STEVE, SF SPCA
What's your process for matching people with pets?
Our basic philosophy is that, at the SPCA, we don't do a pass / fail system. Some small shelters have a real strict set of guidelines, and so you either pass, or you fail—with us, it's more of what we call an "open adoption process."
A person fills out some information—an adoption profile—looking at their kind of lifestyle, what they're looking for, and the animals they're interested in, and we try to find a good match, but not a perfect match. It's the person's own personal information: have they adopted from us, have they used our hospital, what's their history in the last ten years as far as pets they've had, do they rent or own, because the landlord thing is a big issue that we have to deal with.
So the front side is their information, their history, and then the back side is about what they're looking for. So, as far as their activity level: are they looking for a dog to run with them, are they looking for a dog that's calmer? What's their schedule like? How many hours are they home versus away? Which would be a factor for certain dogs—if it's a puppy, obviously they need someone home more, or if it's a dog that might have alone time or separation issues. So, trying to get an idea of what they're looking for—what's their perfect pet.
If they want to meet an animal that they've seen in the shelter and they've filled that profile out, one of the volunteers would take them in to meet the cat or dog, or maybe go out on a walk with the dog just to spend some time. And if at that point they feel like it's a good fit, and they think that they could potentially see themselves adopting this pet, then at that point we would bring them to the main adoption desk where the staff works, and give them more background information: when did the animal come, where did they come from, any kind of history or background or behavior we have, and then also any medical information that we have about the pet.
We're full-disclosure—anything that we know, we'll pass on. A lot of times we don't know their history. If they came to us as a transfer from another shelter, we can't really speak to what their previous situation was, just what we've seen here in the shelter. Which, obviously, is not always indicative of what's going to happen in the home, because it's a different environment. Also if we've seen any medical or behavioral issues and, for a dog especially, what kind of training, or what kind of work, that we've done with them.
So, like I said, it's definitely an open system. I mean, because we are a big shelter, we do a lot of adoptions. The smaller, breed-specific rescues can do more pass / fail, and have really strict, multiple page questionnaires and home visits and all that, but for us—we're a big organization—we do over 5,000 adoptions a year. We're still trying to find good fits and good matches, but you can't get down to that level of intensity as far as screening and home visits and all that.
But definitely if we see an animal that we feel has certain things that they need, we will throw additional restrictions or requirements to try and give them a better shot at success. So if you see a cat is reactive to other cats, then it needs to go to an only cat home. Or a dog that's super shy may do well with other dogs, so we'll say either recommended or required is a second dog. Or sometimes dogs don't do well in really busy, downtown neighborhoods—especially if they came from a really rural shelter like Stockton or Merced—so we might say they need a quieter neighborhood, not a busy, downtown neighborhood.
Usually we do it based on behavior, or if they come back from a surrender from a previous home, we'll try to eliminate some of the factors that might have caused the surrender.
What’s the magic? What secrets have you learned through your experience?
People that thrive with really black and white rules don't do well—you have to have an open mind and not be judgemental. You have to be able to have conversations with people and know there's a lot of gray area.
Sometimes an adoption will seem kind of iffy, and you're not sure if it'll work out, and it turns out to be awesome—they'll come back and it's a perfect match and they'll love each other. Other times the adoption on paper, or talking to them, seems perfect—like they're getting everything—and then a day or two later they surrender them because they're overwhelmed, or because it's not a good fit.
You can only do so much here, because we see the behavior at the shelter, and sometimes it may not feel great, or it may, and it turns out to be just the opposite.
But I think that's the other thing—being able to talk to people and have them feel like you're not judging them or interviewing or interrogating them, because then sometimes people will either clam up or they'll tell you what they think you want to hear. So if they feel like you're just having a conversation, and you're trying to help them, or maybe if it's not a good match, instead of just saying, "We won't adopt!" you're saying, "Let's look at other choices—let's redirect." versus just shutting them down.
People are more honest when you talk to them and they don't feel like you're judging them. Or you're not saying no, you're saying, let's look at other options, or let's find a better fit, or maybe it's not the right time, or something.
GABRIEL, SMALL RESCUE VOLUNTEER
What's your process for matching people with pets?
