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The placement conundrum

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love potential adopters

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2013

Lisa Burgoon, a volunteer adoption counselor at CCHS, talks about training options and explains the use of a gentle leader halter to a new puppy adopter. Campaign County Humane Society (CCHS) shelter manager Michelle McKnight talks over some applicaiton questions with a potentioal new cat adopter. (The cats in the communal cat room already know the answers.)Through open, friendly discussions, CCHS adoptions staffer Sarah Scott helps adopters become more prepared pet parents - whether they need to know how to clean a litter box or what that "wheeking" sound their guinea pig makes is about.

Many rescuers dream of adopters like Eric Bernthal. An experienced dog owner who has trained dogs in the past, and who has long served on the board of The HSUS, Bernthal wanted to adopt a companion for his dog Rocco, to join them in their home on a fenced, four-acre plot of land. Bernthal did what any responsible pet lover would do: He attended an adoption event held by a local rescue group, hoping to find the next member of his family.

One dog caught his eye—an adorable, sweet, female pit bull-type. He melted when she looked at him, and he took her out for a short walk and play time. They bonded when she curled up in Bernthal’s lap, and he submitted an application that day.

After a week went by and he still hadn’t heard back, Bernthal followed up. He received a terse email: “Sorry, your application has been rejected.”

“No explanation, no apology, no encouragement,” he notes.

That was a year ago. He still hasn’t adopted another dog.

Bernthal’s story is, unfortunately, far too common among those who try to adopt from rescues and shelters. And while Bernthal knows the animal welfare world, the average would-be adopter doesn’t. He doesn’t know why he was rejected. He doesn’t know what he could do better. One thing the average adopter doesknow? Not to try to get a pet from that group again. Why would he, when he can go online or head for a pet store, where no one will ask him any questions, and where they’ll be all too happy to take his money?

Rescuers and shelters see what happens to animals who meet with cruel or irresponsible people, and they work to ensure the animals in their care never again suffer abuse or neglect. Rescuers invest in their animals, emotionally and financially, and letting them go into the unknown can feel risky.

But if we can’t trust anyone, how can we find good homes? Are our reasonable fears making it too difficult for good people to adopt?

In this article, we explore adoption policies, and what we in the rescue community can do to ease the adoption process while continuing to place animals into safe and permanent homes. Once we accept that someone who wants a pet will find a way to get one, the question we ask ourselves can shift from Is this the perfect person for this pet? into the more realistic Can I help this person create a good home for this animal?

Turning Deal-Breakers into Opportunities

As you meet potential adopters, keep in mind that our work in rescue means we see a greater amount of animal cruelty and neglect than most people do. But the fact that we see more of these situations does not mean they are common. We have to stop viewing potential adopters with suspicion, and start with the proposition that most people are basically good and want to be successful pet parents. Just the fact that they’re considering adoption indicates their hearts are in the right place!

Once we allow ourselves to trust that the vast majority of people who want to adopt a pet have good intentions, we can begin forging relationships with adopters, educating them to create good homes.

Consider your adoption requirements. Are they serving you? And more importantly, are they serving your animals?Beth Contreras, vice president and adoption/foster coordinator for Voiceless-MI, a rescue group based in Charlotte, Mich., says her group doesn’t like to use the word “requirement” when it comes to the adoption process for its dogs. As far as Contreras is concerned, she’s willing to give any applicant consideration and works to be flexible to find the best match for dog and adopter.

At Homeward Pet Adoption Center in Woodinville, Wash., programs director Jim Keller says that his group is revamping its adoption application by eliminating any yes/no questions and replacing them with questions designed to trigger a discussion. For example, instead of asking: “Do you have a fence?” the application will now ask, “How do you plan to provide exercise?”

Keller has noticed that using a standard application chock-full of yes/no questions has the unintended consequence of making it easier for people to “game the system.”

“We know that people looking for a dog or cat are often visiting several shelters in the same day,” he says, and “in completing standard applications at each shelter, they get used to giving the ‘right’ answers.” Keller says that having an application that jump-starts a conversation “is a much better way to get at the answers that really matter in making a good match between adopter and companion animal. And often, those ‘red flags’ are a great place to start to educate people about proper care and treatment of a dog or cat, and you’d never have that chance with a process that encourages them to hide information.”

