‘A Hard Part Of The Job’: The Emotional Ups and Downs Of Fostering A Dog

The Dog House Australia's Felicity Hillenaar opens up about her experiences in the animal welfare industry and her ultimate guide to fostering animals.

During the series, we as an audience get a glimpse into the months and months of work the dedicated staff at Animal Welfare League NSW put into many of the animals who are looking for their forever home.

One of those people, Felicity Hillenaar a dog foster care officer, spoke to 10 play about the fostering process, her own experiences in the animal welfare league, and the highs and lows of the job.

After doing a degree in animal sciences and simultaneously volunteering at many animal welfare groups in Victoria, Felicity got a job straight out of uni at an animal hospital. After working at several other animal rescues, Felicity started her own dog training and walking business before she came to AWL.

Officially part of the staff for a year, prior to that Felicity was also a consultant for AWL, offering post-adoption support, surrendered prevention and foster carer consults for anyone requiring support with their dogs.

While fostering animals is often attributed to those that may need a little extra TLC, Felicity explained that there are a handful of reasons why the shelter would hope to put a dog into foster care.

"It could be because we're waiting for surgery -- for example a puppy that's underweight and needs to get up to the right weight for desexing -- it could be other things like major surgeries... behavioural reasons as well, dogs that are really stressed and anxious in the shelter and need to get out and we need to do training with them in a home environment," Felicity told 10 play. "And then there's also just plain respite from the shelter.

"As much as we try and make the shelter as loving and relaxed and comfortable as possible, at the end of the day it's a very unnatural environment for them so, no matter what, all dogs will get stressed in a shelter," she continued. "If I've got a foster carer that can take any of our dogs in the shelter, then I'll definitely match them up."

Anyone interested in fostering can go onto the AWL website, look at the location nearest them, and complete a form that Felicity can use to match them up to an appropriate dog. After the matchmaking process, Felicity also acts as a support person for the duration of the foster period.

So what happens if a foster carer falls in love with the pup they're temporarily taking care of?

"I absolutely love when that happens," Felicity laughed. "That's no problem at all! In fact, it's in the foster manual that we give carers. In the case that they fall in love with their animal, the main thing we tell them is to make sure that they let me know ASAP so I can quickly take the dog off the website.

"I wish it happened more, to be honest," she added. "It’s definitely something I love. We really encourage it, because you couldn’t have chosen a better home for them. The dog already knows the environment, the people already know the dog, they’re already set into a great routine so there’s not another disruption for the dogs or another change in environment or trying to settle into a new place. It's one of the best homes you could ask for."

Her number one advice for any potential foster carers is that having a dog, or cat for that matter, can really change your routine and lifestyle.

"The number one thing that I ask a foster carer is just to be flexible and adaptable to whatever the animal might need," she said. "I think, sometimes, we have a set idea of what a dog is or what a dog will need, but once you get the animal in your care it could be completely flipped on its head.

"You might have a dog that doesn’t like walks or a dog that doesn’t like chewing or playing. And if that’s the case, you’ve got to just sort of adapt to what the dog does like," she said.

"I think the first few weeks, and even few months, can be quite hard on the family and the dogs, settling them in. So that’s why we’re there to coach them through that process."

Felicity uses a '3-3-3' rule, noting that it takes three days for a dog to process the change of environment, three weeks to get to know their new family's routine, and three months for the dog to fully settle into all aspects of their new home.

"You've got to be really patient in that time and everyone's got to be flexible," she added. "There will be big ups and downs in that time, both for the dog and the family."

Felicity has fostered dogs herself in the past, including Buster whose story was featured in The Dog House Australia, however, her own dog isn't the biggest fan of other dogs which makes it difficult.

"But I have fostered a heap of cats, she absolutely loves cats," she said. "I quite often do litters of kittens and my dog will help me clean them... she's kind of like my assistant when I've got kittens."

Though part of her job requires follow-ups with families and animals that go through the adoption and foster care programs, Felicity admitted that often getting attached to animals can be one of the most difficult parts of the job.

"I learned it the hard way quite a few years ago that, if you get too close to an animal, you do have to be careful... tragedy does strike every now and then and it's absolutely heartbreaking if you can let yourself get too close to an animal.

"There's a fine line there between still absolutely loving the animals and being really close to them but keeping your guard up just in case things don't go to plan," she said.

Felicity worked with a dog for several years and admitted that it's nearly impossible not to get close to them after all that time together. Unfortunately, she was found to have a whole lot of cancer in her chest recently, and the decision was made to euthanize her.

"Myself and the foster carers were there when she passed and it was a really beautiful moment, but definitely a hard part of the job," she said.

"Probably the number one reason people leave the industry is compassion fatigue," Felicity explained. "You enter the industry because you love animals... and it's not necessarily that anything horrific happens, it can just be things don't work out the way you planned. It's pretty heartwrenching sometimes."

But it's not all heartbreak, with Felicity working closely and catching up with many of the dogs that she followed through the processes.

"Those moments where you've worked so hard to build a dog up to blossom, come out of its shell and feel better about the world and then you find a lovely family that can really be understanding of the dog’s needs," she said.

"Then you see them a couple of months down the track and they’ve completely just fallen head over heels in love with each other and that’s what both the person and the dog needed in life. They seem a lot more fulfilled. That’s what makes your job all worthwhile even if you just have a few of those a year. It’s enough to keep you going."

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