Monday, April 7, 2014

Vetting potential owners: are shelters doing themselves a disservice?

Is it possible to over-vet potential owners?
I suspect this post will be controversial, but I want to talk about a discussion I had on the weekend which concerned me.  The discussion was with a client and friend who several months ago lost the family dog. The dog, let’s call him Frank, was adopted from a shelter 15 years ago, and loved by all members of the family. When he became ill they nursed and cared for him, and when it was time to say goodbye had him euthanased peacefully at home. 

During Frank’s senior years I had a lot of contact with this family. If they were concerned they called or brought Frank in. He was cared for incredibly well. They were all devastated by his loss.

When they contacted me recently and told me they were looking for another dog, but wanted to do the right thing and adopt one from a shelter, I recommended several shelters. I was so pleased that this loving family had another vacancy for a dog in need of a home, knowing that he or she will be well cared for.

I expected my next contact with the family would involve examination of their new pet. Unfortunately not. I received a concerned phone call, instead, asking “Are there not many animals in shelters in Australia?”.

“Ummm, no…” I replied. “There are many needing homes.”

Well, turns out this family weren’t deemed suitable by at least one shelter.
Don’t get me wrong, I applaud shelters for “vetting” potential adopters as they need to ensure that animals do not go through the trauma of re-surrender. But this is not the first case where I feel the vetting has gone too far.

At one shelter they were required to fill out a two page questionnaire, and then undertake an interview. The shelter staff noted that only three out of four family members were present and they were told that their application would not be considered unless all members were present and 100 per cent committed to adoption.

They were also chastised for ticking the box suggesting they would prefer a toilet trained dog. Their previous dog, Frank, was toilet trained but his hit rate was far from 100 per cent. The day they adopted him he passed a stool on the bed, and as dementia set in later in life he would toilet in the odd place. The family took this in their stride. It wasn’t an issue and if a new dog did the same, they wouldn’t re-surrender or punish the dog. They ticked a box expressing a preference. And I’ve got to say, I’d tick the same box. I'd prefer a toilet trained dog, but I'd hardly ditch someone who left a surprise stool in my lounge room.

There was no room for qualification and the motivation for box ticking was simply read into. The potential adopters were told that their expectations were unrealistic.

In this case, and it could well be an aberration, I think the expectations of the shelter were unrealistic. Essentially they are looking for owners who don’t expect a “perfect” dog. Equally, is it fair to expect “perfect” owners?

I know there are some individuals out there who should not own pets. People who want a dog to match their decor or those who simply expect a pet to amuse itself 99.9% of the time. But this family aren't those people. 

The upshot of this exchange was that a family of fantastic animal lovers are now considering purchasing an animal from a pet shop because they are frightened that they will never meet a shelter’s criteria. Clearly this isn’t the outcome that shelters want, but one can surely appreciate the mixed message here. One the one hand, we want all shelter animals to find home. We want them to find the best home – but is it ethical to vet potential adopters so strongly that we deter good owners? Are we reducing the pool of potential loving households that animals can be adopted into?

Pet adoption is a big deal, it is for life, and it is important that owners are informed and their expectations assessed to some degree. I believe this to be an unfortunate and extreme example. What do you think? Do you work in a shelter? Have you adopted from a shelter? Should the vetting of potential owners be ramped up, toned down or is it working overall?


  1. I agree, as a veterinarian, I have also seen some wonderful families turned down for dog ownership and then pushed into buying dogs from pet stores.

  2. Seriously - people were turned down from a shelter?
    Who wouldn't prefer a toilet trained dog.
    I had my (only) dog from the RSPCA - we weren't really vetted, or if we were then I didn't know about it (I was 12) and there was no way my mum was schlepping to Yagoona with my scared of dogs sister as well.

    I agree some vetting is important but not to the point of lunacy displayed here.

  3. Public pressure has resulted in altered policies at many animal shelters in recent years. Animal welfare organisations need public support for donations.