“No question is designed to be a deal-breaking question,” agrees Mary Tiefenbrunn, executive director of Champaign County Humane Society (CCHS) in Urbana, Ill. “And although [with] some of the questions, obviously, there’s a certain answer we’re looking for, or a certain type of answer might be a red flag, we try to look at the application as a whole, as really just a conversation starter.”

Tiefenbrunn explains that counselors want to understand the individual’s expectations about pet ownership and then help them come to a realistic understanding of what the adoption will be like. An answer that’s far off the mark gives adoption counselors an opportunity to have a discussion with the applicant. “And their response can be, ‘Oh, well, I just didn’t know that,’ and then there’s no reason for it to be a deal-breaker. It all depends on what happens in that conversation.”

CCHS had to reach a the point where it wasn’t looking for “perfect” homes for every animal, she says. “That would be nice, but everyone’s idea of ‘perfect’ is different, and we want to get them good homes to the best that we can.”

Facing Common Fears

Most of the specific fears and judgments rescuers have about potential adopters are at the roots of the bigger fear: that the animal will be returned, given to someone who hasn’t been vetted, or taken to a shelter and possibly euthanized.

This overarching fear can drive lifestyle-based rejections of adopters who may be moving, who have a new baby or one on the way, who are younger or older than deemed ideal, or who fail to show they have their landlords’ permission to adopt. Others have been turned down because a rescue group felt they weren’t equipped to handle a dog of a particular breed. Some wannabe adopters have reported rejection on the basis of having a full-time job (because the animal wouldn’t get enough attention), while others have been denied because they weren’t working enough (because they might not be able to afford pet ownership).

It’s easy to understand their frustrations. But happily, there are ways to make the process friendlier, allowing rescuers to feel confident as they work with potential adopters toward an approval.

For dogs, two common adoption deal-breakers are the lack of a fenced yard and long hours alone while the adopter is at work. But do these have to result in an automatic “no” verdict? Your fenceless adopter may be an avid jogger or committed to regular romp runs at the dog park. Your hard-working applicant may be perfectly happy to have a dog walker stop by during the day, may plan to spend most nonwork time with their pet, or may have a pet-friendly workplace.

Contreras explains that her group tries to look at what each individual dog needs, which may not include a fenced-in yard. In fact, she says, her group “would have missed out on a lot of really good homes if we required a fence in every single home.”For cats, adopters are often rejected when they express plans to let the animal outdoors or have him declawed. Many groups that disapprove of declawing will guide such adopters toward cats who have already undergone the procedure. And while it’s best to keep all owned cats indoors for safety reasons, if a potential adopter wants to let his cat have access to the outdoors in a responsible manner, it shouldn’t be a reason to reject the application. Tiefenbrunn says that when an adopter says they plan to let a cat outside, counselors inform the person about all the potential risks and make sure the cat will spend most of her time inside. Adoption counselors ensure that only cats who are suited for some time outdoors go to these homes—a declawed cat who has never spent time outside is not a good candidate. Since her shelter is surrounded by rural counties, Tiefenbrunn has also started a “barn cat” adoption program—a fine alternative for some cats, she feels, as long as the potential adopter will provide food and water and access to a warm space in the winter.

Lifestyle issues aren’t limited to the animals, either—some adopters have reported rejection due to their advanced years. But senior citizens are often great pet owners, and age—or uncertain health status—should never make for an automatic rejection. When an older senior is involved, Angela Drzewiecki, president and co-founder of Last Hope Rescue in Tallahassee, Fla., gets a commitment from the family to care for the pet if he does outlive his owner. The same rule applies for an adopter with a serious illness. After all, ensuring someone is ready to care for your pet if you’re gone is something we should all do!

In all of these cases, it’s best to engage the applicant in a conversation, raise your concerns in a nonjudgmental manner, and listen to the responses.

While none of us can predict the future, you can help shape it. Drzewiecki finds that “keeping in touch [with our adopters] and having a good relationship” is key, both to preventing issues before they become too big to handle and to ensuring that if the adopter does decide to surrender a pet, the animal comes back to her. “We keep up with [the adopters], we follow up—we’re constantly in contact and want to give them as many resources as possible. We work with local dog trainers and doggy day care providers who give discounts to our adopters.”

