Would You Do a Trial Adoption With an “Imperfect” Dog?

They can help some "imperfect" dogs find their perfect homes -- and my little Marshmallow is proof it works.

Heather Marcoux  |  Jan 26th 2015


Some rescue dogs are great at selling themselves to potential adopters. My Lab mix, GhostBuster, looked up at my husband and I with those big brown eyes as he sat quietly in his kennel, and was giving me paws and kisses within minutes. We knew pretty quickly that he was the dog for us.

But what about dogs who don’t show so well? The ones who cower in the corner and need time to develop trust?

Many rescues have found that short-term trial adoptions are the solution for these animals. The concept doesn’t work for all organizations, but it is helping some “imperfect” dogs find their perfect home — and my little Marshmallow is living proof that it works.

“I think that if we didn’t offer trial adoptions, some of the dogs with behavioral concerns wouldn’t have as good of a chance,” explains Jennie Devereaux, adoption coordinator for Forever and a Day Small Dog Rescue Society (FAAD) in Alberta, Canada.

Devereaux was with me the day I met my second dog, Marshmallow (known then as Mindy), at her foster home. I’d been searching local shelters and rescues for weeks before I learned about this adorable (but very shy) dog. Marshmallow had traveled more than a thousand miles to find a family, having come to the rescue from the Northwest Territories SPCA in Yellowknife. I really hoped that my household would be the right fit for her.

When we walked into the foster home, you could tell Marshmallow was a timid little thing. A petite half Jack Russell Terrier, half who-knows-what, her body language betrayed the fact that she didn’t trust easily, men in particular we would soon learn.

During that first meeting with me, Marshmallow was definitely not comfortable. She had to be picked up and brought over — she wasn’t about to come over to me on her own. Once she was on the couch with me, Marshy froze like a statue, obviously afraid of the new people around her. She looked at the foster family’s cat instead of looking at me.

As I chatted with the foster family and Devereaux, the three-year-old dog eventually lightened up, and I spent some time petting her. The dog was being fostered by two women, and was obviously bonded to one of them. I was told she picked up house manners quickly, especially for a dog who hadn’t had much exposure to human lifestyles before coming into care.

After the shy little dog had a successful meet-and-greet with GhostBuster, Devereaux paid my husband and I a visit at home. We passed the home inspection, and after another visit with Devereaux and the foster family, we decided to move forward with a trial adoption. We would care for Marshmallow in our home for two weeks before signing the adoption papers.

“I offer them to people that I would adopt to,” explains Devereaux. “Some people just know right off the bat that it’s not necessary, but in cases like Marshmallow, when the dog is a little bit more finicky or has a behavioral issue, it’s a good opportunity to see if they jibe.”

Before meeting Marshmallow, the biggest concern my husband and I had about adopting a second dog was how she would fit into our existing pet dynamic. GhostBuster gets along great with our two kitties, Ghost Cat and Specter, and we knew any potential adoptable dog would have to love cats. After meeting Marshmallow, we were confident that she would like GhostBuster and the kitties — we just didn’t know if she would like us, especially my husband.

The first few days with Marshmallow were interesting. She loved our pets but did not trust us. At first she didn’t eat much, so I tempted her with delicious microwaved wet food. Within two days, it became obvious that I was becoming her preferred person, and we made the decision that my husband would be the only one to feed Marshmallow.

At the end of the first week, Marshmallow will still so nervous around my husband that we discussed the heartbreaking possibility that maybe our home wasn’t the right place for her. She wouldn’t pee or poop for my husband if I wasn’t home, and even tried to run away from him once.

Despite her man-fear, Marshmallow had made so much progress in other areas. She was sitting on command and had stopped having accidents in the house. We decided to see how she would do in the second week.

Slowly, Marshmallow warmed up to my guy. At first, she would only sit on the couch with me if she was not between me and my husband, but by the end of the second week she would sit beside him. She would even sleep between us in our bed at night. As she continued to make slow progress, we made our trial adoption permanent.

Marshmallow never would have warmed up to us during a visit or an adoption event, but the trial adoption allowed her to reveal herself and develop trust at her own pace.

“It’s just such a good way of getting to know the dog,” says Devereaux. “It sets people up for success.”

While some rescue organizations, like FAAD, find that trial adoptions work well for them, some rescues and shelters do have policies against them. The Saskatoon SPCA, for example, points out on its website that animals can be stressed by moving to and from homes, and that trial adoptions mean the dogs aren’t available for viewing and therefore may be missed by a potentially perfect family.

In our case, a trial adoption was the perfect fit, and although my little Marshy is still a nervous dog, she continues to build confidence every day. She still won’t play fetch with me when my husband is home, but she wags her tail when he walks her, and will now poop even if I’m not there. These days she cuddles up to my guy, and pushes her nose into his hand for affection. She’ll never be as outgoing as GhostBuster, but we’re making progress.

Read more about life with Marshy and Ghostbuster by Heather Marcoux:

About the Author: Heather Marcoux is a freelance writer in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. Sixteen paws is definitely enough. Heather is also a wife, a bad cook, and a former TV journalist. Some of her friends have hidden her feed because of an excess of cat pictures. If you don’t mind cat pictures, you can follow her on Twitter; she also posts pet GIFs on Google+.