Lying side by side on a cozy couch in West Hollywood, Calif., Dirk and Penny make an odd couple. Dirk, a Corgi mix with a hangdog look, is older and four times the size of Penny, a tiny, social Chihuahua-pug hybrid. The two strays met in an animal rescue and fell nose over tail for each other. On a recent morning, as part of an affectionate ritual, Dirk stays stock-still while Penny licks his ear. Their love may be everlasting, but their home is temporary. They’re foster dogs, waiting to be adopted into a forever home. Instead of idling in a shelter cage, they lounge in the comfortable apartment of Karen Stevens, 51, a publicist who’s fostered 40 dogs over the past six years.

Foster pet parents like Stevens work with rescue groups or shelters to provide temporary homes for dogs until they’re ready for adoption. Some homeless animals are placed in foster care because a shelter is too crowded, or because they’re too young, or they need medical attention, socialization or basic behavioral training. Some animals need temporary placement because of a family emergency or military deployment.Many of them have one
thing in common, Stevens says.

“These animals will love you unconditionally,” she says. “They’ve been abused, they’ve been in the most horrific situations, and if you give them just a cup of kindness, you have a friend for life.”

About 3.3 million dogs end up in U.S. shelters each year and 670,000 of them will be euthanized, according to Alyssa Fleck, spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Put
simply, foster parents help shelters save more dogs.

“Fostering a dog frees up critical space and resources to help other animals who may need them more,” says Joey Teixeira, senior manager of customer relations and communications at the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City. “The shelter also gets vital information about how the animal acts in a home environment, which can then help place that animal with the right adopter.”

At the Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix, the foster program is one of many efforts that have helped decrease euthanasia by 84 percent since 2013, says Sharon Kinsella, director of volunteer engagement. One thousand dogs were fostered there in 2016.

Sheldon “Ski” Kobylanski, of nearby Laveen, is one of the shelter’s most prolific foster parents. Although he has four dogs of his own, since 2010 he’s brought more than 100 other animals to stay at his home he calls a Disneyland for dogs,” where they paddle freely in the backyard pool.

His voice breaks as he recalls some of the pups that have passed through his doggie doors: Lana, a pit bull puppy with a broken leg (“I’ll never forget her face.”); Eggbert, a Chihuahua so tiny he fit in Kobylanski’s palm; Bruno, an emaciated pit bull he nursed through the potentially deadly canine parvovirus; and Zeus, a pit bull mix whose aggressive cancer diagnosis broke Kobylanski’s heart. And so many more.

With pet adoption you save only one dog, Kobylanski says, but fostering provides a chance to save many dogs every year. All it takes is time, space and love.

“If you can expand the walls of the shelter by providing love, a safe place and a warm bed for an animal — any animal — you can be a foster parent,” he says.

So, how do you know whether fostering is right for you?

Maybe you love dogs but aren’t ready to commit. You can live with a foster dog temporarily to give the lifestyle a try. If you travel a lot but spend some weeks at home, you can foster in between trips. If your kids want a puppy
and you’d like them to learn about responsibility before taking on a new family member, foster a puppy — or a litter.

“We can pretty much find a fit for almost any lifestyle,” says Kate Meghji, executive director of the Lawrence Humane Society in Lawrence, Kansas.

And don’t worry if you’ve never walked a dog or shaken a paw. You don’t need experience to be a foster parent.

How to foster

Rules for fostering are as fuzzy as a newborn puppy. Most shelters require that foster parents be at least 18 years old, but otherwise, foster protocols vary.

Fill out an application at your local shelter or rescue organization. You may need to attend an orientation, take an online course or obtain a license, which requires a fee. Some rescue groups check an applicant’s police records or conduct a home visit before approval.

Communicate openly and ask for advice when you need it. Be honest when assessing the dog. If the animal isn’t a good fit for your lifestyle or you’re not comfortable with its temperament, return it to the shelter and try again, says Kinsella.

“We tell our foster parents that bringing a dog back is completely OK,” she says. “We’ll find a better match for them.”

Responsibilities

You’ll be responsible for the daily care and comfort of your pup, providing food and water, exercise and plenty of cuddle time.

You may need to handle the cost of food, a leash and collar and a carrier or crate, but many foster programs will cover these expenses. They’ll also pay for veterinary care, including spaying or neutering, vaccines and medications.

You might have to handle simple medical tasks like administering medication or changing bandages. And if a dog needs basic training, you can teach sit-stay and beyond. Your pup’s adoptive family will thank you.

Risks

If your foster carries a contagious disease like kennel cough or parvovirus, your other dogs may get sick. Quarantine your new arrival and separate her from other dogs for two weeks.

Research the rescue organization to make sure it’s reputable and right for you, adds Kobylanski. Groups vary widely in their policies and approach to fostering.

The greatest risk: falling for those big brown eyes. If you decide your temporary pet should be a permanent addition to your home, you’re not alone. “Foster fail” happens with 90 percent of foster families at Love That Dog Hollywood, says Addie Daddio, founder of the animal rescue program and nonprofit Daddio Collective, both located in Los Angeles.

Even experienced foster parents have trouble letting go.

“It is painful,”concedes longtime foster mom Stevens. “It’s like a breakup every time. But it feels good to know that they’re going to be completely loved and adored.”

Rewards

Your good deed is tax-deductible, says Daddio. Keep receipts and detailed records of what you spend on caring for your foster — the IRS considers it a charitable contribution.

But by far, the greatest benefit to fostering is the chance to create a fairytale ending for a canine Cinderella.

“It’s just so rewarding,” says Kobylanski. “We’ve taken dogs that should’ve died and they’re adopted out happy and healthy. It’s like they beat the odds. I learn from every one of them.”