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Paying it forward in Michigan

Visiting days with other organizations make for chances to learn and network

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2014

Illustration by bussolati

After nearly two years of research and lots of advice and input from other organizations, the Michigan Humane Society (MHS) decided to dramatically change its intake procedures. For many years, our open-admission policy was defined as taking in every animal brought to our doors at any time. It was not uncommon to receive more than 80 animals in one day at just one of MHS’s three animal care facilities. The stress on our team and the incoming animals was dramatic. We felt there had to be a better way to serve the animals in our communities.

We learned from other sheltering leaders across the country about a new intake/relinquishment model they were implementing. We spent time learning from others, and made the decision to convert to an intake-by-appointment process. We now have scheduled intakes, which means relinquishers make the decisions for their animals, instead of having us perform that task. The result is happier, healthier animal care facilities at MHS. Without the ability to learn from other organizations—a big “thank you!” to the Animal Humane Society in Minneapolis—MHS would not have been able to make such a large-scale and positive transition. And it made us determined that when we could provide advice and assistance to other groups, we would gladly “pay it forward.”

That’s what we’ve been trying to do through our statewide initiatives program, the Michigan Partnership for Animal Welfare (MPAW), which works to bridge distances and increase understanding and collaboration among diverse animal care agencies in the Great Lakes state. While webinars and conferences are great educational opportunities, they are not always affordable or practical for some agencies in Michigan. In addition, some topics lend themselves to the more in-depth learning that small group settings provide. We’ve also found that when people spend a full day in each other’s company, watching and discussing a new idea or approach, the bonding that results can break down perceived barriers and promote partnership and communication for months and years afterward.

MHS established MPAW Visit/Share/Learn (VSL) Day in late 2013 in response to requests for one-on-one training from other agencies around the state, along with a goal to better connect agencies with each other. MHS set up quarterly daylong structured workshops and invited registered shelters to send up to two representatives at a time, limiting attendance to five agencies per session. The MPAW VSL Days are offered free of charge to attending agencies. (Recently, the Kenneth A. Scott Trust, a KeyBank Trust, decided to underwrite the cost of the remaining 2014 VSL Days.)

Topics include managed intake processes, dog and cat intake assessments and telephone counseling for owners considering relinquishment. Lunch is provided, and attendees are encouraged to share information about their own new or successful programs. Each session is scheduled in advance so that appropriate staff members are available to teach the various topics. The state’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development approved and promotes them for animal control officer training hours. Word has quickly spread about MPAW VSL Days, which are now filled through the end of 2014. Agencies have come from as close as around the corner and as far as Escanaba in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (a seven-hour drive) to attend.

To make the VSLs as effective and efficient as possible, participants are divided into three groups. Each group starts at a different “station” to discuss one of the scheduled topics. This ensures a more hands-on, personal approach for each part of the process.

Attendees participate in an intake appointment “role play” where they are asked to be the relinquisher. Certainly most everyone who works in animal sheltering has a story or four about the challenges presented to you by relinquishers. There are those who relinquish because the animal’s color doesn’t match their curtains, and those who didn’t know the Great Dane mix was going to get THAT big. During this part of the sessions, attendees are encouraged to be that challenging relinquisher, to throw out questions that may provide opportunities for our organizations to help along with questions that may trigger our annoyance. We talk through the tough (and sometimes unreasonable) questions—the trickier the situation, the better. Detailed discussions ensue regarding how appointments are managed through all types of situations.

Attendees also watch as the MHS evaluation team performs the MHS Personality Assessment Test (PAT) on a number of different dogs. Discussions regarding the PAT, the MHS Right Dog (our color-coded pet-to-owner matching system) and basic adoption practices happen throughout that session. During the telephone counseling session, attendees observe actual calls to the call center, witness animal surrender and learn about resources available to help owners potentially keep their animals.

One call was from a woman who had lost her house and simply could not keep her dog. She indicated she had tried to rehome her family pet through other means, but was not having any luck. She truly did not want to call MHS for fear of being judged, and she was so thankful to reach one of our call center counselors, who provided a compassionate listening ear. They were also able to offer some additional suggestions regarding rehoming. In the end, the woman did relinquish to MHS, but did so via a private appointment where she learned her dog would be up for adoption that very same day. She insisted on leaving a donation to thank us, even though money was so very tight for her.

Each attendee is asked to participate in each of the sessions. Thus far, everyone has been glad they did. For example, even if those organizations don’t have a call center (and very few organizations do), there are still valuable tips on issues like proper phone techniques and identifying the best personalities to handle phone calls. Those who don’t do managed intakes have been fascinated by how it works and how they can potentially implement parts of the process based on their specific situations. And watching and discussing dog personality assessments … well, who among us couldn’t do that all day long? True to the goal, VSL days provide hands-on, small-group discussions in areas that are new to many organizations.

The evaluations of VSL Day have been highly positive: Every person said the workshop was informative and valuable, and that they would recommend it to others. The presenters, venue and even lunch were rated as “excellent.” A suggestion to include a break every two hours was incorporated into the schedule.

In the words of one of the first participants, “The staff was very open and forthcoming about their procedures; there was a sense of pride in their work. They were also very open-minded about other facilities’ procedures. … I particularly enjoyed sharing experiences with other people in the sheltering field.”

About the Author

C.J. Bentley has been the senior director of operations for the Michigan Humane Society for about four years. Prior to that she was MHS’ behavior department manager. Between her volunteer time and time on staff, she has been with MHS for more than 17 years.

About the Author

Linda Reider is the director of statewide initiatives for MHS, where she has worked for eight years. She has been in the animal welfare field for the past 29 years.