The Secret Foster Carer: ‘Social workers should consider why a family owns a dog’

Following news that some councils are refusing to place children in foster homes with dogs, the secret foster carer shares her views and advice

Dog
Picture credit: Terry Harris/Rex Features

It’s been reported that social workers are rejecting some foster parents and adopters because they have possibly dangerous dogs.

There are indeed concerns that some breeds are a risk to children – everyone knows the ones – but it doesn’t mean they are all killers, although we do know some breeds of dog are thought to be more likely to bite.

Our family had a dog before we went into fostering. We’d chosen a female Golden Retriever because we knew that gave us the best chance of getting a dog who would be kind around our children.

Canine kindness

Our bitch proved to be a massive asset in fostering, every child we’ve had has warmed to her and been rewarded back with warmth. She did have to have a psychological profile done before we were allowed to foster; I’ll come back to that.

When I talk about kindness in a dog, I mean a dog that would accept being bottom of the social ladder in the house. The social pecking order is a big deal for animals.

Dogs are animals after all, wolves to be precise. A big urge in every species is for each individual creature to get as high up the pecking order as they can. If they identify a fellow pack member a notch above them then they’ll go for the metaphorical jugular to jump up the hierarchy. That’s just how it is.

That’s why certain animals in the house with children is a big issue, and social workers are right to be cautious.

You can therefore tell a bit about a person from their pet. A goldfish person is different from a marine fish person, who is very different from a monkey person.

Animal instinct

Domesticated and trained animals retain their instinct to be the leader the pack. Humans do too. People are constantly vying to seem better than others. They preen at having the newest car in the street, or the car with the most poke. Sadly, some people also want the pet with the most poke.

So, if a family has a dog whose species is associated with aggression, then social workers have no option but to consider what that might mean for a child placed with them.

The first concern is that the dog might bite someone. The second concern, which I think is almost as critical, is the possibility that a family choosing a dog with the look and reputation of being a handful is a family that doesn’t so much want a pet as a statement about their assertiveness.

I often make a fuss of other people’s dogs, but not Pit Bulls – even when the owners say ‘he’s a big softy, lovely with kids’. They say it as if they know full well there’s something a bit intimidating about the dog’s muscularity, its heavy panting and alligator mouth.

Potential hazard

I said I’d come back to it, but we had to take our dog for a psychological profile before we were accepted as foster carers. The vet put our dog on the table and gave her a push, then she put her hand to our dog’s mouth and gave it a big nuzzle.

Then she raised her hand in what would have been a slap, but didn’t even bother to feign one. The vet pronounced her sane and charged us a £35 fee for the service, which our fostering agency picked up.

These psychological test that vets do in order to pass dogs fit for fostering is basically to goad them a bit and see how they react. I wouldn’t want that job, not if the next customer had a really aggressive dog.

Nor would I risk placing vulnerable children with a family whose dog seemed potentially harmful – not just because the dog might be a threat, but because, if the family couldn’t see that potential hazard, what else would they fail to notice?

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18 Responses to The Secret Foster Carer: ‘Social workers should consider why a family owns a dog’

  1. Julie Millar February 27, 2015 at 10:52 am #

    We have fostered for 30 years and have always had dogs, big dogs too, Bernese Mountain dog and more recently a large male Newfoundland and a Newfoundland cross with a St Bernrard and a Labradoodle. We have always given thought to the breed before purchasing knowing that we have young people in the home as well as our own two boys growing up. The dogs have always proved to be a wonderful ice breaker for the young people we were caring for, they sit and cuddle them and talk to them as their friends. We have also had problems over the years with some of the young people ill-treating the dogs who are very affectionate and haven’t deserved to be treated in this way as a dog’s love is unconditional. The only people who seem to have a problem with our dogs are the social workers.

    • Secret Foster Carer March 8, 2015 at 5:29 am #

      Hi Julie, yes we had a foster child try to feed our labrador money. We think he was mixed up about the dog being a live animal and the ride machines they place outside supermarkets. It was a one-off incident but an illustration of the point you make, thanks.

  2. c.davies February 27, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    After we were approved we had a rather unnessesary&emotional experience with an agency whom we are no longer with.Four years later we have the same dog&have had no concerns with the dog or the children in our care,we are responsible dog owners and would never dream of leaving our dog or any dog unsupervised with any children in our care.

  3. Dawn Clarke February 27, 2015 at 11:52 am #

    We have a dog and chickens and they have all been not only loving companions but useful to teach a range of things from hand washing and animal hygiene to respect for their feelings and needs. Feeling responsible and helping to ensure all are fed, warm, dry, exercised, wormed and clean have all helped to distract and raise self esteem. Respecting the dog’s feelings has also been valuable. We get asked every day “Why is Pip cuddled up to me like this?” and it gives me great pleasure every time to reply “Because she loves you”.

    Totally agree that animals do however need a thorough assessment by a knowledgeable person prior to and during fostering.

