rescue adoptions: one group’s perspective

We are fostering Gonzo through a different group than we went through for Lollie, so we are in the middle of a steep learning curve of rescue philosophy. It’s been interesting for me, because my natural inclination is more aligned with the “no-kill nation” philosophy of getting as many animals into seemingly good homes as possible, than with the more common rescue group approach of searching very carefully for the most perfect home possible. Both approaches have their points, but the debate between them is not the subject of this post.

Many rescue groups — including Partnership for Animal Welfare (PAW), through which we are fostering Gonzo, ascribe to the latter of the two approaches above.  In many cases the dogs taken in by rescues have been victims of irresponsible dog ownership, which makes a rescue that much more discerning in reviewing potential adopters.  PAW devotes a lot of time and money to the dogs it selects, through foster care, extensive vet treatment (including major medical — one of the few groups in the DC area to take dogs who need serious surgery), training, and PR.  Because of the rather large investment, PAW feels a responsibility and a right to be very selective and thorough in picking exactly the right home for a dog.  Whereas most any responsible adult can go to a shelter and adopt a great dog, adopting through some rescues is a much more involved process — one with a number of steps and a lot more scrutiny, but with a payoff: arguably greater peace of mind, because in adopting from a rescue and out of foster care, a family can know much more about the dog’s personality, preferences, medical history.

Through the process of fostering Gonzo with Partnership for Animal Welfare, we have learned a lot about how applications are picked, which are considered “strong,” and which are not. Here are a few guidelines that I have observed based on recent applications for Gonzo.   They may offer a bit of insight into what rescue groups look for, but specific qualifications will vary a lot from dog to dog and from group to group.

1. Pet as family member. Sometimes I am amazed at the seeming lack of care with which people fill out their applications, or the different standards people have for what is normal. People who plan to keep the dog outside or in the basement, or admit to going to the vet “only in emergencies” are going to be tossed aside pretty quickly.

2. A compatible family composition. People who live alone and travel extensively for work will raise red flags. Dogs are very adaptable, but having to stay at the kennel or at mom’s house every other week while an owner travels is not ideal. Likewise, if the dog is a bit snappy, growly, or very energetic, it probably isn’t best for a family with a young child. If the dog is very timid, it won’t go well with a family with several tweens. If the dog is dog-reactive or thinks of cats as snacks, an application with other pets in the home will probably be declined.

3. Stabiliy. Many pets are given up to shelters when an owner or family moves, divorces, loses a job, moves in with a new partner, etc. Most of these are impossible to predict, but there are some signs that rescues may look for — a very young adopter in his early 20s, or somebody in the military who may be placed overseas, is not seen as the strongest candidate for a rescue adoption.

4. Housing constraints. We foster pit bull type dogs, which means they can’t be adopted by somebody who lives in a county with breed-specific legislation (aka BSL, or a ban on particular breeds like pit bulls) or an apartment or house with similar constraints. Many people are surprised to learn that their apartment does not allow bullies, but it’s unfortunately a very common rule. If a dog is a fence jumper, it can’t go to a house with a 3′ chain link fence, unless the family is committed to building a taller fence or only walking the dog on leash.

5. The vet check. Most rescues will call the current or prior vet used by a prospective adopter to find out the record of shots, vaccines, and medicines. If an applicant is overdue for several important vaccines or tests, the application may be declined — although you can be a perfectly responsible pet owner and accidentally miss a vet appointment now and then, missing vet checkups doesn’t reflect well.

6. Experience level. Some dogs are much better suited for people who have substantial dog experience, while others are easy and care-free, and could be great for a first-time dog owner. Our first foster Lollie needed an experienced dog family who was willing to work with her, while Gonzo is easy, and would make an ok first. But still– many rescues feel more comfortable placing dogs in the hands of experienced dog people, even for easy dogs.

7. Lifestyle issues. Gonzo, for example, does not like to be alone. All dogs are social, but Gonzo really does seem to suffer from a higher level of stress than others. When he is with us and/or our Chick, he is a different dog. Mellow, happy, and relaxed. When he is alone, he worries. Extensively. So for him, the best kind of family will be one where somebody is at home a lot, or there is another pet in the house. Singles or couples who live alone and are away for a standard 8 to 7 workday would make wonderful dog parents to many dogs, but probably not to Gonzo — this little fella just needs more.

