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A Friendlier, Open Adoption Process Benefits Both Dogs and Humans

Loving, capable adopters regularly get turned away because of unreasonable expectations by rescues and shelters. Many are updating their procedures to change that.

Toni Perling  |  Oct 9th 2015


Adopting a dog is a lot like buying a new car. It’s a major life decision. You’re going to be living with and loving that new addition for many years to come. And if you’re like most people, you’ve probably given the idea lots of thought and done plenty of offline and online research.

Say you’ve narrowed down your choices to something like a good ol’ sturdy pickup (a large adult dog), a family SUV (a young retriever mix), a zippy new sports car (that cute little fluff ball), or maybe even a crossover (some combination of the above). Then you’ve found a dealer (shelter or rescue organization) to steer you toward the model with just the right features (your dream dog).

My dream dog Daisy at the shelter. (Photo courtesy Toni Perling)

My dream dog Daisy at the shelter. (Photo courtesy Toni Perling)

Up to this point, it’s all pretty fun and exciting, especially when you take that test drive (walk around the block) and decide you have indeed found your match. But then, suddenly, you’re sitting in a sterile office environment, perched in a none-too-comfortable chair across from a seasoned interrogator who’s giving you the third degree, based on a 10-page application asking for pretty much everything but your blood type. What do you do for a living? What’s your salary? Do you live alone? What are the ages of the people in your household? Do you rent or own your residence? Can you provide three or more references?

That doesn’t even cover the half of it. Here are just some of the questions taken from an actual adoption group’s questionnaire:

  • Do you have a yard?
  • Is it fully fenced?
  • Will someone be home to take care of the dog during the day?
  • How many hours per day do you plan on leaving the dog alone?
  • If you work full-time away from home, what are your plans for the dog during that time?
  • Are you prepared to cover training costs if behavioral issues arise?
  • What about vet costs?
  • Is there a limit to how much you’ll spend?
  • In terms of vet expenses, how much is too much?

I have a question: Really?

If by some miracle you manage to answer all of these to the rescue’s satisfaction, you still may have to endure a home visit, a call to your landlord, a meet-and-greet with your entire family, and even a request to submit pay stubs or mortgage statements. The process can take a week or more, and it can be pretty nerve-wracking. And there’s no guarantee the shelter or organization will agree to let you adopt, even after all that.

An “unfit” dog mom?

Jillian Giornelli of East Cobb, Georgia, was frustrated by just such a potential rescue experience. “I was very thorough about my research of the Boxer breed to make sure it would be a good fit for our family,” she says. “And I felt very strongly about rescuing versus going to a breeder.”

Giornelli found a local Boxer rescue and contacted them, fully aware of the serious commitment involved. “I asked a lot of questions about general care and each available dog’s personality, temperament, health issues, etc. In my mind, I was just being thorough and was trying to approach the adoption as well informed and responsibly as possible. Well, I guess I asked too many questions … because they replied back that they didn’t think I was the right fit for their dogs.”

The rescue accused Giornelli of not being willing to accept anything but a “perfect” dog with perfect behavior and then abruptly refused all further contact with her.

Ironically, she and her husband had just successfully adopted a baby girl. “So I was found fit to care for a human being, but was deemed unfit by the rescue organization to care for an adult dog that was unwanted,” she says.

Giornelli didn’t give up, though. She went to a different organization and found a great dog, and then added another canine pal to her family later. As she says now, “I still get amused and a little bit pissed off when I think about that rescue organization and how they judged us. And to prove them wrong, I have two very happy and fortunate dogs that are an integral part of our family!”

Scout Giornelli and his family. (Photo courtesy )

Scout Giornelli and his family. (Photo courtesy Jillian Giornelli)

Understandably, these organizations want to be sure that each dog is going to a good home. But meanwhile, perfectly loving and capable adopters like Giornelli are being turned away, and the pets are remaining in the shelters.

Friendlier process = more adoptions

There’s also a lot of competition in the pet marketplace out there for rescue groups. According to a 2013-2014 study by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, only 29 percent of pet owners got their dogs or cats through adoption. The rest came from a friend or relative, a breeder, or (even worse) a pet store. And the numbers are worse once potential adopters have been denied by a shelter or rescue: More than 90 percent of those folks go elsewhere to get their new pet, according to Best Friends Animal Society.

Best Friends is an award-winning, national no-kill organization that also holds an annual convention to help local shelters, rescue groups, and individuals achieve no-kill status in their own communities. It’s an inspiring weekend full of great workshops and discussions. At their recent gathering in Atlanta, which drew more than 1,500 people, several of the speakers addressed the benefits of a more open and friendly adoption process, including representatives from PetSmart Charities, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Best Friends itself.

Best Friends National Convention held in Atlanta, July, 2015. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

Best Friends National Convention held in Atlanta, July, 2015. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

Todd Cramer, senior program manager of adoptions for PetSmart Charities, talked to the gathered about a survey his organization conducted, looking into the reasons that people chose not to adopt. Twelve percent cited the difficulty of the process itself.