    13 May 2014, the changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 came into effect – info at the link below.

    http://blogs.rspca.org.uk/insights/2014/05/14/how-the-changes-to-the-dangerous-dogs-act-affect-you-and-your-dog/#.VPBZWOFu7A4

  4. TJHA1 February 27, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

    I would like to say that any dog in a family situation could potentially turn if they are unwell or feel threatened whether Golden Retreiver or Staffordshire Pit Bull. I have a cross breed – pit bull and Labrador – who is gentle, funny and full of characterful traits and just because she has the firm jaw and heavy pant of a much malinged breed, doesn’t mean anything as she knows where her place is and has never growled or been agressive towards humans or other dogs in the 12 years I have had her.

    I didn’t get her because of her breed, I got her from a sanctuary that is full of Staffordshire bull terriers because of neglectful owners who couldn’t even manage a poodle and dumped it on already stretched animal sanctuaries.

    I would also like to say that in the UK, the dogs most likely to attack humans or other dogs are actually smaller breeds such as dachshunds and Chihuahuas. The much maligned pit bulls are less likely to attack as long as the owner has good control over their dog, whatever the breed.

    • Secret Foster Carer March 8, 2015 at 5:33 am #

      Thatnks for your comment, but with all due respect your own evidence actually challenges your conclusions rather than supports them.

  5. leah randall February 27, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

    what a well thought out, well balanced view on the reality of looking at this issue

  6. Mary Meir February 27, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

    It’s refreshing to hear of people looking at the dog as a whole and whether it is appropriate for ‘that’ dog to be in close contact with children, rather than judging them on breed. The Labrador is the most popular family dog in the UK, and more people are bitten by this breed each year than any other. I think a lot of Social Workers are still very judgemental when it comes to household pets, and I can understand their caution, but would hope that they will also start to balance this with the huge benefits in learning and socialisation that these animals can bring when in the right environment with a child.

  7. Paul Adams February 27, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

    As a fostering development consultant at BAAF, and the author of the recent book on Dogs and Pets in Fostering and Adoption (available at http://www.baaf.org.uk/bookshop) I am pleased that the secret foster carer has been prompted to write on this subject. However, my book would challenge a number of the views s/he expresses. Most crucially dog experts now largely agree that the theory that dogs are wolves who are strongly motivated by issues of pack and hierarchy is both wrong and outdated. Instead, dogs need leaders who are fair, kind, and consistent. It is also largely accepted that assessing dogs as a species, rather than as individuals, is flawed and unhelpful. I do however agree with the secret foster carer that dogs can be a massive asset in fostering. The same applies in adoption as my two adopted children and my two dogs would testify!

  8. Laura UK February 27, 2015 at 5:52 pm #

    This is a really interesting point but it really should have been researched.

    It is a misunderstanding of the dog dominance and pack theory that led to people applying dog dominance to humans and has been completely disproved.

    This misunderstanding of theory has resulted in direct abuse of dogs so should not be perpetuated.

    • Secret Foster Carer March 8, 2015 at 5:39 am #

      While I apprciate your comments Mary I’d love it if you could get back with the source of your information about dog bites by breed and how it was collected, it’s an important issue and facts are everything.

    • Secret Foster Carer March 8, 2015 at 5:44 am #

      Thanks Jim, fostering is wonderful, we work hard and try to get things right. One thing though, local authorites do a fabulous job with care for children who need it, and the child’s safety is far more important than the benefits of with contact with animals.

    • Secret Foster Carer March 8, 2015 at 5:46 am #

      The urge to be top dog comes out in dogs all the time Laura, and in people too, try reading Paul’s comments in that light!

  9. Doris Edwards February 27, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

    During the 40 plus years that I have fostered, we have had a number of dogs all of which have been wonderful with the children. Labrador, St. Bernard, Springer Spaniel, cross breeds and our final two, a huge Briard and a Staffie who died last year. All but one were rescue dogs.

    For some of the children the dogs have been a great comfort and have helped them to settle in.

    I would like to assure the The Secret Foster Carer that the Staffie was one of the gentlest, kindest natured dogs you could ever meet. Sadly this breed like Pit Bulls has a bad name, not because of the dogs but the owners who train them that way.

    Of course SW’s need to be careful, but I think if pelople are going to be stopped from fostering because they want to have a dog, I fear we will lose some very good carers.

  10. Jim Greer March 1, 2015 at 8:54 pm #

    I think people who become foster or adoptive parents must have inexhaustible patience. I have heard anecdotally of people being told to remove bird tables and concrete over ponds because these represent health and safety hazards.
    Considering the valuable and difficult job foster carers are doing with children who are sometimes extremely needy and emotionally damaged, this is real imposition on their kindness.
    A foster home is just that- a home. It is not a restaurant, a chemistry lab or a hard hat area. We don’t require people’s dogs to be evaluated before they have children of their own.
    The benefits of domestic animals and contact with nature far outweigh ‘risks’ associated with them. Local authorities do not exactly have a shining record in relation to the safety of children in their own care facilities.

  11. Andy C March 2, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    The real question should be about the actual breed of dog. A big powerful “status symbol” pit-bull type animal would have me thinking “what sort of impression does this person imagine they’re making to others by keeping such a dog?” And “what is it about dogs that made them choose THAT breed?” I can see many reasons why a Labrador or any number of other very well recognised “uncontroversial” dogs (large and small) would be a genuine asset in a foster home – Julie Millar’s comments above are very helpful on this point. There are enough hoops to jump through for foster carers without creating for themselves an easily avoidable and unnecessary cause for concern by choosing a “challenging” breed of dog.