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Buster, a young dachshund awaiting a home at the Washington Animal Rescue League, was a friendly, happy dog—but because of a paralysis problem, he needed a cart to get around.
“He wasn’t the type of pet adoptive families line up for. When you describe him, people were less inclined to be interested,” recalls Matt Williams, chief communications officer of the shelter in Washington, D.C.
The staff knew they had to help the public see the playful dog behind the disability. “We created a video of Buster running around, playing, and posted it on our Facebook page. It went viral … now Buster has a home,” Williams reports.
Shelters and rescues do their best to find homes for animals, but now and then a resident cat or dog just doesn’t seem to connect with anyone. When an animal has been waiting too long—due to a medical issue, breed stigma, or just plain bad luck—it’s not good for that animal’s mental or physical health, so it’s helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve to get people’s attention.
Here are eight ways to shift some interest to your unrecognized love-bugs.
1. Give Them an Ambassador
Individual attention benefits any animal, especially one without her own family to bond with. At the Houston Humane Society (HHS), a one-on-one program called Project Dog helps fill the void for the longtime canine residents.
“Once a volunteer clocks 100 hours, they can join our Project Dog program,” says Monica Schmidt, public relations/events coordinator for the Texas shelter. “After attending training, they’re paired with a dog that has been here a bit longer.”
Most of the dogs thrive with the extra attention, and together, the duo focuses on polishing up the dog’s basic obedience skills. With a deeper understanding of the dog’s individual behaviors and needs, volunteers are more attuned to the sort of family who might be right for her.
“It’s definitely helped speed along the adoptions of these dogs,” says Schmidt.
It worked for Harold, who was going on his eighth month at the shelter. “He was a big dog, mixed breed, kind of nondescript. But a nice dog,” says Schmidt. “He was also heartworm positive, so there was a bit of added work involved.”
With the help of his Project Dog volunteer, Harold polished up his house manners and did some agility training. But the workers knew that many visitors didn’t see beyond Harold’s medical needs, so they decided to make a video of Harold doing what potential adopters might expect any pet dog to do: walk on leash, chase a ball, sit when asked. He even showed off some of his new agility tricks.
Soon, Harold had found the right home. “It was a perfect family for him, and his new grandfather is a vet,” says Schmidt.
2. Build a Virtual Headquarters
With animals housed at different foster locations, rescues face an added challenge when trying to ensure all their animals are seen by potential adopters.
“Many tend to be longtimers in search of a special home. Adoption events can be too stressful for them, and public visits are by appointment only, so we needed a way to showcase these amazing dogs,” says Christine Perez of New Jersey’s Eleventh Hour Rescue, which houses pets at foster homes, a kennel, and an enhanced adoption center at a local PetSmart.The solution came when a group of dedicated volunteers created the EHR Kennel Club Facebook page. More than just a listing of available dogs, the page highlights a dog of the week, promotes enrichment programs and activities, and reaches out for special fosters and adopters. And any dog in need of an extra boost gets his own fan page.
In just three months, the page had more than 1,000 fans, and the volunteers continue to keep it fresh and fun. “For Valentine’s Day, we created fake dating profiles for some of our longtimers,” says Perez. “We’re planning to have a page ‘takeover’ by some of the longtime guests, completely in the voice of the dog seeking a home.”
The extra exposure has proved successful. “Since launching in December 2012, we’ve had over 35 kennel dogs adopted; eight of those had been with us for over six months.”
3. Go Viral
As any LOLCat knows, social media today is highly visual. People love cute photos, funny captions, and heartwarming before-and-after shots. You can take advantage of this to get your animals’ faces circulating on the Internet.
Start with a great shot. Take the photo outside in early morning or late afternoon, when the subtle lighting will complement even an all-black pet. Even better, poll your volunteer base to see who’s photo-savvy, then pair them up with some animals for a photo shoot.
Don’t overlook candid photos, which can capture an animal’s personality. “Take a funny photo of a dog sleeping in a strange position or making a silly face … add a humorous caption, post it, and encourage people to share,” Perez suggests.
Once you’ve got that heartwarming photo, post it on your social media sites. Do a little research to figure out which hashtags are most popular and germane, so it’ll be more likely to get picked up by searches: #adoptdontbuy, #petrescue, #homelessdog, #catsofinstagram, etc.
It’s worth checking out trending topics on Twitter—every now and then you can use one that seems random to your advantage. For example, in early July, the hashtag #MyLifeWouldBeCompleteIf was trending. Imagine how much attention you could have gotten with a tweet that read #MyLifeWouldBeCompleteIf someone would adopt this adorable kitten from our organization.
Wherever you post your great pictures, make sure they can be tracked back to your organization. You don’t want to have eager adopters out there who don’t know how to find the kitty in your picture!
4. Hit the Town
At Animal Aid Inc., some of the dogs have taken matters into their own paws. Instead of waiting for potential adopters to come into the Oakland Park, Fla., shelter, they’re hitting the streets to show off their charms.
“We have many places nearby where you can eat or drink outdoors, so we let the volunteer bring the dog,” managing director Tamera Gibson-Demello explains. In popular outdoor areas, the dogs will socialize and enjoy the attention, and the accompanying volunteer can give the shelter’s business card to anyone interested.
