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Rescue Group Best Practices: progressive adoptions

Having an innovative, progressive adoption program is essential to getting your animals into new homes and expanding your organization’s ability to save more lives.


It is unfortunate, but the public’s perception is that many rescue groups have standards so strict that it is almost impossible to adopt from them. This only discourages people from adopting a pet, and instead drives them to purchase an animal from a breeder or pet store. Keep in mind that if someone comes to your organization wanting to adopt, they are already trying to do the right thing. You want to make potential adopters feel welcome and make dealing with your organization a positive exper-ience to increase the chance that they will adopt a pet from your rescue.

Building a barrier-free adoption program starts with a philosophical commitment to celebrating people’s willingness to adopt, meeting them where they are in terms of their attitudes towards and their understanding of pet care, and investing in their success with guidance and practical support. Putting this philosophy into practice requires several steps:

  1. Implement progressive policies that remove barriers and increase options for homeless pets in your community.
  2. Offer adoption counseling that relies on open and easy conversations to set pets and their owners up for success.
  3. Develop marketing strategies that overcome barriers.
  4. Train team members to deliver the program appropriately.

The animal welfare field is moving towards greater adoption success by building adoption programs that are based on research and data. A progressive, barrierfree adoptions policy means that rescue groups approach potential adopters in a non-judgmental manner that allows adoption counselors to get to know the potential adopter, reveal what issues concern the person and determine how to create a successful adoption. Through these conversation-based adoptions, you can build relationships with adopters so that they view rescue groups as a lifelong resource for their pets and return for advice and support when concerns crop up.

Progressive adoption programs put less emphasis on written applications and instead use open conversations to better understand and communicate with adopters. While rescue groups should collect basic contact information and a list of topics that the potential adopter wants to discuss, the application should forgo any lengthy inquisition. When organizations throw up barriers to adoptions, such as landlord checks, home visits, veterinarian checks, fence requirements, and verification of current pets’ vaccinations, it can prevent one of your animals from going to a loving home. But it will not stop a potential adopter from getting a pet from another source. Barriers merely provide a false sense of security. As unsettling as it may be, in reality, you have no control over what happens to a pet from the moment she and her new owner walk out your door and head for home. And despite commonly held fears, agencies that aim for barrier-free adoption policies are not placing animals carelessly; they just take care not to miss out on opportunities to place their animals into good homes.

While there are millions of pet dogs and cats living in U.S. homes, only about 40% of pets come from shelters or rescue groups. This statistic suggests that the majority of pet owners are able to successfully care for their pets with-out the need for approval or assistance from animal welfare organizations. By trusting adopters and providing them with the support and information they need without judgment, you can place more animals in good homes and save more lives.

Ensuring that your policies are current with the latest research will help you reach more adopters and increase your lifesaving capacity. For example, studies show that, despite fears in the animal welfare community, adopting out animals for a reduced fee, or even no fee, does not increase the likelihood that pets will end up in the wrong hands. The bond created between people and their pets means more than any amount paid. New research also indicates that pets given as gifts are not more likely to be relinquished. Thus, rescues should reconsider blanket policies that ban adopting out pets to be given as gifts. Of course, in such cases, organizations should work closely with adopters to learn about the gift recipient and ensure a good match.

Another way to gain the trust of potential adopters is to implement a “satisfaction guarantee” adoption policy. This entails judgment-free adoptions as well as judgment-free, no-fault returns. In addition to always taking back an animal the organization has adopted out, it means allowing the individual to adopt another animal without judgment. Keep a positive spin on returns. Realize that they can provide your organization with crucial information about a pet so that a better match can be made in the future. Staying positive also increases the chance that your group will retain the former adopter as a supporter and a potential home for another animal. And while it is a good idea to keep a few spots open for inevitable returns, rescue groups should also allow adopters to rehome an animal themselves.

Because returns can be unpredictable, allowing adopters to rehome an animal can save rescue groups time and resources. Adopters should provide rescue groups with the new owner’s contact information so that the organization can continue to offer support to that pet.

It is important to make adopters feel welcomed at every stage, including returns, without fear that they may be ridiculed. Above all, it is crucial not to vent about your customers or potential customers through social media, or any other means of communication, as no one wants to adopt from a group that might criticize them. Avoid creating a culture in your organization where people are bad, wrong, or stupid—they are who rescue groups rely on to find homes for the animals, and organizations should embrace the opportunity to share helpful information.

