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Who let the dogs out?

You! You! You! Or rather, with open adoptions, you'll be letting more of them go home

From Animal Sheltering magazine January/February 2015

Todd Cramer of PetSmart Charities (pictured with his border collie mix, Lulu) urges shelters to skip the rigid adoption criteria, focusing instead on a conversation to determine how a potential match might work.

Would you adopt a 2-year-old border collie mix to a single guy, without a fenced yard, whose job keeps him traveling and who has no experience with the breed? How about if that guy liked the dog, but wasn’t quite sure if she was a good fit for him?

The Animal Protective Foundation (APF) in Scotia, N.Y., did just that almost four years ago. That tentative guy was me. The APF staff didn’t judge my hesitation as an inability to commit to Lulu, and rather than make assumptions about how my singlehood and travel schedule would impact Lulu negatively, they asked some questions to determine the truth. These years later, Lulu is lying at my feet as I write this. It’s debatable as to which of us is more content. Lulu is here with me today because the APF was proactive and open in its adoption process.

Following an open adoptions philosophy means letting go of rigid and strict adoption criteria in favor of a warmer, patron-friendly process. This process works with each unique adopter to discover how they are (or can become) adoption-worthy, rather than why they aren’t.

This is important because the 2014 PetSmart Charities U.S. Shelter Pet Reportfound that more than two-thirds of Americans now say they would adopt a pet, rather than buy one from a breeder or pet store. It also suggests that while plenty of people would like to adopt, they may run into unclear or inconsistent rules and roadblocks in the process that prevent a happy ending. It may be partly for this reason that around 70 percent of pet owners still acquire their animals from sources other than shelters and rescues, leaving us with adoption numbers that are still pretty low.

In PetSmart Charities’ survey, 12 percent of people who chose not to adopt said the reason was because the adoption process was too difficult. Ultimately, a pet who could have gone to a loving home ended up staying with the organization instead. That’s frustrating, especially because we lose about 2.7 million adoptable pets every year due to euthanasia—and in rescue groups, a pet who lingers in foster care is taking up space that could be used to help another animal.

Shelter and rescue staff and volunteers invest a lot of emotion, time and money in preparing pets for what they hope is a “forever” home. They feel an obligation to find the “perfect” home for the pets in their care, believing that lengthy applications, mandatory home visits and rigid requirements will identify the perfect adopter for each pet in need.

But no potential adopter is perfect. Some people, like me, don’t have a fenced-in yard, a flexible work schedule or an impressive list of references who can speak to their pet-raising abilities. I’ve spent the last 12 years working in animal welfare organizations, and I’m still not the perfect pet parent. How many people like me—and like our amazing colleagues and fellow rescuers—are we turning away?

Working Toward Success From the Start

This lack of complete perfection—which is pretty much universal to the human race—is why it’s important for staff and volunteers to work with each unique adopter to discover how they are adoption-worthy, rather than why they aren’t.

In PetSmart Charities’ Adoption Forum II, participants identified “5 Essentials of a Successful Adoption.”

  • The match would be suited to the individual animal and family
  • The pet would be afforded appropriate veterinary care
  • The pet’s social, behavioral and companionship needs would be met
  • The pet would have a livable environment (including appropriate food, water, shelter, etc.)
  • The pet would be respected and valued

If these five essentials are achieved for a pet, then the adoption should be considered successful. Notice, nowhere within these essentials does it indicate that a pet owner must have a fenced yard, a certain income or that a home visit must be done.

So how do we complete an adoption, feel confident it will be successful and provide a positive experience for potential adopters?

Here are three tips for creating an open adoptions process that will help you save more lives:

Lose the rigid adoption criteria.

Review the reasons you might deny an adoption and consider if your requirements are truly ensuring an appropriate home, or if they just make you feel better. Is your reason for declining an adoption really an indicator that the “5 Essentials” won’t be met?

Every denied adoption increases a pet’s length of stay and reduces the number of animals you can help each year. Many of us have had pets in residences where they weren’t allowed, have adopted a new pet without our spouse’s approval or gotten behind on vaccines—and, ultimately, our pets were just fine.

At the Pearl River County SPCA in Picayune, Miss., Maria Diamond hesitantly let go of rigid adoption criteria. “I now look at people coming in to adopt with a different perspective instead of instantly judging them,” she notes. “I try to remember that most homes are much better than life in a cage.” But even animals living in foster homes rather than cages would be better off finding their home sooner rather than later—and when they do, there is another cat or dog who could use the loving foster care they no longer need.

In my case, the APF trusted I would exercise Lulu via a walk or romp at the dog park—and that is exactly what I do. It allows for more interaction between us and, therefore, a better bond than I might have if I formed the habit of leaving her to entertain herself in a fenced yard.

Trade the interrogation for conversation.

Use talking points to guide conversation that engages adopters and makes them an active participant in the adoption decision. Lengthy applications feel more like a test or interrogation and are tedious to complete and review. They often result in animal welfare groups being viewed as the adoption police rather than as matchmakers. Instead of asking a series of closed questions that lead folks to what they perceive as the correct answer—such as, “Will you keep your cat inside?”—start a conversation with an open question such as, “What will a typical day look like for Miss Kitty?” (See The Third Degree for more information on revamping your adoption application.) Work to identify reasons to adopt, rather than reasons not to. By having a conversation with me, the APF learned that, although my work required extensive travel, Lulu would travel with me whenever possible, and when she couldn’t, she’d have a live-in pet sitter. This left them comfortable placing Lulu in my care and, as a result, Lulu loves her car rides and has seen more of the country than many people I know.

Follow up on the adoption with a telephone call.

Check in and seize the opportunity to resolve any concerns before they result in a failed adoption. If resources are limited, follow up on the adoptions you feel are at a higher risk of not working out. You’ll feel good about the change to open adoptions when you learn the pet is living well. The APF’s shelter manager checked in with me after Lulu’s adoption to see how I was feeling about the match. She didn’t directly ask how Lulu was doing, but how I was doing—leaving me with the impression that I was important to the organization, too.

At the McKamey Animal Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., former executive director Karen Walsh replaced rigid adoption requirements with an open and conversational process. “We were thrilled with the results,” she says. “Our adoptions almost doubled in one year, and complaints from angry clients that felt ‘judged and rejected’ nearly disappeared. The return rate did not increase.”

Walsh is now a field program manager at PetSmart Charities. Together, we’re helping more groups implement open adoptions processes because they will increase your adoptions, leave your community feeling better about your organization and save more lives.

Discover more about open adoptions by reading the PetSmart Charities Adoption Forum II, and check out the PetSmart Charities Increasing Adoptions webinar series.

About the Author

Todd is the President & CEO at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society (MHHS) in New York’s Capital District. Prior to joining MHHS, he was the Senior Vice President of Community Engagement & Chief of Staff at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in New Jersey. Todd has also served as the Senior Program Manager, Adoptions at PetSmart Charities and Director of Community Initiatives at the ASPCA. Todd is a popular speaker delivering workshops on animal welfare topics at regional and national conferences including Best Friend’s National Conference and the Humane Society of the United States Animal Care Expo.