IT'S EVERY KID'S dream to wake up to a puppy or kitten beneath the tree on Christmas morning. Last year, Clifford Robinson and his family helped make that dream come true for two families.

Louisiana SPCA has a "surprise holiday delivery" program that allows families to choose dogs they want to adopt in advance and then have them delivered for the holidays. The Robinson family, who live in New Orleans, fostered two beagle puppies, preparing them for their new homes.

"We had them for about two weeks, giving them as much housebreaking and other training as possible," Robinson says. "Then on Christmas, my two daughters dressed up as elves and brought them to the families' houses as a 'special delivery from Santa.' "

Foster families such as the Robinsons allow shelters throughout the country to place animals in homes where they can get special care or simply make room for other animals in the shelter. Foster homes are good choices for puppies or kittens who need preparation for family life; senior pets, who may be traumatized by a stay in a shelter; or pets with health problems, who need special care before they can be adopted.

The Robinson family became interested in foster care a few years ago when their daughter enrolled in SPCA's volunteer training program. They love their two Labrador retrievers, but being a foster family allows them to spend time with other dogs without making a lifetime commitment.

Delivering Christmas beagles is possibly the most memorable foster experience the Robinsons have had as adoption ambassadors, but they have many fond memories of various foster pups. One was Luna, a scared puppy who was found with her littermates when she was approximately 3 months old.

"When we brought her home, she ran as far away from us as she could, hiding in corners of the house or under the couch," Robinson says. "We knew if she couldn't adjust to being around people, there would be no hope for her to be adopted."

Robinson spent hours lying on the floor with natural peanut butter slathered on an extended hand, inching ever closer to her with the hope that she would take a lick or two. Family members would walk around dropping shredded cheese or roast beef on the floor so Luna would associate people with delicious treats. But it was their two Labrador retrievers, Nikki and Tessa, who finally taught Luna that people were OK.

"She would come sit near us or even play with us when she saw them giving and receiving affection," Robinson says.

The intensive socialization resulted in Luna's successful adoption. The Robinsons became close friends with the adopter and still see Luna frequently.

Robinson attributes much of their success to the guidance of the family's own dogs. When foster dogs arrive without good house manners or leash manners, they have Nikki and Tessa as role models. The two Labs show their canine compatriots how to behave.