We are very, very big on fostering. The reason for that, is that when a foster is connecting with a potential adoptee, they have an intimate relationship with the animal, so they understand its characteristics. They’ve seen it in their home for more than a week, so it’s personality starts to come out, it’s easier to gage how much energy the dog needs, what type of animal it is, what kind of disposition it has, how it interacts with children, or cats, or squirrels—that’s the angle and approach we take.
It’s much easier to place an animal, if we have a very solid understanding about not only the animal, but about the person who wants to adopt it. And then we can use our best judgement to inform that person of, ‘Hey, we think this would be a great match for you! We think you’ll be very happy!’ or, ‘Hey, in our professional opinion, we don’t know that you have the time and energy necessary to take care of this dog, but maybe you would look at an animal like this, or an older dog, or something like that.
What’s the magic? What secrets have you learned through your experience?
So much of what we do involves a face-to-face interaction. Like, literally—I study people. I’m very passionate about dogs, and I’m very passionate about getting them placed in good, loving homes that they’re going to have long term relationships in. So when I’m vetting someone, that magic that you’re asking about, for me, that’s the process. Hyper-attention to detail when I’m interviewing someone—I’m looking at them, I’m seeing how they’re interacting with the dog, if it’s a couple I’m looking to see what kind of energy they’re putting off to one another, whether they feel confident.
So that’s what we focus on a lot—that interaction that you have with the person. When you’re the one adopting the animal out, it becomes really, really comfortable after a while, to make a call within fifteen or twenty minutes of that interaction as to whether or not it’s going to be a good situation, it’s going to be a good home, and it’s going to be a happy relationship.
What happens next?
So, when there are dogs that don’t have anywhere else to go, they come to us. We get these dogs in, we post them to our website—and to a variety of other ones like Petfinder.com and other big, national find-a-pet databases—and then when someone expresses interest we have them fill out that application. If the application looks good to us, we go forward with setting up a meet where they will come out to the foster’s home—for me, that means somebody comes to my house where the dog is–they come and meet the dog.
If they have any animals already, or kids, they’ll usually bring their animals or kids with them so we can test that interaction and see how it goes, and they probably spend anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour depending on the situation. Some people come in with all their ducks in a row—they’ve had six dogs in the past, and they know everything, and they’re happy, and it’s just easy. And for some people it takes a lot longer because they’re more apprehensive, or they haven’t had a dog before. And once that’s done, the next step is—if we don’t go straight to an adoption–we’ll go to a trial adoption.
We’ll allow someone to take a dog for a week, or two weeks, and we’ll let them know that this is a no commitment thing they’re doing. We’ll give them that opportunity to see if it works out for them, and worst case scenario, we keep the animal listed, and we do get other interest—that way we don’t miss out on an opportunity.
I’ll tell you right now, that missed opportunities are the single greatest damager to the animal adoption process.
This is a lesson that I learned the hard way: we had a dog that I absolutely fell in love with that I was fostering, and I was very, very picky about who was going to get this dog. And I got my heart set on this couple that I really thought was going to take her—I thought it was going to work out—and as a result I passed up four or five other opportunities because I really wanted this one to work out—and then, it didn’t. And what I realized is that the ripple effect that was created by that missed opportunity could have resulted in multiple animals not getting placed. Because, if four people expressed interest to me, that doesn’t mean they’re looking for just that one dog—they could have been looking for any dog. And if I had moved on this one sooner, more animals could have been adopted, more connections, etc.
Don’t ever take an animal off of the adoption list, until everything is done. Until it’s 100% done. It’s signed, it’s official, the dog is in the house with them, etc. Leave animals available to be adopted until they’re absolutely, positively, not available to be adopted anymore. That would be probably the biggest piece of advice I could give you in terms of making sure you have as much success as possible.
In your experience, do people know what they want, or is there a mismatch between what they think they want and what they end up choosing?
That is an outstanding question, and that’s actually going to lead to a few different answers. So, one thing I find to be frequently true, is that people want a dog, and when they’re first looking into getting a dog, they start with a very, very, very high degree of specificity. Like, my best friend is trying to get a dog right now, and when he started his search, he was looking for a breed I had never even heard of—this really specific, random, European—it’s just ridiculous! I’m like, ‘You’re never going to find this dog unless you spend $8,000 on it and fly it in from Sweden.’
