs,” said Gunter.

Focus of the study

Over the course of four years, 85 shelter partners helped the research team carry out studies on brief outings, temporary stays, foster caregiving during the pandemic, weeklong fostering, and safety net fostering for pets whose owners were experiencing hardship.

The team analyzed data from 51 animal shelters across the United States, involving 1,955 dogs in fostering interventions and 25,946 control dogs. 

The data revealed that four percent of people involved in foster outings adopted the dog, and this number jumped to about 12 percent for overnight stays.

Community engagement 

Significantly, the majority of adopters were not the foster caregivers, indicating the broader community engagement fostered by these programs.

“We saw that the majority of people adopting the dogs weren’t the caregivers that were taking the dogs on outings or letting them stay in their homes. These dogs were being seen in the community, meeting new people, and caregivers were sharing their stories,” Gunter said. “This increased exposure likely helped the dogs find their adopters.”

Dual benefits

Feuerbacher noted the dual benefits of fostering programs: reducing stress and increasing adoption rates. 

“It’s a really exciting finding. Our prior work showed how beneficial sleepovers were for reducing dogs’ stress,” said Feuerbacher. “It’s wonderful to know that it also helps them get adopted.”

Dog welfare

The research also suggests that these programs are especially beneficial for dogs that require more assistance in finding homes. Clive Wynne, who led the project at Arizona State University, highlighted the ease of implementation for shelters and the significant impact on dog welfare and adoption rates.

“It’s great news that even short-term fostering has positive impacts on shelter dogs’ welfare and helps them get adopted because there are so many dogs in shelters in the United States and even the best shelters are not good places for dogs to be living,” said Wynne.

Study implications 

The findings emphasize the need for resources and education for shelters to effectively implement fostering programs. 

“These kinds of fostering programs can save the lives of dogs in shelters,” said Gunter. “Currently, shelters are struggling with dog adoptions, and we have evidence that these programs support placement into homes, which in turn can help shelters help more dogs.”

Shelter dogs 

Shelter dogs come from a variety of backgrounds, each with a unique story. Many are strays or lost pets, discovered wandering or brought in by concerned citizens. 

Others are surrendered by their owners due to personal or financial hardships, lifestyle changes, or health issues. In some cases, these dogs are rescued from situations of neglect or abuse, requiring special care and rehabilitation.

Health and behavior 

When it comes to their health and behavior, shelter dogs often face several challenges. Many arrive with medical problems, ranging from minor concerns like fleas and ticks to more serious health conditions. 

Behavioral challenges are also common, as past traumas or a lack of socialization can lead to a range of issues. Shelters work diligently to address these problems, often providing medical treatment and behavioral training to prepare dogs for adoption.


Shelters are home to dogs of all ages, from playful puppies to serene seniors, each with its own specific needs and charms. The life in a shelter can be stressful for dogs due to the unfamiliar environment, the presence of many other animals, and the lack of consistent human companionship. 

Despite these challenges, shelter staff and volunteers work tirelessly to provide care, love, and attention, helping these dogs become ready for their forever homes.

Public awareness 

The role of shelters is not just to house these animals but to rehabilitate and rehome them. This includes conducting assessments to understand each dog’s personality and needs, ensuring a good match with potential adopters. 

Public awareness and adoption campaigns are critical in finding these dogs new homes, as is community support through volunteering, donations, and fostering programs.

Shelter dogs often come with a story of resilience and hope. With the right support and strategies, they can find loving homes and enrich the lives of their adopters. By adopting a shelter dog, people not only save a life but often find a loyal and grateful companion.

The research is published in the journal Animals.

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