Adoption Counseling: How to Make or Break a Family

Adoption Counseling: How to Make or Break a Family

“Hello, I adopted a puppy mill rescue dog five weeks ago and cannot get a leash on her. She is ruining my apartment because I can’t get her outside. Can you help me?” This email came through my website (www.sunnyweber.com) a few weeks ago. Because I specialize in working with fearful dogs, my mind’s eye saw a young, aggressive looking (to the dog) person chasing a panicked little mutt around a small space.

Even without more contact, there were many obvious things wrong with this scenario. Two sentences and a question spoke volumes. I immediately responded via email and asked for the woman’s contact phone number. My mouth goes billions of times faster than my fingers, so I knew I had to converse with this poor dog owner and I knew it would take time.

When we spoke, the woman told me she adopted her dog from a local shelter. I asked her why she chose this particular dog. She said she “liked the way she looked in her picture on the website.” When she went into the shelter the dog she chose was the only one she visited with, the only one the adoption counselor talked about. Strike One: There were no other suggestions, no in-depth interview, no screening as to the appropriateness of this match.

 

The woman went on to say she had adopted a former mill dog before but she took the dog back after three days because, “I couldn’t handler her—she was so afraid.” Strike Two. The adoption counselor had this information and chose to ignore it. She allowed the second mill dog to visit with the woman and made no other suggestions or comments.

When the dog was brought to the small visit room at the shelter, “she was on a leash, but I had no idea how they got it on her and didn’t think to ask,” the woman told me. “I didn’t know that once I got home I’d never be able to catch her again. They (shelter staff) told me to leave the short leash on her when I got home but I didn’t. Now I know why they said that—so I could step on the leash as she ran by me and catch her to go out.” Strike Three: Lack of full disclosure; especially about behavior.

As we talked, I noticed the woman missed several things I said and appeared to be a bit hard-of-hearing. She had a scratchy, uneven voice, like an elderly person often sounds. I asked her, “If you don’t mind, may I ask your age?She was 85. “How old is your new dog?” Five. Strikes Four, Five and beyond. Matching an 85-year-old to a 5-year-old dog is not wise, for many reasons including: 1) the dog will outlive the person and then what? 2) a traumatized dog will take much time to recover, if she ever completely does—time an elderly person doesn’t have (then the dog will face another trauma of re-homing); 3) any 5-year-old dog will be too high-energy for an elderly person; 4) the woman lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a senior residence—former mill dogs often fear small enclosures, direct attention, have only lived with other dogs, have little experience with varieties of people, and are flight risks; 5) mill rescues are never housebroken when they arrive in new homes, unless they’ve been fostered and trained.

Now the dog has lost five weeks in an inappropriate home, possible increased trauma (the woman did not know how to approach the dog in a non-threatening body posture, for starters), and no socialization progress has been made due to the isolation of a small apartment and no other venue.

The poor woman has lost five weeks feeling guilty (she could not keep the dog and she knew it), sad (she truly wanted to help the dog), frustrated (her apartment stank), embarrassed (she failed in many ways, in her own estimation) and rejected (she was unable to earn the dog’s trust).

All this woman wanted was a ready companion. She had lost her husband and was lonely (this poor match exacerbated her loneliness). She was “active for my age,” enjoyed daily walks outside, and wanted a dog friend to accompany her (this dog was un-catchable, un-leashable, and most mill rescues fear large outdoor areas at first). She lived in a residence and so needed a socialized dog to interact with her friends (obviously not a newly rescued mill dog). She wanted a dog that would be able to live in a small apartment and not bounce off the walls; in other words, an older, mellower companion.

How was this match acceptable to the adoption counselor? How was my fifteen-minute conversation, including careful and empathetic listening, more thorough than a face-to-face interaction in a small room at the shelter? Why was the counselor not more sensitive to what the dog needed? Why was the counselor not more sensitive to what the woman wanted and needed? Where was the advocacy?

Adoption counselors need to walk a fine line of service—for the person and the pet. They must be advocates for the pets they try to find homes for. If a person, family, or situation is not appropriate, the counselor must say so and offer to find a different pet for the client(s). Adoption counselors must also save people from themselves. I told the elderly woman that choosing a dog from an online photo was like an arranged marriage—you have no idea what you are taking on. Patrons of a shelter or rescue must be able to trust their adoption counselor to listen to their needs and wants and then match a pet accordingly. Behavior, temperament, energy level, socialization levels, health issues, age, and size should be far more important in a match then just looks.

Looking for a potential pet in a shelter line-up and then meeting for short times in small rooms (if indeed your shelter has these amenities) is like speed-dating and then marriage on the spot. Will you feel increased emotional bonds in ten years (dogs can live even longer)? Adoption counselors must know their stuff. The title COUNSELOR is not just a company position; it is a commitment to advocate, protect, serve, and have the courage to say no.

 Pet adoption is about more than statistics to obtain funding. Pet adoption is not about shoving pets or people out the door. Pet Adoption is about making families. Adoption counselors must have access to adequate training to make appropriate matches.

Adoption counselors have great power. They can save pet lives. They can enhance human lives. They must take their position seriously and seek knowledge, wisdom and awareness. They must also have the guts to say no, suggest other matches, or to educate inappropriate pet owners on how to become good pet caregivers.

All rescues and shelters must put in place solid educational programs for their adoption counseling staffs, whether they are volunteers or paid. We owe it to the pets at our mercy and the people who trust us and don’t know any better.

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Sunny has over 25 years’ experience in pet rescue, humane education, shelter & sanctuary work, service dog training, obedience competition, dog & cat fostering, pet medical care, horse ground training and has authored articles and books in several fields.

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