And a lot of people start there. They start with this really specific idea of what they want, and I personally—and I’m going to preach here for a minute because I think it’s beneficial to what you’re trying to do, trying to solve a problem, to use your words—part of the problem in our whole culture of dogs and people, is we’ve sort of lost what the ethos of that relationship is.
I find myself doing a tremendous amount of education for people when they’re looking to get a dog, trying to teach them about the history of man’s relationship with dog. I mean, we domesticated wolves for survival. That was something human beings did thousands of years ago in order to survive the elements, especially in the most difficult parts of the world. And wolves, simultaneously, began to rely on people.
So we have this kinetic, biological, evolutionary history with dogs, that’s very, very deep and very significant. And the reason I bring that up, is because too often I see people get a little too attached to the perfect dog idea, or the dream breed or—to go on the negative side, in my opinion—the accessorizing of dogs. Like, ‘I’m gonna get a dog to reflect my personality better.’ Which isn’t the right way to get a dog, and that’s really what ends up leading to dogs in shelters and a lot of dogs coming back to adoption groups.
So, to answer your question, a lot of people come in with a really specific idea, and what I try to get them to understand, is that this is a relationship.
It’s a relationship, and it’s a family member. If you’ve got a family, if you’re married, if you’ve got children, this should be the process of adding a member to your family, not adding an accessory to your life. I think when people start to embrace that, instead of looking for the perfect looking dog, or the perfect breed, they start to look for the dog that they establish a genuine connection with. And the reason that they’re able to do that, is that that is something that is legitimately hardwired into our DNA as people—this connection with dogs. It’s not a thing that just some people have, it’s built into our human history, to connect with them that way.
So when people start to look at it that way—and when I can get someone to look at it that way—they end up falling in love with dogs that they didn’t expect to fall in love with. Because they start to look for that more human relationship, as opposed to something they’re adding to their life, if that makes sense.
High level education—like, here’s what this is about, here’s what this means—can really inspire people to the incredible, incredible doors that open when you establish significant relationships with animals. And, for a lot of people, they stop looking at that point. And frankly, that’s a good thing. Because, like I said: missed opportunities are the worst.
So people adopting a dog for the wrong reason, and ending up with a dog that they don’t end up keeping for their whole life, and a rescue ends up holding onto it for three years while they try to get it adopted—because nobody wants a four year old Pitbull, but everybody wants a six month old Pitbull—those are really catastrophic events for the life of a dog. You can make sure that you’re getting the right people if the message is sound, and coming from the right vain from the get-go.
The sentiment is what I want to get across to people. I want people to understand that this dog fad that we’re in right now, the problems that we have in the dog community today, are so significant: massive overpopulation, overcrowded shelters in virtually every major city in the United States, we have puppy mills running out of control breeding dogs in horrific conditions, all to perpetuate this idea that a dog is an accessory. And we treat them like accessories, we treat them like products. We build them and raise them like products. And that has degraded our society’s ability to see how beautiful and valuable and historic the relationship we have with dogs is. So that sentiment is what I try to get across to people. And I find that when people embrace that, and they start to see that, and success stories are an easy way to do that. For me, I have two absolutely incredible rescue dogs of my own, and they help me foster animals. So when I take in a dog, they’re with my dogs constantly—my dogs live with them. So I get to illustrate how amazing this relationship is with my dogs to people. And so that will be the challenge for you: how do you take somebody who’s like, ‘I’m 32 and I had a kid and I should just get a dog!’ Which is not good, because maybe it’ll work out, but if it doesn’t, it’s either going to get neglected, or it’s going to end up in a shelter.
So how do we get that person to go from, ‘Oh, I kind of want a dog!’ to, ‘Wow. This could be a really beautiful, transformative thing in my life, and in the life of my family.’ That’s the goal. Because once you get that, you will reliably be—instead of just matching someone with a dog from now until whenever they get rid of it, or however long they have it—now creating meaningful, long-lasting connections that are helping to defeat a massive, massive problem in our society, which is: what do we do with all of these dogs?
I legitimately believe that most people have the capacity for this really deep, meaningful connection with a dog. And I think the reason it doesn’t happen as much today, is we’ve diluted it to such a great degree that people just see them as products—they don’t see that relationship or the capacity for it anymore. If you can solve that problem, you can have a tremendous impact.