At the end of the adoption process, many rescue groups use an adoption contract to formalize the agreement between the adopting organization and the adopter. In addition to demonstrating transfer of ownership from the adopting agency to the adopter, adoption contracts also serve to protect adoption agencies from future liability.

Consult with an attorney who is licensed in your state and familiar with issues pertaining to animal law when drafting or implementing legal documents such as contracts. Not only do you want to ensure that such documents are tailored to meet the requirements of all federal, state and local laws, you also want to ensure that your organization is protected in the event that there are future issues with the pet.

Examine your contract to make sure you are not undermining your adopter-friendly approach. For example, replace “no refunds” language and demands to return animals to your agency if adopters cannot keep them. Instead, focus on influencing pet care through engaging adoption conversations and follow-up support.

As far as deciding what fee to charge, conduct market research in your area and find out what other shelters and local rescue groups charge, as many adopters check prices at various organizations in a community before deciding which one to adopt from. It is important to set the fee at an amount that is not so high that it constitutes a barrier to adoption; charging a reasonable and competitive fee offers adopters an additional incentive to choose your organization.


A crucial part of adoptions is setting your adopter up for success. Remember that it should be up to the potential adopter to determine what makes a good match. Adopters have a sense not only of what kind of pet they are looking for, but more importantly, what their concerns are. Many people looking to bring a new pet into their lives admit to worrying that a rescued pet will be unhealthy or that not enough is known about the animal’s background. Find out what issues concern a potential adopter about adopting a pet and have a direct conversation addressing those issues.

While there are several programs that help adopters make a match based on personalities and lifestyle, no matching system is perfect and many potential adopters choose with their heart. The avid runner may want a lazy pet around the house. The couch potato may want a more active dog to motivate him to exercise. The adults in a family with young children could be seasoned dog trainers. If a potential adopter wants a specific pet there is no reason an organization should not let the individual try out the adoption. Call the arrangement a trial period, a foster-to-adopt or something similar. What is the worst that could happen? The pet is returned after a couple of weeks and you and the pet are no worse off than before the trial. Remember not to judge the adopter for a return, allow the person to adopt another pet from your organization and view the experience as an opportunity to gather more information about the animal. The best outcome? The adoption works out and you have a happy adopter and a happy pet.

In addition to copies of all medical and behavioral information on the specific animal, send adopters home with information that lets them know what to expect with a new pet. For example, how can they expect the pet to behave on the first day in a new home? What kind of food should the pet eat and how much per day? What are some common medical and behavioral issues and ways to resolve them? When it is time to take a pet to the veterinarian? Addressing common pet issues, as well as specific concerns identified by the adopter, and explaining the “satisfaction guarantee” policy will put adopters on the path to success.

When resources allow, it is a good idea to follow up after an adoption to build your personal relationship with the pet owner, provide support to the adopter and her pet and possibly enhance your visibility and reputation within the larger community. A happy adopter can become a repeat adopter, recommend the organization to a friend or become a volunteer, donor or foster provider for your rescue group. So, if possible, have someone contact adopters after they take their new pet home to check in and offer support if needed. Ask the adopter when and how he prefers to be contacted (usually phone or email), and let him know that your organization is available for assistance and advice. If it is not possible for your rescue to proactively follow up with adopters, be sure to let them know that the organization is always available to assist with questions or concerns. Provide adopters with a phone number or email address that gives them direct access to someone at your organization. Setting your adopters up for success from the beginning will make it much more likely that you will end up with satisfied adopters in the long run.


A large part of adoptions success also depends on where you hold adoption events and how you market the animals, especially ones that may be more difficult to place. Partnering with PetSmart Charities or a pet store are good options, but do not forget to think outside the box. Holding adoption events in areas that get a lot of foot traffic, such as grocery stores, big box stores, farm supply and garden centers and even car dealerships, allows you to reach potential adopters who might not stop at a pet store.

The UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program recommends having different types of animals at an adoption event, while keeping in mind that too many animals at one time can be overwhelming. “Consider species, age, breed, color, behavior, and special characteristics when evaluating the need for variety. While many adopters are seeking friendly, healthy, young animals, some will seek out hard luck cases, older animals and those with special challenges.”

As far as advertising the animals in your organization, always be truthful about any medical or behavioral issues. You can put a positive spin on them (“Fluffy prefers to have you all to herself” as opposed to “Fluffy hates other cats”), but never lie—it will ruin your organization’s credibility. Do not forget to promote your harder-to-adopt pets (e.g., special needs, geriatric), too. Using special promotions or cute marketing gimmicks will help move those difficult cases into homes in no time.

For more information, check out the the Adopters Welcome manual.