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'Return' is not a dirty word

Pets who come back present opportunities for us to learn

When I travel the country sharing the Adopters Welcome philosophy with shelters and rescue groups, there’s one refrain I hear over and over:  “But if we eliminate our home checks, landlord checks and other hurdles and actually embrace people who want to adopt, rather than scrutinize and judge them, the animal might get returned!”

My standard response: "So what?"

Now, stay with me here: I'm not suggesting we don't all share the desire for a lifelong, loving home for every pet—we do! But the notion that an adoption has to be perfect and last the animal’s entire natural life or else it’s a complete and utter failure may not be realistic, and it may not be useful in terms of saving lives.

Think about it: If I were to put you in a room with 20 potential mates and tell you that you have 30 minutes to choose the man/woman you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, that you’ll be legally married when you walk out of that room, and that divorce will simply never be an option, would you sign up for that? No way! You’d (wisely!) tell me that a decision like that can't be rushed into, that it takes time to get to know someone and be sure you want to spend the rest of your lives together, and that even then there are no guarantees the relationship will last.

So why, then, do we expect lifelong adoption bonds to be made within minutes? And why, if the relationship doesn’t work out, do we condemn the person who returns the pet and call it—and them—a failure? Granted, committing to share your life with a pet should be easier than committing to share your life with another human being (at least in theory!), but you see my point. Life happens, circumstances change, and even with the best of intentions, things don’t always work out. So why are we so sanctimonious as to think that can never be the case when it comes to pets?

If we are honest about it, I'm guessing a number of you reading this have actually returned pets yourselves—maybe ones you said you were going to “foster,” but in your heart of hearts you believed were going to be permanent additions to your home, only to realize that they weren’t such a good fit, so with some measure of relief, back to the shelter they went. Don’t tell anyone, but I have done exactly that. Years ago, I fell in love with the most adorable little shih-tzu mix and just knew he was coming home with me to stay. The problem was, minutes after he walked through the door he had my 175-pound Irish wolfhound cowering and shivering in the corner, and the situation did not improve. So the shih-tzu mix went back to the shelter, and Grady was able to walk safely around the house again. Am I a terrible person because I returned the shih-tzu mix? I hope not (although I’m sure had I been a member of the public, rather than a shelter employee, there would have been more than a few choice words said about me behind my back). Was the shih-tzu mix a terrible, unadoptable dog? Of course not! He just needed to be placed in a home without 175 pounds of quivering Jell-O! The point here is, my adoption failure actually provided a ton of information about what kind of home was right for that dog, and what kind of new pet was right for me. And that can’t be a bad thing! It’s all in our perspective--are we going to choose to look at that return as a failure, condemning everyone involved? Or will we see it as a unique opportunity to acquire new insights and information we couldn’t have obtained any other way?

Still not convinced returns aren’t inherently bad? What if I told you they can actually be good for the animal’s mental and physical well-being? A study being conducted by Lisa Gunter, a doctoral candidate studying behavioral neuroscience at the Arizona State University's Canine Science Collaboratory, hints at just that. In her work, Gunter measured cortisol (stress indicator) levels in shelter dogs before they left the shelter, during their temporary stays in homes and after they were returned. Not surprisingly, she found elevated levels of cortisol present before the dogs left the shelter. When the dogs got to their temporary placements, their levels decreased dramatically; in fact, they had what was probably their first good, uninterrupted night’s sleep since entering the shelter. There is no question that “downtime” is likely incredibly beneficial for the dogs’ health, since it gives them a chance to regroup and bolster their natural defenses. What happened after the dogs were returned to the shelter? Their cortisol levels went up, to no one’s surprise—but those levels never exceeded their original baseline, meaning the act of returning to the shelter didn’t cause them to suffer any more stress than they would have experienced had they never left. The takeaway from this? Not only were the dogs no worse off for having been out of the shelter temporarily, they actually benefitted tremendously from their time away. So maybe, just maybe, being adopted and returned isn't such a bad thing for animals after all?

Without question, getting the call that an animal you thought had been permanently placed is now on his way back is a bummer, and if you don’t have a space available, it can become a real burden. But if you've built a relationship with the adopter instead of viewing the adoption process as a one-time-and-done transaction, as we recommend in the Adopters Welcome approach, you can have an open and honest discussion about that burden and try to work with the adopter to make it as painless as possible. And then you can use all of the new information you’ve gathered and try to make an even better match for them down the road.

So go ahead, loosen up! Let go of those adoption barriers! Tell your adopters that you understand that life happens, and you’ll be ready to help them when it does! Maybe even try some placements you’re not 100 percent sure will be lifelong successes. Just by changing our view of returns and seeing them as opportunities, not failures, who knows how many additional lives we can save? 

About the Author

Inga Fricke is Director, Pet Retention Programs, at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  She serves on the Board of Shelter Animals Count, a non-profit organization formed to create and share a national database of sheltered animal statistics, and as Chair of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators’ CAWA Exam Preparatory Resources Committee. Prior to joining The HSUS, Inga served as Administrator of the Wyandot County Humane Society/H.O.P.E. Clinic, helping to found the Wyandot County Equine Rescue, and as Shelter Manager for Loudoun County Animal Care and Control.