Making Me a Match

Few things about my work upset me as much as clients who give up on a dog. Regardless of the reason, it usually means broken hearts for the people involved. For the dogs it means lots of stress, likely homelessness, and even the possibility (or sometimes the certainty) of euthanasia. Even in the case of dogs who are obviously too dangerous to remain in their homes, I take every client’s dog that loses its home (or its life) personally. Some of the most upsetting cases for me, though, are those where the dog never really had a chance to succeed in a home. I’ve been seeing a lot of these bad matches lately.

I expect people who buy dogs from a pet stores or back yard breeders to often wind up with inappropriate pets, but I’ve also been seeing a lot of poor placements by shelters and rescue groups that I would hope might know better. Recent examples include 3 Border Collies – one terrified of strange men and sudden noises, one with serious impulse control problems, and one typical border collie – placed (by different organizations) with elderly couples who neither exercised regularly nor had much experience with dogs. I’ve also seen 3 recent cases of fights involving serious injuries after male dogs were placed into homes with other male dogs of about the same age within days of being neutered. Other memorably poor matches I’ve seen recently included a pair of first time dog owners with a highly reactive fearful Miniature Pinscher, and a single mother of 5 children with a known resource-guarding terrier who hates to be touched.

All of these owners found their dogs extremely difficult to live with, but each also worked very hard to solve those difficulties. Three of the dogs mentioned above remain in their new homes and are doing well, but they’ve cost their owners far more time and money that they ever expected. The rest were re-homed.

These are sad stories, but they have no villains. Each adopter demonstrated real commitment to their dogs. The dogs were placed by conscientious organizations that work very hard to find their charges great homes. They give out long questionnaires. They do reference checks, home visits, require fenced yards, and much more. In spite of these efforts, dogs wind up in completely inappropriate homes with depressing regularity.

Matching a dog’s likely behavior with adopters’ lifestyles is one of the most important factors in ensuring a successful adoption. It has also been the biggest weakness in the screening procedures (and most common reason for returns) of almost every shelter or rescue with which I have worked. There are many reasons for this. Many shelter and rescue personnel feel uncomfortable asking prospective owners about their exercise and leisure time habits. Others know shockingly little about behavior, and thus don’t know what questions to ask. Finally, emphasizing the amount of work that goes into training a dog with behavior problems lowers a dog’s chance of adoption. For some reason, people who don’t hesitate to reject an adopter who lacks a fenced-in yard or neglected to give heart-worm medicine to a previous dog for a few months are loathe to see a dog go un-adopted due to the work required to address behavior problems.

I’d like to see more animal welfare groups train their “adoption counselors” to really counsel prospective adopters on finding dogs likely to fit their lifestyles. Nothing, in my experience, is more important to a successful adoption. Adoption counselors should know some basic guidelines for how to match a dog with a new family, learn basic breed characteristics, know something about the amount of effort involved in fixing known problems, and be encouraged to tactfully inquire as to whether prospective adopters’ lifestyles are suitable to a dog’s needs. This is a mistake. Animal welfare groups need to take concerns about behavioral compatibility as seriously as they take other aspects of responsible ownership.

No one set of rules applies when facing a prospective adopter, but here are some guidelines for avoiding the bad adoptions that I seem to see most often. None are etched in stone or based on research, but the reflect my personal experience:

1) High-energy individual or working breed dogs should go to active people, dog sports enthusiasts, or experienced owners of challenging dogs

2) If a family includes children under 7, strongly emphasize the importance of finding an even-tempered dog who tolerates (or better yet, loves) rough handling. Most parents seem to assume that dogs naturally accept whatever children dish out. It’s very important to dispel that illusion and help them pick a dog that’s appropriate for their family.

3) If a prospective adopter has another dog, try to steer her towards a dog of the opposite sex with an age gap of at least a couple years. If possible, set up off-site meetings before adoption as well.

4) If a dog is neutered in your care, try to wait 3 or 4 weeks before adopting into a home with another male – especially another male of similar age and size.

5) Be very careful about adopting terriers or toy breeds to homes with young children. Absolutely do not place these breeds in homes with young children if they are timid or aggressive.

6) Be very careful about adopting out two or more dogs at once. We all hate to see two friends separated, but homes for such dogs should be chosen carefully. Even the simplest behavior problems can bring new owners to despair when multiplied by 2. Placing littermates together seems to cause even more trouble.

7) Don’t be afraid to require training for dogs you know will be a challenge. If your staff and volunteers have trouble working with a dog, most adopters will have more trouble. Dogs seldom just grow out of behavior problems. They grow into them. Be honest about any known behavior problems.

8) This one seems obvious, but because I’m making a list, I’ll include it. No dog, regardless of size, with any sort of aggression issues, regardless of how mild, should be placed into a home with children under 12.

None of these tips is easy to follow when you’re face to face with a prospective adopter of a hard to place dog. Failed adoptions don’t help anyone, though, and whitewashing behavior problems or failing to make sure that an adoptive family can meet a dog’s basic needs leads to lots of them.

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