Are Rescue Groups Too Strict in Screening Potential Adopters?

A controversy in L.A. shows that some groups' requirements are too rigid, which could push people to buy from breeders and pet stores.
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Let me start by saying that I believe in rescue, I believe that the majority of people who are active in dog rescue do this thankless/exhausting/overwhelming work with the best intentions and with the sole intention of saving and improving the lives of the dogs they are working with. My youngest dog Charlotte owes her life to rescue workers who found her and her litter of puppies on a euthanasia list of an overcrowded shelter weeks after they had been scooped off the streets. I also believe that in an effort to improve the lives of dogs, some rescue organizations go too far, blinded by their own ideals of what an “ideal” home looks like, and end up doing a disservice to the dogs in their care.

During the past week a case in California reported by the Los Angeles Times has been making news. At the center of the controversy is an eight-month-old Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy named Raffiki who escaped the yard of his loving family. His owner, Rosa Torres, and her distraught four-year-old son searched for the puppy, hanging signs through the neighborhood, visiting the animal shelter, and creating a Facebook page for the missing dog. While they searched for Raffiki, he was safe; he’d been found and taken to a different animal shelter 10 miles from the Torres’ home. From there Karma Rescue, a local rescue group, pulled the puppy and adopted him out to another family.

On first glance it sounds like a tragic accident, except that it seems like the rescue group was aware of what was happening, and it actively chose to keep the puppy away from his family. Tipped off that Raffiki was with the rescue, and seeing her puppy on its website, Rosa Torres began calling the rescue explaining the situation. The rescue refused to return her messages. In desperation, Rose then put in an online application to adopt her own puppy. On the part of the form where she was supposed to indicate why she wanted the particular dog, she wrote that it was their dog, that they love and miss her and want her home. Instead of this story ending with a family getting a lost puppy back, Karma Rescue sent her a statement saying that Rose and her family did not meet the qualifications that the rescue looks for when adopting out a dog, and that they had decided to place the dog with another family.

This situation in California is an extreme incident. The puppy in question did belong to the family trying to adopt him back. Nonetheless, I believe it’s also representative of how some rescue groups have gone too far with instituting rigid policies and requirements for adopters. The result is increasingly a culture where good families who want to provide loving homes to rescue dogs are turned away on principle because they or their homes don’t meet certain arbitrary mandated criteria. These families don’t just abandon the plan to get a dog, they go to pet shops and breeders (sometimes responsible ones, sometimes not) in order to get a puppy, and I don’t blame them. Rescue groups with unrealistic adoption criteria are perpetuating the very puppy mill and backyard breeder industries they are fighting against.

Many people are concluding that adopting from a rescue as more hassle than it’s worth, and I can’t say that I blame them all the time. Well-meaning, loving homes and families are being turned down from adopting dogs who need homes. I believe rescues need to refocus themselves on their mission — saving the lives of dogs and finding them good homes. I love rescues and believe in them, but I also know that there’s not a one-size-fits-all model to responsible dog ownership, nor is there a universal ideal of what constitutes a great home for a dog.

Dogs are individuals, families are all different, and some rescues do a fantastic job of recognizing that — when my partner and I adopted Charlotte there were not pages and pages and pages of screening questions, we weren’t subjected to a home inspection. We had a conversation human to human with the organization about our home, our other pets, my experience with dog sports and training, and the kind of environment that we would provide for her. We left that day with Charlotte and happy tears in the eyes of the rescue worker, as we talked about living blocks from the park and taking family vacations to hiking areas and the beach. We were lucky, because Charlotte is a great dog and also because we were working with a rescue that looked at us as the family standing before them falling in love with this dog, and not as the response to hundreds of black-and-white questions where the adoption of a dog hangs in the balance.

Many rescue groups insist that potential adopters not only live in houses (not apartments) but that they have a fenced yard — but not any fence is good enough; usually it must meet minimum height requirements as well. Fenced yards are great, but I could make a counter argument that they also can allow dog owners to become complacent with leaving their dog unattended, putting them at risk of escape, dognapping, and so on, and that dogs are safer being exercised on leash by their owners.

Homes with intact animals are often automatically deemed ineligible without taking into account plenty of legitimate reasons (health conditions, age, dog show/sport competitors, or even established responsible breeders) why people would choose to responsibly keep an intact dog in the home and also want to provide a home for a rescue dog. Families are rejected for having young children in the home, or because the adults maintain full-time jobs –- this last one always amuses me; if the adopter were unemployed they would be deemed financially insecure and also unable to adopt. Most of us are not independently wealthy and have to work to keep a roof over our dog’s head, not to mention the expense of vet care, toys, treats, high-quality food, training classes, etc.

Ultimately, I know that rescues are doing important life saving work — my dog owes her life to one. At the same time I can’t ignore that in the name of “screening potential adopters,” dogs are being refused families because some rescues have stopped looking for loving homes for dogs and instead have focused on mandating a specific type of home for the dogs they are placing, insisting on standards that many loving families are unable to meet.

What about you, do you think some rescues go too far with their adoption criteria?

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About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.

4 thoughts on “Are Rescue Groups Too Strict in Screening Potential Adopters?”

  1. A while back I applied to foster dogs. Everything went swimmingly, I work from home, I have a six foot privacy fence, I’m involved in various dog sports… until it came to one of my dogs. He is extremely fearful, and did not react well when two strangers came for home check and brought a strange dog. My other dogs were all perfect. I was rejected hard and fast – they actually suggested I “work with him” – gee, why hadn’t I thought of that?!

    I went on to foster fifteen dogs through another rescue over the years, and adopted one from yet another rescue, after I explained to the coordinator that I was well aware of the fearful dog’s needs and limitations, and my plans to slowly and carefully introduce all new dogs to him.

    We never had an issue with a foster, or the little darling I adopted. I feel bad for anyone who has a dog who can’t simply be thrown into a situation with a strange dog and expected to act perfectly, but know that there is hope, with time, patience, and rescues who are willing to give those things to you.

  2. I was denied my application because I crate my current dog when I’m at work. (We are trying to find her a friend to help with her anxiety) I tried to explain that I crate her because when I leave, her separation anxiety gets the best of her and she ends up in an unsafe situation (ie. chewing the molding of the door until her mouth is bleeding.) I explained that I come home from work during lunch, and that I put my dog in doggie day-care if I have a long day at work so she isn’t locked up all day. In my interview, and home check I discussed how eventually I would like to be able to not crate my dog, but have to right now for her own safety. I’m a teacher and my work day is 7 hours long including my lunch break when I come home… apparently it still isn’t good enough. It is seriously so discouraging.

  3. I’m a longtime responsible owner of bichons frises. Recently I found an adult dog whose photo and story were posted by an Ohio rescue group. I fulfilled all of the requirements stipulated by the rescue except one—as I live in a condo development, I don’t have a fenced back yard. For the sixteen years we owned bichons we walked them several times daily; not having a fenced yard to turn them out into was a non-issue.
    I agree that many hopeful dog adopters, finding the requirements of many rescues far too restrictive, turn to puppy millers, worships, and Craig’s List. Sort of defeats the purpose of rescues, doesn’t it?

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