The Painful Art of Saying “No”

It's hard to be turned down by a rescue group. But it's even harder to be the one to say no.


More and more, dog rescue organizations have to turn down dogs. They say it’s the economy, the “no-kill-shelter nation,” the lack of foster homes, the increasingly older population. Whatever the cause, it’s a heartbreaking reality.

We’ve heard this from numerous rescues, but never thought about what it must be like to be the person who has to turn down dogs people want to surrender. What must it be like to be a volunteer at a rescue group and have to say no, time after time?

Dogster spoke with Joani Ellis, shelter liaison for Florida Poodle Rescue, to find out more about the fine and crushing art of saying no. Sadly, she is an expert. Her group fields hundreds of calls a month from people wanting to give up their dogs. Old-dog surrenders are common where she is. They often happen when elderly owners can no longer take care of their beloved dogs, and no loved ones step up to take the dog into their own homes.

“Every rescue has these calls, by the hundreds. There is no mathematical algorithm to figure how hard it is to say no in rescue,” she says. “Think of how difficult it must be to turn dogs away, again and again and again.

“These volunteers deserve a round of applause for being special enough to handle these rejections with class, grace, and style. But it takes its toll on them. Many cry, many get angry, many quit because of the pain it causes. It leaves a hole in your heart as a rescuer each time you have to say, ‘I’m so sorry, we can’t help.'”

My end of the phone

I’ve been on the other end of the phone from one such volunteer. At the time, I didn’t think what it must have been like for them, but looking back, it was probably just as hard as it was for me.

It happened 14 years ago, when my daughter, Laura, was a toddler. We had two dogs already, and one day I found a giant Rhodesian Ridgeback mix in the park. I looked around for his owner, and waited and waited, but no one came. He was super hungry. So with toddler in tow, I got the dog into the back of the station wagon with the other dogs and we went home.

I figured it would be a cinch to find this beautiful dog’s owners, but he had no tags or microchip, and animal control had no “lost” reports that came close. I let animal control know we had him, and waited for a call from his happy owners. But the call never came. And meanwhile, the newly named and hyperenergetic Franky was getting into everything. He absconded with whole meals I set out on the counter. He knocked down Laura with his exuberance. And he wasn’t always thoroughly housetrained.

After a week, my husband basically said, “It’s me or the dog.” He didn’t mean it, of course, but I had to agree. As much as I really liked Franky, all I’d wanted to do was find his owner, not add him to the household. So I called various rescue groups, figuring he’d be a shoo-in.

But no one was taking big dogs. Or crazy dogs. Or not-quite-housetrained dogs. Or dogs with a little pit bull in them (which I didn’t see, but others did). Especially the combination of the four. Some of the rescues that might have taken him in today (like Rocket Dog Rescue) didn’t exist back then.

Our no-kill shelter turned Franky down for the same reasons, plus they saw it as “owner surrender.” And I wouldn’t turn him in to Animal Care and Control. I just couldn’t. And each time I heard a “no,” it seemed unreal. At the last place I called, I asked, “Do any rescues actually rescue?” I was still polite, if rather frustrated.

Ellis says that many people looking to surrender get irate because they don’t understand why there’s no room. They plead: “But you are a rescue, and you are not taking my dog/my mother’s dog that we don’t want.”

Eventually we found a home for Franky on our own. He went to a wonderful couple who had no other dogs and no kids.

The sad art of saying no to the old ones

But if Franky had been an elderly dog, it might have been impossible to place him. As hard as it was to get him a home (it took more than a month, several broken plates and downed groceries, and a few accidental take-downs of my daughter), I don’t want to think about what it would have been like if he were old, and needing medical care.

Rescuers try to explain the difficulties of placing a mature dog. But Ellis says they don’t want to hear any metaphoric examples, such as “If you were looking to adopt a child, and we said, ‘We have this great 70-year-old who needs a home, wears glasses, plays golf two times a week, makes a mean meatloaf, very clean and tidy,’ that wouldn’t cut it. No one looking for a child will want to adopt the 70-year-old.”

“Many, many times the caller hangs up in frustration,” she says. “Then the telephone/intake volunteer takes a deep breath, and it all starts over again.

Amy Howland, codirector of Dogma Pet Rescue, knows what Ellis’s volunteers go through. “Every time we respond to people we can’t help, it kills us to say no,” she says. “What some do not understand that none of us got into dog rescue to say no to a dog in need, or to say no to a good person in a bad situation trying to do the best for their dog.”

Rescues like these might be able to say yes more often if there were more foster homes to house these harder-to-place dogs. More donations for the hugely increased veterinary costs of elderly pets would also enable them to take in more dogs.

If you’re inclined to help local, trusted rescue groups by fostering or making donations, some of the more desperate people on the other end of the phone may not have to hear “no” so often.

Have you been on either end of the phone in a situation like this? What was it like?

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