By Vicki DeGruy
In recent years, thanks mostly to the Internet, rescue has grown into a large army of loosely connected volunteers across the country, volunteers of widely different backgrounds and philosophy. The sheer number of volunteers and the speed with which they communicate today makes rescue more effective than ever and a powerful force in reducing shelter deaths but this diversity has also created some problems.
In the past, rescue was conducted primarily by responsible hobby breeders. With a working knowledge of dogs gained by hands-on experience from whelping to grave, they know what behavior is normal for their breeds, what sort of people are best suited to own them, and how to match those people with individual dogs to make lifetime relationships that work. They apply the knowledge and objectivity gained through their breeding experience to rescue.
Many of today's newer rescuers don't have this background, though. They're pet owners who may have had dogs for years but haven't been involved in the dog world on a deeper level. They have big hearts, good intentions and a lot of energy but they often have quite a different perspective on how rescue should be done. They're easily led by their emotions and are especially susceptible to the daily barrage of appeals from the Internet of "sweet dog to die tomorrow!" "last day for this dog!" "please help now or this dog will die!"
Emotion plays a large part in rescue work (none of us would be involved if these dogs didn't tug on our heart strings) but emotion as the driving force in a placement program can have significant drawbacks:
The bombardment of appeals never lets up and keeps many rescuers in a constant state of emergency, rushing to retrieve dogs and rushing to place them, in a frantic effort to keep pace. This emotional panic can lead to premature burn out and to unfortunate compromises in the selection of dogs, the quality of foster care, and the choice of permanent homes.
Experienced rescuers rank a dog's overall adoption potential as the most important factor when selecting which dogs they can save out of thousands in need. New rescuers are influenced more by the plight of the dog, putting priority on the immediate need to save its life rather than its suitability for future placement. Those in the worst shape or most danger of death are chosen first. By using that criteria, many rescuers become overloaded with dogs that are quite difficult medically and behaviorally.
A few rescue organizations specialize in the hard-to-adopt and can do a good job with them, but average volunteers often discover they've taken on more than they can handle. This difficulty and the urgency to save more dogs on death row can lead them to make hasty, poorly considered placements as they become desperate for homes.
The physical aspects of home screening have improved a great deal thanks to the Internet as more rescuers work together to do home visits for each other, but frankly, the mental aspects have not. For example, an adopter may have the means and facilities to care for a dog, but are they really suited to own this breed and this particular dog? If there are medical or behavioral problems, will they be able to handle them? In the hurry to get dogs placed quickly in order to save others, those questions aren't always answered until after the placement is made.
As one volunteer told me, "we get the dog in a home first and work the bugs out later." This philosophy will produce some successful adoptions through the luck of the draw but it runs a much higher risk of failure than placements that are well-planned and requires a substantially greater investment of the rescuer's time in post-adoption counseling.
For a placement to be successful, a deep bond between dog and adopter needs to develop quickly. This bond must be strong enough to carry the person through after the thrill wears off and encourage them to overcome problems as they arise. The creation of the bond is a complicated thing and it begins with the meeting of expectations. The adopter has a vision of what his new companion will be like and he expects the dog to fit into it. If the dog doesn't meet these expectations, the resulting disappointment will prevent formation of the bond. If the dog hasn't been carefully matched to the family during the pre-adoption process, the chances increase that dog won't meet their expectations and the bond will not develop properly. Without it, the dog is more likely to be returned especially when unanticipated problems appear.
The most common placement mistakes I see are:
- Not keeping dogs in foster care long enough to properly evaluate them and treat their medical problems before adoption.
- Placing dogs with owners not suited for them or not equipped to deal with their medical or behavioral concerns.
To accurately match dogs with adopters, you need to do two things: you must get to know the dog well and you must find out what the adopter wants in a dog.
Getting to know the dog involves keeping it in foster care long enough to get to know it! I'm amazed how many dogs are placed in adoptive homes within a day or two of being retrieved from the shelters, barely long enough to get them spayed or neutered, much less find out what they're like. Almost every dog is on its best behavior during its first two weeks in a new situation. It doesn't know what to expect or what the rules are so it does its best to stay out of trouble while it figures everything out. Many negative behaviors don't appear until this honeymoon period is over and the dog is more settled. Placing the dog before you really know what you have can set up the adopter for some unpleasant surprises.
Without getting to know the dog, it's impossible to match it correctly with a new owner. You need to find out as much as you can about the dog's personality, activity level, ability to learn and how it will behave in the common situations it will encounter as a family pet. These aspects can't be fully discovered in a couple days' time or within a rudimentary "temperament test" given at the shelter. You must live with the dog for a few weeks to know what you're trying to place. Once you know the dog, you can create a profile of the type of owner you think is best suited for it.
Finding out what a prospective adopter wants in a dog isn't as hard as it might sound. It involves asking some well-aimed questions and listening carefully to the answers. During interviews, rescuers often talk more than they listen but listening is what brings out what you need to know.
When I'm interviewing an adopter, I want to know what their previous dog was like because that's usually the dog their current perception is based on. Was it quiet, noisy, active, mellow, good with children, etc.? What did they like most about the dog and what would they have changed if they could? What kinds of activities did they do with the dog? What do they hope to do with this one? Most of the time, you don't actually have to ask all these questions directly. Just ask them to tell you something about their last dogs (or the one they have now) and encourage them through the conversation. Most people will talk about their past pets indefinitely if you show you're interested and all of this information is extremely useful to you. It tells you what priority their pets have in their lives, how they're cared for, what behavior they're used to, and what they expect from their new dog.
Most of this information can't be gained through an adoption application. In my opinion, applications are meant to determine basic physical facts: who the person is, where they live, who else is in the household, get references, etc., facts that will help you do some preliminary screening. The application can tell you who might have the physical means to care for a dog but it will be your personal conversations with the prospective adopter that tell you whether that person will fit well, physically and emotionally, with the dog you have available.
Be honest about the dog and honest with the adopter. Many people can live happily with an imperfect dog but they need to know what the imperfections are so they can make an informed decision. Some beleaguered rescuers leave out important information for fear it will discourage the adoption. It's far better to be upfront and possibly lose the adopter now than to have them find out later that you didn't tell him everything they needed to know. Not only are they likely to return the dog, they'll feel that you deliberately misled them. Worse, they may be leery to try again with another rescue, turning instead to a purchased puppy that they believe they can mold into what they're looking for.
Don't force square pegs into round holes. No match is going to be a perfect fit but it should be close. If the dog will not work for this family, be willing to wait for another. If the dog has a problem that makes it a bad fit for most families, work to fix the problem before putting the dog up for adoption.
Experienced volunteers know that rescue is about more than saving lives. That's just the easiest part. The most important aspect of rescue is putting that dog into the right home where it will be loved and cared for for the rest of its life. That's the hardest part and the most satisfying. There are no shortcuts to making a good match but the results are well worth the effort.