After considering all of these issues, it’s easy to see why a dog in rescue care could receive a number of applications before being matched with an adopter who truly is a perfect fit. And if I ever have the opportunity, I like to remind people who are interested in, but not able to adopt Gonzo — he sure is cute, but he really isn’t unique. Our shelters and rescues (including, in our area, MCHS, WHS, and WARL) are full of wonderful dogs with big warm hearts and cute, expressive ears, who deserve nice homes just as much as our foster. He happens to be lucky to be an internet star with his own blog, but that doesn’t make him any more worthy of a good family’s love. In fact, all of those dogs who spend their days in a cold, barren cage with nobody taking cute pictures probably need their attention more than our Gonzo does.

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31 responses

  1. wow. this was such a great post. we adopted Havi from a rescue and always wonder why “us.” this is a very helpful and informative post, and i think this will help many people.

    i think its important to remember, that while gonzo is lucky to have you, because you have him that means another dog is in the shelter because he is unable to come to you. the process must be thorough for these dogs, to protect them and love them.

    thanks again guys!

  2. Very very true. I also understand the differences between the two adoption philosophies you mentioned. I’m not entirely sure where I stand in general (somewhere in the middle I think) but with bullies I feel like rescues have to be more selective. Unfortunately, bullies are harder to adopt out and the stakes are a lot higher if they end up in a bad home. That said, I don’t think every dog has to have a fenced-in yard with a stay at home owner – a loving owner that will commit to a dog through thick and thin will win me over every time :)

  3. It’s a difficult line to draw, isn’t it? On one hand, the faster a dog is adopted, the faster you can get another dog in who needs help. But sometimes if there isn’t enough criteria, the likelihood of that dog returning to the shelter or rescue is much higher.

    Sometimes it seems that a rescue’s rules are a little too strict, almost that they don’t want to adopt the dog out at all. But there is a reason for this that is understandable. Private groups, unlike shelters, are able to wait much longer and find the exact right person. It’s a luxury and a responsibility that they take seriously. If only everyone could afford to be as picky.

  4. You talked about people in their early 20s, but what about the elderly? My neighbor is in his 70s but goes for walks 3x a day for his health. I suggested he get a dog to keep him company but he thinks the rescues will turn him down. Maybe there’s more to his story than I know, but is ageism a factor?

    My brother – a marathon runner who works from home – got rejected by a rescue once simply because he didn’t have a yard. He ended up going to a breeder.

    • Hi Laura,

      You raise very good points. I think ageism could be a factor in some circumstances, but needn’t be. PAW recently adopted a wonderful eight-year-old lab mix to an elderly couple in their mid-70s. The dog and the couple had a similar pace of life, and they were a really great match. The dog has a lot of great years left, but is no longer interested in chewing on slippers and running wild through the house. It was perfect.

      I do believe many rescues would be hesitant to adopt a very strong and/or boisterous dog to an elderly applicant, but I don’t think an older applicant would be denied in all scenarios. Tell your neighbor to consider a mature adult dog– something older than four. These guys are often overlooked because people seem to only like puppies and very young dogs (younger than 2), but really, the adult dogs are the ones that need the help the most, can can be the most appreciative of being saved. Our local shelter always has so many adult and elder dogs with very little hope of being adopted. Many of them were house pets their whole lives, and then at age 5, 7, or 9, their owner moves, decides they don’t want a dog anymore, or something equally tragic, and the poor dog ends up behind bars. Please encourage your neighbor to consider visiting a shelter to see the lovely faces that are available! If he lives in the DC area, I would be happy to help him out, too.

      It’s a real shame about your brother being rejected by a rescue, and not having a yard alone should *not* be a reason! Your brother sounds like he would be a dream adopter for many dogs that I work with! I worry a lot about people going to a pet store or a breeder because of negative experiences with rescues. A lot. Rescues can be nit-picky, and I have some strong opinions on whether this is right or wrong which I won’t go into here, but most shelters are much easier to work with for adoptions. I *always* recommend people check out all of the lonely, loving, and worthy animals at local shelters if it doesn’t work out with them and a rescue. Just because a rescue says no, doesn’t mean they are unfit to adopt– not at all!

      • Though we haven’t tried rescuing a dog, I’ve thought about going through our local Dane rescue, but one of the big issues (I see it on many rescue applications/websites) is a yard. We live in a condo, so no yard, but take Darwin out religiously (as we don’t have a choice) and she gets to go to the park every weekend and if we can swing it, after work too. She probably lives a better life than other dogs that do have a yard. It bugs be that many rescues will decline an applicant on the lack of yard, yet we could possibly be the best home.