“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,” Cramer said.

Todd Cramer. (Photo courtesy Pet Smart Charities)

Todd Cramer. (Photo courtesy Pet Smart Charities)

Happy adopters mean more happy endings

So after careful study, several of these organizations came up with new guidelines for the adoption procedure, focusing on a friendlier, more customer service-oriented approach that’s more about an open dialogue and less about providing eight different references and a sample of your DNA. It’s also about establishing a lasting and ongoing connection with the rescuer, so that if problems do arise, the adopters feel supported in handling them. Folks are encouraged to reach out to their shelter contact, so she can recommend solutions and/or refer to a vet or behavior specialists. This cuts way down on returns.

That’s what Marc Peralta, executive director of the Best Friends Animal Society L.A., is going for with his shelter’s process. “Interrogation-style adoption policies often lead people to answering with what they feel is the ‘correct’ answer rather than the honest one. That’s a lose-lose for the client and the pet. We see increased adoptions because we look to say yes, make it fun, and ask open-ended questions that we feel are relevant to finding a safe and appropriate home.”

A Best Friends counselor might say something like, “Glad you came in today. What is it about this little guy that appeals to you?” There’s more of a dialogue and give-and-take, which often results in a much more successful experience.

Marc Peralta at the conference. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

Marc Peralta at the conference. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society.)

In fact, Best Friends L.A. got it down to a one-page app, and many families get to take home their new pal the same day. The atmosphere of the facility itself, known as No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA), also helps to make the whole experience a relaxed and welcoming one.

NKLA’s welcoming lobby. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

NKLA’s welcoming lobby. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society.)

“We have a fun questionnaire that focuses on the client’s expectations, needs and experiences. … The process can take 20 minutes or a few hours depending on the client’s and pet’s need.”

The “boardwalk” meeting area at NKLA. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society)

The “boardwalk” meeting area at NKLA. (Photo courtesy Best Friends Animal Society.)

Still, sometimes the match doesn’t go as expected, and even with support, the dog isn’t thriving in his new environment. You might be reluctant to reach out in this situation, afraid you’ll be yelled at and shamed. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Peralta insists: “Our adopters are provided with a lifetime commitment to address any questions that may arise or to return the pet for any reason to our center.”

Open adoption is the way to go

The list of major national animal advocates currently supporting the “open adoption” model includes all the big players: Humane Society of the United States, Maddie’s Fund, Petco Foundation, No Kill Advocacy Center, plus the aforementioned Petsmart Charities, Best Friends, and the ASPCA.

And the ideas are trickling down to the local level. There are success stories all around the country with shelters taking on this approach and increasing successful placements by double-digit percentages. One of the pioneers in implementing the open adoption process is the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado. The ASPCA helped the organization retire its rigid guidelines by asking the HSBV staff to consider whether their own shelter would adopt to them if they were going through the application process. Surprisingly, most of them wouldn’t pass muster.

After all, shelter staff often work long hours and don’t earn high salaries, so they aren’t with their own pets 24/7. Many would struggle with exorbitant pet-care bills. Most didn’t have fenced-in yards or landlord approval for their own animals. But, of course, they were dedicated pet lovers and more than competent caretakers. This simple question got them to think differently about the demands they were putting on potential adopters and helped them transition to a more open process.

How to find your perfect rescue

I know, it’s so tempting to start looking through online pictures of adoptables in your area once you’ve decided to rescue — but before you get your heart set on a specific dog, you might want to start out by researching the rescue organizations in your area.

Almost all shelters and rescues have websites on which they describe their adoption processes, and most have sample applications online. Once you’ve decided on a group or two that seems to match your sensibilities, check them out online to see what others have to say. If you’re comfortable with the answers, then it’s probably safe to either visit or start looking at their online pet profiles.

And I know it’s also tempting to get attached to a particular dog whose picture you’ve seen and whose story you’ve read and connected with. But it’s helpful to keep an open mind — and open heart. If you’ve chosen the right shelter, they’ll help you choose the right pet.

Even after all that, if you feel like you’ve been given a raw deal at one shelter, don’t give up! There are great organizations and dogs in every community out there, just waiting for you to find them, so you can drive off into the sunset together.

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About the author: Atlanta’s own Toni Perling is a writer and web content provider, mostly about dogs, hence her blogger name, Doggienista. And hence, her two beautiful rescue dogs: Daisy Jo and Bud Earl. She tweets for them at DaisyJoBudEarl, and shares her collection of dog names and trends at DoggieNames.com. Toni started asking her parents for a puppy pretty much the minute she learned to speak, but they held off until she was the ripe old age of 10, when the family welcomed a Miniature Schnauzer named Truffles. In between, she inhaled every book about dogs ever written and can pretty much identify any breed by sight. She’s also a longtime supporter of spay/neuter/rescue, and adopted her first dog, a sweet lovable mutt named Sophie, from an Los Angeles County shelter.