“It’s been a good program for the volunteers, also. Not everyone is suited to working inside the shelter; some are more social and like to get out,” Gibson-Demello says.
To increase your luck even more, consider the particular events and trends that seem to be drawing people in your community. For example, you could steal a marketing trick from the popular food truck industry. These traveling trucks broadcast their location with frequent social media updates. Try the same with your dogs: “Heading out for a cool drink? Join Lab-mix Sparky and his escort at the Sunny Café this afternoon, 10 Main Street!” And you could even take it further: If there’s one food truck that’s particularly popular at a certain time of day, why not have volunteers walking a couple of longtime dogs in the park nearby?
5. Sweat the Small Stuff
Even subtle changes can shift some attention to an overlooked dog or cat. At Animal Aid, Gibson-Demello and other staff have a weakness for the underdog: “Pit bull mixes, dogs that are missing a limb, those with medical issues, we’ll take them all.”
And with that comes the challenge of finding them a home, so the staffers are ready to act once an animal’s days start piling up, making in-shelter shifts that ensure that shy kitty gets more than a glance, and that three-legged pooch finds a home to run to.
“We’ll move the dog to the front of the shelter, and give him something to help people envision him as a pet—a bright bandana [or] colorful name tag,” she says.
They’ll even narrow the field for an adopter who’s spotted that special pet online. “If someone comes in asking about one of our harder-to-place dogs, we bring the dog out to them, rather than bringing the person inside the shelter,” Gibson-Demello says. Bringing the dog out is great customer service, but it also ensures the adopter will stay focused on that dog, rather than going back into the kennels and possibly being distracted by others. Animal Aid staff will also spend time talking with the visitor, discussing the dog’s strong points.
Gibson-Demello says she tries to include some freebies with the tougher cases, catered to the animal’s particular needs—for example, free or discounted training for dogs in their adolescent phase, or veterinary care or medication for dogs with a medical issue. “Whatever we have an abundance of, I’ll throw in. I’ll ask for a donation, whatever they can give, and if they can’t, that’s fine too,” she says.
6. Dispel the Myths
When an animal has a medical issue or special needs, your instinct might be to shift the focus away from the problem. But sometimes, clearing the air is just what’s needed.
At Motley Zoo Animal Rescue in Redmond, Wash., executive director Jme Thomas has found that being honest and sharing information can have surprising results, even for seemingly hopeless cases.“We had a puppy with a terrible case of ringworm—the worst we have ever seen,” Thomas says, noting that people tend to be freaked out by ringworm. In hopes of finding a comfortable place for the little guy to recuperate, Thomas posted a detailed “Foster needed” plea on Facebook, offering information about the dog, his illness, and expected recovery.
“We received hundreds of shares and likes within a very short period of time. We were shocked,” says Thomas. The puppy is under the care of an experienced foster parent, where he’s gaining back his good health and learning what he needs to know to be a great family dog.
Meanwhile, the rescue’s Facebook following grew to an all-time high of 30,000-plus followers.
“Perhaps because it’s about dispelling myths, answering questions, being optimistic,” says Thomas.
When describing a special case, don’t reinvent the wheel—include links to reputable sources of information so people can learn everything they need to feel comfortable.
7. A Little Competition
People love to win something, whether it’s a basket of goodies or just simple recognition. Holding a contest can be a fun way to stir up attention for a languishing animal.
At Motley Zoo Animal Rescue, a naming contest, promoted through social media, helped a puppy who didn’t have much of a future without costly surgery to correct a liver shunt.
“We collected $5 donations for every dog-naming choice. One girl put in $100 for the name Hayley,” says Thomas. Within five days, Hayley had her name, but even better, she had the funds to have her surgery. Soon the healthy dog was starting a new life with a family from Canada.
Keep your contest as simple as possible: For a traditional contest, a simple raffle collected in a bucket might do. If it’s a cyber contest, set up a landing page on your website where visitors can enter and pay. If the contest doesn’t have a fee, invite people to enter by emailing, retweeting a specific hashtag (#NameThePuppy), or commenting on a blog post. Be sure to comply with the rules of your social media outlet before hosting a cyber contest; for example, Facebook has specific rules about contests and promotions.
8. Play with Pricing
A discount always catches people’s attention. This can be a great way to promote your adult animals during puppy or kitten season, or to shift some interest toward your longtimers.
In 2010, the Animal Protective Association of St. Louis tried a temporary special called Pick Your Price. Instead of the usual $175 adoption fee for cats, the association asked approved adopters to pay whatever they saw fit.
“A lot more older cats went home, as well as cats in pairs,” says executive director Steve Kaufman. The “temporary” program had such a great impact on feline adoptions—as well as staff morale—that it’s been in place ever since.
The key to success is in the presentation, says Kaufman. When explaining the fee, staff are careful to explain that the new owner isn’t just paying for their new cat, but helping all the animals in the shelter.
“We’ll smile politely when someone hands over a few dollars, but another time we’ll get someone else who gladly pays a few hundred, so it evens out, somewhat,” Kaufman says.
These techniques may take a little extra time and resources, but that will make it all the more rewarding when one of your longtime residents finally heads home with their new family.