      • I couldn’t agree more. Our dogs love the yard, but even I admit they got more exercise and adventures when we lived in a rowhouse with no outdoor space, because we had to take them out on a leash four times a day. Now they may get three walks a day, but often it’s one or two walks plus yard time!

  5. MayzieMom here.

    Ranger’s rescue – Ratbone Rescues – is very much in the 2nd category. They adopt out 200-300 dogs a year and have a VERY low return rate. I think part of the reason is that they do all the legwork before approving an application. I used to do application processing for them and I only had one person that I had to reject. She couldn’t provide us with vet records for her current pets and became incensed that we were even requiring them because “it’s not like we’re adopting a CHILD here. It’s a DOG!” Most of the people I spoke with, though, were very understanding and honestly, you have to think that the ones who were committed enough to jump through all the hoops (including an in-home visit) were going to also be committed pet owners.

    Ratbone is also great because they don’t reject based on fence/no-fence, age, renter, etc. They try to work with the potential adopter to find the right dog for them and make sure that they have a plan to deal with (for example) exercising the dog if there’s not a fence on the property. I think some rescues get SO fixated on the potential problems that they don’t try to help come up with a solution.

    Mayzie’s rescue, on the other hand, is more in the first category. They make you fill out an application but don’t do a home check or a vet check. They will reject you if any red flags go up (like, “I’m going to keep my dog in the basement”) or if the dog or cat doesn’t seem to be a good fit. But their main goal is to find good homes for their rescues, even if they’re not the PERFECT home.

    So I can definitely see pros and cons with both approaches.

  6. I intermittently do home checks, always do personal and vet references, listen for what is not being said, and appreciate any back up plans. I once adopted a Beagle to a family in CO. They had already been approved by CO Beagle Rescue. The Beagle I had reminded them of the dog they had lost. Their “back-up” plan was 1) son would care for her if something happened to owners or 2) she would go to CO Beagle Rescue – which I confirmed. Since Katie would be so far from me to be returned easily, this was a win-win. I was gently notified last winter Katie had been sent to heaven due to complications from Cushings. I so appreciated hearing from these wonderful people who, after adopting Katie, fostered two more Beagles! It behooves those of us in rescue to be very creative in helping people adopt and maintain our animals. We want adoptions – it is up to us to make it so and prevent good adopters from going elsewhere, like breeders.

    • Its interesting because on paper we really don’t fit the bill. We’re not married 20-somethings living in a small 1 bedroom apartment in NYC, and are gone for 8 hours a day. i never had a dog in my entire life while my boyfriend’s parents had rescued 3.

      We knew the rescue was in a bind with Havi, and that’s probably why they were so willing to let us adopt her, as well as the fact that her fosters vouched for us. However, I must say the Rescue couldn’t have made a better choice. Because we’re in our 20s, Havi is the only major concern in our lives. Yes, we live in a small 1 bedroom, but she gets walked for 2 hours a day (one in the am and one at night) and gets to go to playgroup/playdate/or dog run twice a week. And when we go away or have an emergency she plays on my boyfriend’s half acre with her best friend Molly. So sometimes, taking the chance on the part of the Rescue can be the best thing a Rescue can do. What’s on paper isn’t what it seems!

      • Thank you, that’s another really important point. I do feel that every applicant should be evaluated individually, except those that raise serious red flags. It’s hard for some rescues because of the time and energy involved in doing that, rather than just judging based on paper applications. I can also say that some dogs are more difficult to place than others (black pit bulls like Havi top the list), so rescues are more likely to be flexible with these guys than with the ones who in such high demand that people are practically fighting over them — for whatever reason

  7. It’s a fine fine line that rescues walk – and I really respect the way *most* rescues handle it. The screening process works not only to protect the dog, but to ensure the owner will be happy with the pup they bring home. But it is a fine line – we were rejected by THREE local rescues because we both work and Felix was not UTD on one vaccination. The catch? He is allergic to it, so we maintain titer tests on it and give it only if the vet feels it is absolutely necessary. And we work opposite shifts, so about 80% of the time either me or my other half is home AND my MIL who lives with us is home most of the time as well. I think our dogs spend less than two hours alone each week – usually in 10 – 15 minute chunks. Some weeks, they aren’t alone at all, but the rescues had a “no working” policy and that was that. I personally think that an approach that if it’s good folks and the dog is a good fit for their lifestyle, that any other issues (ie. working schedule, yard, training etc.) could be addressed. The pup we wanted to adopt is STILL with the rescue two years later, as no one else has been willing to take on her separation anxiety issues. Poor little thing.`

