Dogs at a shelter

When I was a senior in college in Central Pennsylvania, I adopted my dog, Simmons, the Greatest Dog Ever, at the local animal shelter for $20, with no obligation to neuter him and no landlord’s letter stating that, yes, dogs were allowed in my rental home. I simply showed up and took him home.

Fast-forward one year, however, and my job at a Boulder, Colo., animal shelter involved conducting in-depth adoption interviews to decide if the interested person or family could provide a suitable home for whatever cat, dog or other animal I was trying to find a home for. At that shelter, once the animals were deemed “adoptable,” they were not killed because of overcrowding. So while there was a sense of urgency to placing them, it was not as if their days were actually numbered if I didn’t do so. Still, I definitely experienced that “gut” feeling when it felt like the pet/family pairings might not be a good match, and I often felt happy but a little worried when someone was adopted. Occasionally, dogs were returned days later, but many of our adoptees did indeed become valued lifetime family members.

Over the years, both of those experiences have made me wonder: What’s the best way to ensure that adoptable animals get great homes?

Shelters vs. Rescues

Though vital for animals in need, shelters are just one of many options available to obtain pets. Some are well-funded, have low kill rates and can be selective about who adopts their animals. Others are overrun with kittens or “less desirable” dog breeds (who may be killed because there’s simply not enough room to house them). Many shelters are poorly funded and eager to adopt animals to almost anyone willing to take them. 

This is where a different breed of organization comes in: animal rescues. These are generally private groups that specialize in removing animals (or certain types or breeds of animals) from high-kill shelters and/or taking in owner-surrendered animals. They may also take in pets who require special medical care or have challenging care needs. Some rescues acquire animals locally, while others may “import” them from shelters in other regions of the country where “kill lists” are high and adoption rates are low. These rescues may not necessarily operate out of a kennel or shelter, but instead they typically use volunteer foster families to care for the animals until they are adopted. These types of organizations, along with important spay and neuter initiatives, are credited with reducing the burdens on shelters. 

For instance, more than 150 rescue organizations remove nearly half of the animals entering New York City’s Animal Care and Control System in order to allow them more time to be adopted. Without this vital help, thousands of animals in the Big Apple would be needlessly killed each year.

Differing Standards

By having added time with the animals in safe hands, rescues can be more rigorous in their adoption standards. Their adoption applications often are lengthy, though, and home inspections are usually the norm. Animals are always spayed or neutered. Most require that the adopter return the animal directly to the rescue if the adoption does not work out and also stress the potential lifetime costs of feeding and medical care so that potential adopters are fully aware of what they are committing to ahead of time. All good stuff.

Recently, however, some private rescues have gotten some bad press for being too picky about potential adopters.

Potential adopters may be denied an animal for various (legitimate) reasons, including wanting to keep an animal outdoors, having surrendered animals in the past or having young children who the screeners believe would not mesh well with the particular animal. Other reasons, though, are a bit more complicated, such as the family’s finances, adults working too many hours or not having a fenced yard. 

For example, Heather Krenn of Harrisville, Pa., says that after her family’s two 14-year-old dogs died, they felt a void and began searching for a new four-footed family member. She applied to adopt a dog who appeared to be a good match with her family and had what seemed like a successful home inspection. But things didn't work out like Krenn hoped they would: “I got a call from the rescue saying that she was sorry but she couldn't [allow us to adopt] the dog. When I asked why, she said that the dog would be alone for too many hours a day because I worked full time. I was dumbfounded.”

Fortunately, Krenn and her family found a wonderful dog named Daisy through a friend, and she is now a much-loved family member. While rescues are deeply invested in the animals they care for and rehabilitate and want them in the best possible, or nearly perfect, homes, they can at times risk denying adoptions to good families with too stringent policies. Many experienced but frustrated pet owners, finding themselves turned down by rescues because they have children or work, report turning to a pet store or dog breeder instead out of desperation. And that seems counterproductive to the goal of finding every adoptable animal a good home.

The Institutional View

Experiences like Krenn’s have not been lost on people who spend their lives trying to get animals adopted. 

“With over 10,000 rescue groups in the U.S. and Canada, it's hard to make a generalization, as each organization has its own policies and practices,” says Abby Volin, rescue group coordinator at The Humane Society of the United States. “Many rescuers note that they wouldn't be able to pass their own organization's standards,” Volin says, but adds, “We're finding an encouraging trend these days with adoption applications moving away from yes/no questions where the ‘wrong’ answer is an automatic deal-breaker.” Such deal-breaking questions have frustrated many otherwise good potential adoptive families who are surprised to find they have been turned down.

According to Volin, though, "Most times it's a matter of not having all the information and not an issue of having bad intent. And many rescue groups are realizing that as long as they have someone who's committed, the organization can help with everything else to ensure a successful adoption."

Asking the Right Questions

Michele Armstrong, founder of Lulu’s Rescue in Bucks County, Pa., says, “I try to make sure that Lulu’s is asking questions [to ensure] that the adopter’s family and lifestyle will match well with the personality of the dog they want to adopt. We don’t want couch potatoes adopting high-energy dogs and driving each other crazy. We don’t mandate a fenced yard, but we know that some dogs need the running room more than others. We understand that people have jobs, but we don’t want families who are gone from 6 a.m. till 8 p.m. adopting an 8-week-old puppy who needs more attention than is possible for that family to provide.”

However, Armstrong points out that Lulu’s application process isn’t meant to be purely an interrogation. “We also use our adoption application to educate adopters about the potential expenses of being a dog guardian with both standard wellness care and unforeseen illness and injury. The care of dogs is expensive, and simply asking questions about the financial investment that is involved can help adopters to think seriously about whether they are in a financial position to welcome a dog.” The bottom line for Armstrong is this: “We want to make sure the dog will be treated as part of the family.”

Animal rescue is a tough, but rewarding, business for a variety of reasons. It fills a huge need in helping to shift animals out of a bad situation into a better one. But at the end of the day, what matters most is the animals’ well-being. Though not everyone seeking to adopt a pet will be suitable or open-minded, I believe making adoption applications or interviews less like a litmus test and more like an open and honest conversation is the best approach for everyone involved.