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The third degree

Is your adoption form turning up the heat on qualified candidates?

From Animal Sheltering magazine January/February 2015

"Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?”

OK, so your adoption application probably isn’t reminiscent of the McCarthy era. But what are you asking your potential adopters—and why? Do the questions work for you? Is your adoption process finding your animals great homes, or are you lagging behind even the motor vehicle administration in local popularity contests?

Even the most well-meaning staff can sometimes come across more like interrogators than partners when speaking with would-be adopters. A slightly skeptical tone, a question that’s a little too personal or seems nonsensical—these can be enough to persuade visitors that you’re not really trying to find animals homes. You’re just trying to make potential adopters feel bad.

Of course that’s not true, and as animal advocates, we know the reason for our questions: We want to ensure that the animals in our care go to wonderful, loving homes. But in our enthusiasm to find the perfect placement for little Fluffy or big Zeke, we can get overzealous. Our applications can be off-putting, presenting close-ended questions that screen out great candidates.

While adopters anticipate some kind of screening process, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Fear not! We talked to some in-house experts in pet placement and got the lowdown on how to revamp your adoption application to be more people-friendly. Catherine Lynch, Suzanne D’Alonzo and Sarah Matisak spent a combined 25 years working at shelters and rescues before joining the HSUS shelter services team, and they say that customer service is key.

“It’s more complicated to adopt an animal than to adopt a child.” That’s something Lynch hears a lot. In her position as shelter outreach coordinator, she’s frequently on the receiving end of phone calls from would-be adopters who were turned away by their local shelter or rescue. One woman complained that a shelter wanted to run a credit check as part of its screening process.

“People were not only turned down for the adoption, they were turned down rudely,” says Lynch, or their calls were never even returned. This brand of customer disservice can hurt shelters in the long run. “How you’re treating people matters.”

Having a friendly adoption process is part of a larger attitude of service to your community. Lynch says that in every interaction with the public, shelter and rescue staff and volunteers should keep their eyes on the prize of building positive, lasting relationships. If people have negative experiences trying to adopt, they likely will never come back to the shelter and may even steer friends and family away, as well.

And those pets they wanted to adopt? They’ll end up getting them somewhere else, like a breeder or puppy mill.

Where to Draw the Line

Shelters and rescues get protective because they love their animals, but they can go overboard, says shelter services coordinator D’Alonzo. These days, people are being put on do-not-adopt lists simply for answering “yes” to questions such as, “Have you ever had a pet euthanized?”

Part of the challenge is to adjust our mindset. Sometimes we unrealistically expect people to be “the perfect owners,” says Matisak, senior shelter services coordinator.

D’Alonzo adds that new adopters or those who might just be uninformed about some pet-care issues should be engaged—think of the adoption process as a great opportunity to inform your community.

Yes, it’s true—sometimes the cat comes back. While shelters and rescues are commonly worried about returns and so exercise an overabundance of caution, our trio of experts doesn’t see what the big deal is. Yes, you want to make great matches so that no animals or people have to go through returns, but you can’t anticipate everything. And do returns actually hurt the animals? Probably not. “We send animals home to fosters all the time,” says Lynch, and the majority of the time, the change of scene doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on them. Most returns are not that different.

While returns are never ideal, we know that most animals are resilient. Besides, isn’t it better to take a chance on a potential adoption and give an animal some time in a good home rather than have him languish in a kennel, or worse? And don’t discount the value of the information garnered from homes that didn’t quite work out—insights about the pet’s likes, dislikes and behavior outside the shelter. That’s all information that can be used to make a more successful match.

So how can you tell if your adoption form merits an upgrade? D’Alonzo says a great exercise is to have every person on your staff and your board—you can even include some foster families and other volunteers—fill out your adoption questionnaire. If any of those people would be denied as adopters under your current system (we’re looking at you, Mr. “I-Once-Hid-a-Stray-Cat-From-My-Landlord”), it’s time to review your processes.

Start by taking a good look at each question and asking, “Why do we have this on here? What are we trying to learn by asking this?”

It might be helpful to frame the adoption process more as matchmaking than screening. Even small changes like calling paperwork a “questionnaire” instead of an “application” can help.

Think of the form not as a stand-alone tool, but as a conversation starter.

All Aboard

Whether you’re a municipal shelter or a nonprofit, you’ll doubtless have to run your new paperwork up the chain of command for approval. Smaller organizations might have only one contact at the city or county level or a small board, while larger groups may have many levels of review—such as program service managers, administrators or directors—to pass through.

But while the approval process could prove cumbersome, it’s an important investment, says Matisak. “Everyone needs to be on board for big change to happen.”

Getting the buy-in of municipal or organizational management could turn out to be the easiest aspect of your adoption overhaul, or it could be your biggest challenge. Staff are understandably protective of the animals in their care, but some see potential abusers and neglecters lurking behind every clipboard and view the adoption application as a tool to ferret them out (so to speak).

D’Alonzo says the vast majority of would-be adopters are capable of providing good homes—they might just need some help with their pet parenting skills. Emphasize to staff and volunteers what an important service they can provide the shelter and the community by helping potential adopters become great pet parents—and remind them that a “no” from a shelter may simply mean they’ll get an animal somewhere else.

Proposing a pilot program or trial period could persuade everyone up and down the chain of command to at least give the new approach a shot. Then, look at outcomes data for a particular time period and compare it to figures from the same period last year—chances are, adoptions will have gone up and returns, at worst, will have stayed the same.

For staff or volunteers who are still dragging their heels, or simply don’t know how to operate any other way, try having them role play the adoption process, letting them experience first the inquest, then the friendlier approach. A turn in the hot seat could help them develop more empathy for adopters.

Ask This, Not That

Attendees at last year’s Animal Care Expo in Daytona Beach, Fla., had an eye-opening experience during the conference’s Mythbusters session on adoptions (“Finding the Perfect Home”). As the lights came up, contestants silhouetted behind a screen began to play The Adoptions Game, supposedly competing for a chance to adopt a lovable shelter dog. But as the host rattled off question after question—all of which were common on adoption applications used by shelters and rescues of all sizes across the country—one by one, the candidates were disqualified—for traveling too much for work, having been turned down for adoption elsewhere, being unwilling to hire a trainer, not having a fenced yard.

What those watching didn’t know was that those questions were screening out some leaders in animal welfare—Betsy McFarland, vice president of Companion Animals for The HSUS; Todd Cramer, senior program manager of adoptions for PetSmart Charities; and Emily Weiss, vice president of Shelter Research and Development at the ASPCA. Answering yes-or-no questions honestly, they seemed like terrible candidates—but further discussion, a conversation that allowed for more knowledge and nuance, revealed that to be far from the truth.

If your adoption form is limited to close-ended questions (that can be answered “yes” or “no” without additional detail), you could be similarly turning away qualified adopters.

Below are some examples of questions commonly asked on adoption paperwork, along with some more constructive alternatives. (Note: Many of these are best asked in person, rather than on paper—it allows for a more natural conversation to develop.)

Once you have a taste of open- versus close-ended questions, have some fun with it. Get shelter staff or volunteers to play adopters (and devil’s advocate) and do mock runs through the adoption process. See if anyone can spot unhelpful or unfriendly questions and procedures.

Remember—you don’t need to go Cagney & Lacey for your cats (well, unless those are the cats’ names). Keep your communications friendly, focus on open-ended questions and you’ll get just the facts you need to appropriately place your pets and build a great reputation in your community.

About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.