    • I so very, very, very hear you. I share all of these concerns and frustrations, and end up wondering what I can do to fix it. I end up spending a lot of time corresponding with our “rejects” and helping them navigate the complex system of adopting homeless animals — referring to other rescues and shelters, helping pick out specific possibilities, counseling on how to present a stronger app. I do it all on my own, *completely* independently of the rescue. Sometimes I feel like I’m going outside the guidelines because this is outside of protocol, but my first priority is that more people adopt pets, so the guidelines don’t much matter to me at that stage!

      • I’m so torn on this!

        I volunteered at the ASPCA where their review policy is very lax. They used to do a more involved background check, which included references and an application form asking all of the questions you mentioned in your post. Then they did a 180. They felt that this process alienated adopters and didn’t keep lines of communication open. Now they don’t even do a background check (although they check if the person is in public housing because there are some BSL rules). They have a “questionnaire” rather than an application. They feel that if someone wants a pet, they will get one and the ASPCA would rather that person adopt in a comfortable environment than buy from a pet store.

        Makes sense, but still…to have no guidelines in place seems like the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

      • What a great thing to do. It’s such a shame when a pup misses out on a good home due to a poor application or something silly. Kudos for going the extra mile. I bet the adopters really appreciate it.

  8. What an interesting, thoughtful discussion, starting with your post and all through the comments. I’d like to recommend a good read: A Small, Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life, by Steven Kotler — see http://www.amazon.com/Small-Furry-Prayer-Rescue-Meaning/dp/1608190021 . It’s a mix of his personal experience in rescue (chihuahuas), history, science, philosophy, and essay, with a lot of depth of emotional insight. You might not agree with everything he says, but it will certainly make you think. And from what I’ve seen of the comments, everyone here will find a lot to relate to.

  9. Thanks for this post! It’s great to read about the rescue selection process. It’s a very frustrating process, especially for those that have been rejected several times. I’ve been applying to adopt a rescue dogs for almost six months, but I’ve had no luck. Because of my age, lack of dog experience, cat issue with my boyfriend, and two-home place, I am been found as unqualified for many rescues. It’s really discerning because I’ve done the research, crunched the numbers, and prepared my lifestyle to have a pet, but I’ve had no luck.

    • Sandra! Gosh, it’s been such a long time, I am glad to hear from you! A question: why do you want to adopt from a rescue and not a shelter? Shelters are usually much more low-barrier, and have so many great animals in need of your love. A lot of the more sophisticated ones do temperament evaluations too, so if your issue is the cat, I bet you can find a shelter in the Ft Worth area that can test a dog with cats and gauge its reaction. I don’t know if you remember my Chick from Austin, but I was in grad school when I adopted him. I had no income, I rented a place, I had no idea what I was going to do next, and I had never had a dog before, but I fell madly in love with a beautiful white and brown pit bull who was on death row, and Town Lake Animal Shelter gladly gave him to me. I think there are definitely merits to adopting through a rescue, but there is nothing wrong with shelter dogs. Just a thought. Let me know if I can help talk through this more with you!

      • I have looked into shelters, but the dogs I have been interested just happen to be from rescue. I’ll definitely keep an eye out on shelter dogs, and I will contact you if I find the perfect one!

  10. I so admire all the work these organizations do. I volunteer at WHS and the people who work there are so dedicated to the cause, as I’m sure they are at PAW too! I can see both perspectives when it comes to how aggressively potential adoptive families are evaluated, but I am glad to know that so much thought goes into it- I would hate to see a deserving dog go into a not-deserving home…

    • Thanks J. I am so glad to hear you work with WHS. They do really amazing work, and they are in such a hard spot. They probably have the highest admissions of the whole DC area, and they adopt out a lot of dogs and cats, but I know they can’t save all of them. I went there a few times when I first moved back to DC, but in the end I stopped– I get so emotional about not being able to save them all, I really tear myself up. So I found that fostering, and doing it through a little bit of a protective barrier (like a rescue or a shelter with a higher adoption rate) makes it easier for me to keep on keeping on. Thanks as always for your thoughtful words. A

  11. The rescue organization we volunteer and foster for is very particular on who we adopt out to. So much so that we have been criticized for the screenings that we do. Just recently we reduced one of our initial screenings before the home visit. There hasn’t been any significant rise in bring back rate and our adoptions are up. That being said, I am not at all against more liberal adoption criteria. While there is some rivalry between adoption groups here in the Asheville area; I say a save is a save is a save if the animal is going to a decent home. I say this because we will not adopt out cats that will live outside. But, I think if they are fixed it is a better option than euthanasia. I do believe that some type of screening should be done. How rigorous is up for debate.

