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?