How Shelter Volunteers Can Reduce Adoption Returns

If you’ve ever volunteered with any sort of animal rescue, you likely know the pain of sending a pet off to what you believe will be its forever home, only to see it returned a few days later. Sometimes there’s a reason for the return noted in the returned pet’s file, ranging from the understandable (“Dog reacted very aggressively to adopter’s cat”) to the ridiculous (“Cat didn’t match adopter’s furniture”). Whatever the reason for a return, it’s always heart-breaking to see an animal back in his kennel at the shelter after what was supposed to be a permanent adoption.

In many shelters and rescues, volunteers are the first line of defense against adoption returns. If a shelter or rescue has any paid employees at all, they’re frequently overwhelmed and unable to spend time getting to know individual pets available for adoption. A volunteer who undergoes training to assist with the adoptions process can often head off a bad match and steer adopters to a better choice.

Insist the Whole Family Meet the Adoptee

Many adopted pets are returned because of a conflict with a family member who didn’t meet the pet until after it was adopted. The solution is simple: Insist that any applicants bring all family members to meet the pet they’re adopting before completing the adoption process. In cases where a family member is unable to leave the home, a volunteer may be able to bring the potential adoptee for a visit.

Sometimes applicants balk at this requirement because they intend to give the adopted pet as a gift to a child. If this happens, explain to the applicant that pets are family members, not gifts, and suggest surprising a child with the opportunity to choose and adopt a pet, rather than a pet that’s already been adopted.

Match Previous Experiences with Future Expectations

If an adoptive family has a particular expectation for a pet, try to match them with a pet that’s already experienced a similar situation. For example, if it’s important that the applicant’s new canine companion be able to stay outdoors in a fenced yard for 8 hours while the adopter is at work, pair the applicant with dogs who lived at least partially outdoors in their previous homes. Avoid choosing dogs with a history of escape for applicants wanting a dog that can stay outdoors unsupervised.

Another example: If a family wants a cat and you notice that their application discloses that they already own a dog, try to pair that family with cats that came from “mixed households” with both cats and dogs. Most cats can eventually adjust to dogs, but some adopters don’t give them enough time to do so before deciding to return the new cat.

Give a Lecture

Immediately before finalizing any adoption, it’s a good idea to sit down and have a discussion with the adopter about the responsibilities of pet ownership and the toll that being returned to a shelter can take on pets. Here’s one version of my usual pre-adoption spiel:

“Now, everything looks great with your application, and Fido seemed to get along really well with everyone in the family. I just want to go over a few things before we finalize the adoption, to make sure we’re absolutely on the same page. After all, adopting a pet is a pretty big deal, and we want Fido’s next home to be his forever home. First, you know that you’re making a lifetime commitment to Fido, right? He could live another 15 years or more. I want to emphasize that our adoption contract prohibits selling or giving away dogs adopted from this rescue, so he needs to be with your family forever, or come back to us– and we’d hate to see him come back, because he was so sad and confused when his first family relinquished him.

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  1. Melissa Freer
    | Reply

    Thanks for your posting on this. As a volunteer at the MN Valley Humane Society in Minnesota for 7 years, it is always frustrating to see a dog come back. Great stuff in this article.

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