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  15. I will never try to adopt from any of the rescue groups ever again. My observation was that they are waaay too nit picky. There are lots of loving families who may not be perfect but could offer these dogs a loving home. I understand their need to want to find a forever home for these dogs, but they take it way too far in my opinion. It seems like no one is good enough to adopt from them.

    I wound up finding myself a little jack russell terrier at a local animal shelter. And I am sooo glad that I went that route. I got to save a life, and provide a nice happy home for her. I will never go back to trying to adopt from a rescue group ever again. Sad to say, but they are not worth the headache and waste of time since you will most likely come home empty handed in the end no matter how good your intentions are. Seems to me that the rescue groups pretty much just hoard all the dogs since in their eyes, no one was good enough to adopt from them, not even someone who was responsible and genuinely wanted to make sure she had a compatible lifestyle and knowledge about the breed to take good care of one.

    • Hi Sydney,

      Sounds like you had a pretty bad experience. I have heard a lot of similar stories, and they do make me sad. I also know some groups in our area that have this type of reputation — being so picky that they turn people off of adoption and don’t save very many animals as a result. It’s such a shame.

      It seems like the mentality is a result of caring for animals who have been through a special kind of hell, and wanting to protect them from any possible future suffering. Some of these groups pour A LOT of money into the recovery and care of animals who probably would not have otherwise had a shot, and they end up having an “only the best” attitude about potential adopters. I understand where they are coming from, but in the big picture, I think it’s not the best approach given how many dogs are in need out there and how many good and willing homes are available.

      However, I don’t think all rescue groups are like this. I have worked with a number of groups, and they have varied a lot in their approach to matching a potential adopter with a dog. I also think that rescue groups are valuable in their ability to do some things that shelters just can’t do: providing specialized medical care to dogs that need more than a shelter can provide, and offering information about how a dog behaves in a home to adopters who have very specific needs or are just worried about adopting rather than buying.

      Thanks for your insightful comments. Your JRT is a lucky pooch :) Aleksandra

  16. For anyone wondering what my bad experience was with rescue groups, here is my story:
    Once a long time ago when I was 25 I wanted a jack russell terrier. This was going to be my first dog but I did my homework to make sure my lifestyle would be compatible with that type of breed so that I would know what I was getting myself into. I did lots of research by reading articles and books about the breed, requirements of the breed such as needing to have a 6 foot tall fenced yard since they can jump really high, not having kids that are under a certain age since these dogs do better with older children, crate training, etc, etc, etc… before I set out to find a dog.

    I started my search by going to a rescue group that was 1.5 hours away from my house. Their requirements were very stringent. They pretty much wanted someone to be home ALL the time. Lucky for me, there was someone home all the time. But I thought about others who don’t have that luxury. I mean, you have to go to work so that you can provide food and shelter for your pet too, right?? The woman asked me lots of questions and then she brought out one of them for me to meet. This dog snapped when I tried to pet it. Then she promptly took him away and told me to check back with her at a later time to see if she’d have a suitable dog for me. There were very many dogs there, lots of them. I saw a bunch of jack russell terriers each confined into separate individual crates just waiting for loving homes. But I did not get to meet any of the other ones there. I drove away empty handed and sad, not sad because I didn’t get a dog from there but sad thinking about all those other little dogs there just waiting for a loving family. The impression I got was that rescue groups were sooo picky that practically no one was ever good enough to adopt one of their dogs. These little dogs were isolated and lonely when they could be with a loving family. I’m sure they get taken out every once in a while, but it’s not the same thing as having a human family to be around with. There was another jack russell rescue group a few hours away, but after having this experience, I concluded that it was probably going to be the same nitpicky thing. I’ve seen rescue group applications and looked at their websites. The ones I saw were all pretty much the same questions, same thing. Seems like they only think their way is the right way and there’s no other way to do things.

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