Fostering Adolescents: From Firecracker to Star Student

Photo Courtesy Juliana Willems |

Photo Courtesy Juliana Willems |

I distinctly remember the first few hours of having Johnnie Cash at my house after pulling her from a five month stay at the shelter. She would pause just long enough for me to catch a glimpse of the sparkle in her eye that made me fall in love with her, only to then launch herself off the furniture or throw her paws on the kitchen counter or tear up and down the hallway. It felt like there was no off switch in sight, and I couldn't help but think, "What the heck did I get myself into?"

Adolescent dogs, categorized as being between the ages of about 8-18 months, are common in the fostering world. They're the adorable puppies who turned into wild teenagers and then ended up at the shelter. Shelter stays, no matter how short or how long, are extremely difficult on an animal, so these adolescent fosters come to us with abundant energy and stress. This begs the question, how exactly do you handle fostering one of these goofy teenagers without ripping your hair out?


Photo Courtesy Juliana Willems |

The bad news is you will likely rip your hair out regardless because that's what fostering often does to you, but the good news is, with some positive training tools in place, it hopefully won't be too much or too often. I find these three guidelines helpful when bringing home a new, adolescent foster:


1) Be prepared to manage. The night before Johnnie came home I filled my freezer with frozen Kongs and my cupboards with bully sticks. I didn't want to end up at a moment of, "Oh my goodness, I just need a BREAK," but not have anything available to give Johnnie to occupy herself. Set yourself and your foster dog up for success by managing their environment so they make good choices.



Photo Courtesy Juliana Willems |

2) Use that teenage energy in productive ways. Training. Enrichment. Fun, structured physical activities. These are all ways you can expend your foster dog's energy both mentally and physically. A couple brief sessions of clicker training a day, even if you're just working on sit, can go a long way in tiring out their brain and teaching good behaviors! In addition, make sure you give them plenty of "legal" toys to chew up and destroy. Physical exercise is important - especially when you incorporate training - but mental exercise is what will really exhaust them.

3) Have a "yes" mindset. What I mean by this is make sure you are giving plenty of feedback to your dog that says, "Yes, that is what I DO want you to do!" We so often focus on what we don't want them to do that we forget to reinforce the behaviors we like. If you're managing the environment properly and giving your foster dog productive ways to use their energy, you should have plenty of "yes!" moments to reward and reinforce, increasing the likelihood that those desired behaviors will occur in the future.


They might not be the easiest dog you ever bring home, but fostering an adolescent is so rewarding as you watch them learn how to navigate the world outside of the shelter with zest and enthusiasm for life. By using positive training to work with these foster dogs, we enhance their personalities and shape them into adoptable star students - and it's worth every minute.


Photo Courtesy Juliana Willems |


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Positively Expert: Juliana Willems

Juliana Willems KPA CTP is a senior trainer with Washington, D.C. based company Dog Latin Dog Training. She writes about her experiences fostering and training dogs in her blog Peace, Love & Fostering.


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