CoramBAAF’s advice line has always had relatively high numbers of inquiries relating to dogs and other pets, and I personally became increasingly aware of the significance of our own dogs as we expanded our family through adoption. These two factors contributed to my good practice guide Dogs and Pets in Fostering and Adoption, which contains advice for social workers working with families who own dogs or other pets.
Social workers are sometimes criticised for being risk averse and this can certainly apply to the consideration of dogs or other pets in fostering and adoption. However, there are many benefits for children being brought up in dog-owning families, including better physical and emotional well-being, provision of leisure opportunities, and the dog playing a role in helping children to understand the meaning of family membership. For children who are separated from birth family, dogs and some other pets can play an important role in meeting their emotional needs and helping to facilitate attachment to their new families.
Attitudes to dogs vary enormously; some people love them and others hate them. This can be the result of culture, experience or personality, and social workers are no different in this regard. So social workers need to be conscious of their own attitudes as this will affect how they approach dog-owning families. Those who dislike dogs might fail to recognise the benefits they can bring; while dog lovers might be at risk of underplaying the dangers from dog bites and the like. These issues might be amplified if we consider pet rats and snakes.
It is obviously easier to manage children alongside a well-trained, well-socialised dog than alongside one that is badly behaved and ill-mannered. For example, dogs who jump up or snatch food or run around uncontrollably present more risk of accidents and injuries than one that is calm and follows their owner’s instructions. There is a lot of advice about dog training and preparing dogs to live with children and where prospective carers appear to be struggling it may be appropriate to point them to this material. However, social workers should remember that they are not assessing someone’s dog-training skills; a not very competent dog owner might still make an excellent substitute parent.
Although injuries to children caused by dogs are relatively rare, children do get bitten by dogs and the consequences can be traumatic and, in the worst case scenarios, result in death. Children can also be knocked over by boisterous dogs and not all dogs are suitable for families wishing to foster or adopt. Other pets bring other risks. This means that an assessment must carefully consider this issue. Above all, however, the assessment must be sensible and proportionate. Just because an individual social worker might think it unhygienic having a dog sleep on your bed for example, many people do this, and without any health implications. Risk needs to be considered against the applicant’s strengths whilst recognising that nothing in life is risk free.
Although in most cases a well-informed social worker should have the skills to undertake an assessment, there will be situations where they feel out of their depth. An assessing worker might be concerned about risk as a result of the dog’s breed, history, reported behaviour, observed behaviour or a combination of factors. In these cases a specialist assessment is recommended. Wherever possible fostering services should have established links with a dog-behaviour expert who understands fostering and adoption, and can provide a detailed and authoritative report. It may also be necessary to involve specialist assessment for other pets too, particularly where the potential for injury or harm is high.
A holistic pet assessment will not just look at practicalities and risk, but will try to get a sense of how the animal fits into the family. How the pet is perceived within the family will be important in understanding the family and will be crucial when it comes to matching. It is not uncommon for placements to break down because a troubled child insists on pestering or tormenting a dog, cat or other animal family member, even where this is neither excessive nor deliberate. A good holistic assessment can prevent, or at least minimise, this risk.
It is important that social workers ensure they are appropriately informed about the issues around dogs and pets in fostering and adoption. One in four families owns a dog and one in two owns a pet, so dogs and pets are commonplace. My guide, Dogs and Pets in Fostering and Adoption, provides a good grounding with information about canine characteristics and dog breeds as well as information about a number of other pet species. It also provides dog and pet assessment formats with accompanying guidance. Although there may be times when an expert assessment is required, this should not be necessary as a matter of routine if social workers are proactive in ensuring they have the relevant skills and knowledge.