Fosters are an essential part of dog rescue and rehabilitation. Did you know that in the United States, approximately 1.2 million dogs are euthanized? The intake, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals averages at 3.9 million dogs per year, meaning 2.7 million dogs are successfully rehabilitated and re-homed through a network of shelters and animal rescues. 

Since space and personnel are limited at any animal shelter, the volunteer network of foster parents fills the void, allowing more dogs the opportunity to retrain and re-engage in an active family life. The ASPCA estimates that approximately 26 percent of dogs that end up in shelters are reclaimed by their owners, and this successful number is also due in part to fostering families who allow more time for owners to find their pet, before rehoming or euthanasia.

We will discuss the role of the dog foster and the facilities, training, and persistence required by the volunteers to successfully rehabilitate dogs for adoption. We will also talk about high-risk fosters, and how fosters can protect themselves from dog bite or injury liability, should their foster be named in a personal injury legal claim. It is important information for all canine rescue or shelter volunteers to be aware of, in order to protect the viability of successful rescues and dog fostering networks. 

What Is It Like to Foster a Rescue?

Depending on the shelter or rescue that you are working with, a foster may be required to sign ownership documentation. For all intents and purposes, the dog remains the property of the rescue or shelter, which typically agrees to be responsible for all medical care of the dog through a facility or in partnership with specified veterinarians. Most vets subsidize or volunteer pro-bono services for rescues or shelters, including reduced cost for spay or neutering to stem pet overpopulation. Because fosters are in short supply and so critical to the success of rehabilitation programs, many rescues require that fosters sign an agreement that prohibits them from adopting their foster dog. 

Food, treats, leashes, and dog beds and other equipment are typically furnished by the foster home. In addition to the basic necessities of living, the foster parent is responsible for training or re-training of dogs, to allow them to integrate back into family life. This training can include:

  • Bathing and grooming behaviors. 
  • Bathroom training. 
  • Leash walking.
  • Basic commands (sit, stay, lay down).
  • Behavioral integration with other household pets and children.
  • Play activities (fetch, horseplay, and appropriate expressions of affection).

While in the process of training or rehabilitation with a foster dog, the host volunteer may encounter cases where a dog is hostile, guarded, or traumatized by an abusive experience. Abused dogs display defensive behaviors that can manifest as aggression, including biting and growling, as well as destructive habits that include wood chewing, tearing of upholstered materials, indoor ‘accidents,’ or excessive howling and barking due to separation anxiety.

The job of a rescue or feral dog foster is not an easy one, but with an average turnaround of two to six months to train and rehabilitate a dog (conditioning them for safe adoption), the reward comes when the dog is safely and permanently adopted by a new family, and ready to start their second chance at a happy life. 

Personal Injury and Dog Bite Liability: Who Is Accountable for Rescue Dogs?

In the event that your foster dog comes in contact with a stranger, or another family member or friend who is bitten or attacked, what does the law say about legal liability for foster care workers? Does the legal liability reside with the foster or with the rescue or shelter that has assumed ownership for the expense and healthcare of the animal?

Dog rescues or rehabilitation organizations that are not run or funded by a municipal body (city or state) are not often governed by state regulations and laws – aside from the care and capacity of the shelter, limit to number of animals (occupancy), and non-profit licensure.  

The seller, non-profit rescue, a shelter, and any agency that transfers a dog to another party for care is referred to as a “transferor,” and those groups have legal responsibilities which can lead to civil liability and consequences, should the quality of care and diligence not be met. For instance, if the dog rescue fails to mention that a dog has violent tendencies, and even potentially fatally aggressive propensities, the non-profit can be found negligent and guilty of varying degrees of assault. Or, in the case of a dog attack fatality, the transferor can be prosecuted for homicide. 

As the volunteer caregiver for a rescue or rehabilitating dog, you can be held legally liable in a civil court for any property damage or personal injury that occurs as a result of the dog’s behavior. The caveat is access and opportunity, however, as individuals who have sued fosters for dog bite injuries while breaking and entering into the home or trespassing have been unsuccessful in some cases.The circumstance determines whether the caregiver was negligent to the point of providing an opportunity for injury to occur, according to a Palm Beach County wrongful death attorney.

Thinking of Fostering a Dog?

Don’t be discouraged by the legal responsibility of becoming a dog foster; it’s simply important to be prepared to accept accountability for care and access. All the reasonable steps required to warn visitors of an aggressive dog should be taken – including warning signs, fenced enclosures and restraints, and avoiding interaction between the foster dog and strangers or other pets, until behavior becomes predictable.

Always ask for a complete written disclosure of the behavioral assessment of the dog from a licensed pet care professional. If one is not available, it is within your right to ask if a conditioning evaluation has been conducted on the dog, prior to accepting it as a foster. The intention is not to make it more difficult for rescues to place dogs, but rather to prevent injury to members of your family, other household pets, visitors to your home, and neighbors. If you are not a certified pet trainer, and are uncomfortable with an aggressive dog, ask for opportunities to foster pets who have needs that are more aligned with the environmental controls you can provide, and the training and support you are able to give. Be part of the important network of foster homes for dogs, but be prepared, and always know the profile of the foster before you accept legal responsibility for the pet. Also, investigate gap policy insurance that can help protect your family from financial loss as a result of a law suit.