    If you look at the statistics, admission rates AND euthanasia rates are declining in a lot of shelters. Some of the bigger reasons previously for euthanasia in shelters are behavioral issues in dogs (eg. aggression, toileting). With the new lower euthanasia rates it is more likely that any dog at a shelter will have had a significant period in the shelter being treated for medical or behavioral conditions.

    One could also consider factors such as increased enforcement on puppy farms and council registration along with desexings all leading to lower numbers of dogs.

    Adding this all together, there are fewer dogs entering and leaving shelters. The number of people looking for (healthy?) dogs at shelters probably hasn't changed much. So basically a shelter can and probably should be quite choosy. A bad experience of a new owner with a medical or behavioral issue can be detrimental to the image of the shelter.

  4. I find the public shelters such as RSPCA & AWL are a little less strict on their policies I think, although they still do have their questionnaires, which is good for those people that don’t know what might be a suitable dog/cat for them.
    It's the private rescues that appear to be the most militant (there is no better word). They feel they have to be sure that people are not just getting the dogs for bait dogs (that is exactly what I was told by one rescue group).
    My own personal experience with a particular rescue group left a sour tatse in my mouth. As a vet nurse with over 22 years experience, well known within the industry and I have my own small business dealing with educating pet owners about behaviour enrichment...I went to a rescue that I had supported both financially and had supported them with open days (mutual support - I had a stand to sell my products). I applied for a specific dog - male Rottweiler - accepted the questionnaire, and the property inspection, everything was going well. The person doing the interview was wonderful if not a little embarrassed, apologising for the intrusion, recognising it was a bit much considering my reputation but they had to follow the rules. I told her I specifically wanted a male Rottweiler because a) I knew big black dogs where hard to re-home b) I knew male dogs were hard to re-home c) I knew specifically MALE big black dogs were hard to re-home – especially if they are Rottweilers d) I was very experienced with male Rottweilers anyway having had 2 for the previous 10 years and e) given my experience in behaviour medicine I was also aware that 2 desexed males were the least likely to have “sibling rivalry” fights. The interviewer was very interested to hear that point but was confused because she was under the impression I was after a female Rottweiler they also had in care. It seems THEY had chosen the dog that THEY felt was a better fit….given that it was their feeling that 2 males together would more likely fight etc. Even when I presented them with some evidence on the contrary, they still felt that female was the better fit. I did not want a female and when pressed I was told abruptly that he had already been re-homed.
    Rescue groups also have a mind set that we should just accept any dog that THEY feel is the right fit…after all, it’s all about rescuing a dog/cat; but at the end of the day people do have to feel a connection.
    We ended up going to another rescue group interstate that after they interviewed me over the phone and researched my own blogs, Facebook page and website decided they would be more than happy for me to take which ever dog I felt was the right fit.

  5. After having had a very bad experience with a large no-kill rescue group in Sydney which left me wondering about their purpose and their mission. We considered that they were obviously less than interested in placing their dogs with responsible owners.

    For the last 7 years it has been fine for them to accept funds for sponsorship however, it was not acceptable for me to adopt one of their dogs simply because I work full-time.

    That being said we did adopt rescue dogs but opted for a smaller group who had more realistic expectations and worked with us.

    I think with all rescue groups big or small there should be a best practice paper on how they deal with the public. I think some of these groups need an entire overhaul as you have to ask the question if an animal has behavioural issues as a rescue group what are you doing to alter the behavior and allowed it to go on for so long what is your intervention strategy and are you willing to work with the potential adopters. Really if you are honest would you do this I know I would.

    What are you doing to assist the dog in toilet training it's all well and good to rescue large number of dogs but if you don't try and change or alter the behaviour why are so choosy in with your potential adopters, really doesn't make too much sense.

    When we adopted our two we went into training to alter the behaviour and we met a lot of people who had been turned down by this group and who went elsewhere but were still committed to changing the dogs life for the better.


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