If the pet ends up not fitting in well with the family, and the adopter decides to give the animal to someone he knows, it’s not the end of the world. Drzewiecki says her group will work with the new owner if they have concerns, but “if it seems like it’s a good home, of course we’re going to leave it alone. We don’t want to take [dogs] out of a good home.” Getting upset and demanding the pet be returned will only cause turmoil and create animosity. But by building a strong relationship from the beginning and making sure adopters feel like you’re their helper and mentor—not their judge and jury—you increase the chances the adopter will come back to you if things aren’t working out.

Follow the Golden Rule

This way of viewing the adoption process—as a give-and-take rather than the third degree—may make sense already to those rescuers who have dealt with shelters’ concerns about releasing animals to them. Many rescuers have had to prove themselves to shelters, and many rescuers are frustrated by what that process was like.

If, when you first approached a shelter to pull animals, you were treated with suspicion, try to remember that feeling. That’s the feeling you don’t want your adopters to have. Start by assuming that your adopters are not hoarders and will provide good veterinary care to the animals they adopt. Confirm that in the conversations you have with them. As the old saying goes: Trust, but verify.

Asking adopters for a veterinary reference on the application is fine—but, Tiefenbrunn notes, it shouldn’t turn into a Catch-22 for first-time pet owners. Moreover, she says, a lack of many visits to the vet over the years isn’t necessarily an indication that the animal has not been well-cared for.A home visit is another tool to help you ensure that the pet is going to a safe place, but if you opt to do home visits, work on your presentation of the idea. A first-time adopter may not expect the suggestion, and may show resistance that has nothing to do with having something to hide. “I will explain to [adopters] that it’s not so much a reflection of you as it is we just need to know that these dogs are going into safe hands … because they are in our foster homes and they’ve been a part of our family,” Contreras says. Once she explains it that way, she finds that most people understand.

Homeward Pet Adoption Center, on the other hand, opts to forgo the home visit and allows adopters to take their new pet home the same day. Counselors then follow up with new adopters by sending an email after seven days, 30 days, and 90 days to make sure everything is going smoothly. Keller says that counselors remind the adopters that “there are always frustrations with bringing a new animal into your home,” and that they want to hear about those little frustrations and offer help. This approach requires a little letting-go on the front end, but Keller finds it works for his group. Typically, he says, when his counselors follow up with adopters they find that things are going just fine and the new pet is settling into the home.

Some rescue groups are nervous about same-day adoptions, but research has shown time and time again that these pets aren’t given up at any greater rate than those whose adopters were asked to wait a while before taking them home. In an age when every pet store allows people to take an animal home immediately, forbidding it may prevent people from adopting from you. And as Keller has found out, if you’ve fostered a good, honest, and nonjudgmental relationship with your adopter, allowing a pet to go home the same day is fine. It’s a decision your organization can handle on a case-by-case basis.

Remember, Rejection Hurts

Finally, if you do decide to deny a potential adopter—and we hope that after reading this you’ll reject fewer!—don’t give them the treatment Bernthal and so many others experience (and go on to mention to other potential adopters, fosterers, and volunteers). Let people know why they were rejected, whether it was because another application came in before theirs or something else came up.

“We do not do flat-form replies,” says Contreras. She takes the time to reply to every applicant, because “I want to try and educate people, I want them to understand why we’re saying no.” That way they not only won’t get a negative view of rescues, but they may also be willing to consider a more appropriate dog.

Indeed, Contreras notes that many times she’s been able to convince a potential adopter that a specific dog isn’t right for them, and they go on to adopt one who’s more suitable. Too many wonderful pet parents are rejected only to wonder why. While the rescue group’s concerns may be legitimate, no one will know if you don’t have that conversation. Listening to people can help you come to understand them, and may help you figure out what they need to become that great pet parent you’re hoping for.

As Keller notes, “For me, it always comes down to commitment. If someone is committed to sharing their life with a companion animal, we can help with everything else that will make their adoption successful.”

Find more resources for rescue groups.


About the Author

Abby Volin is the former Public Policy Manager for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), where she focused on policies and programs that protect pets and keep them in their homes. In her previous role at HSUS she developed programs specifically designed to meet the unique needs and challenges experienced by rescue groups. Prior to joining The HSUS, Abby worked as a litigator and was involved of all aspects of operating a rescue group in her spare time.