Are pet adoption rules too restrictive? And is a pet store your only other option?

Every year, millions of shelter dogs are put to sleep while people support puppy mills by buying dogs at pet stores. This is Ryder; he was a good dog who needed some love and attention - and he was one of those millions of dogs euthanized because he couldn't find a home. The restrictions to adopt him? Must be a loving family willing to give him a forever home. That's not so restrictive, is is?

Back in December I did a story on how animal activists have been working to get malls across the country to sever ties with pet stores in favor of rescue group”stores”, in the hopes of putting a stop to puppy mills and helping more rescue animals find homes.

I was surprised when readers started commenting that they ended up getting a dog at a pet store, knowing they were supporting puppy mills, because they’d been denied by rescue groups to adopt dogs. They cited restrictive rescue polices, invasive questions and other seemingly endless hurdles loving families have to jump to take home a dog that needs a home. And then this week, Slate writer Emily Yaffe addressed the issue in her piece, “No Pet For You.”

Which leads me to this question: how restrictive should a rescue group be? And how justified are those responses that a pet store is the only other option?

To be fair, there are legitimate reasons rescue groups ask a million questions. They want a dog to leave their rescue group and not ever have to be rescued again. They want to make sure that the adopted understands a dog’s special needs, is prepared for possible medical expenses, isn’t going to crate a dog and leave it for 10 hours a day, is willing to fork out money for training.

Some groups, like pit bull rescue groups, for example, know that their dogs come with breed specific issues – some homeowners insurance policies don’t cover people who own pit bulls or pit-type mixes, for example, and there are communities across the U.S. where alleged “dangerous breeds” are actually banned.

But there are also rescue groups that simply make adopting so restrictive that almost anyone would be denied. Someone once commented to me that we put kids in foster care with less restrictive background checks. I don’t know if that’s true, but I understand the sentiment.

On the other hand, I also take exception to the notion that if a family wanting a dog is denied by a rescue group that their only other option is to run to the pet store. That’s the lazy way out, even if you’re looking for a specific breed. Once you know pet shops sell puppy mill dogs – and I’m telling you they do, so you can’t say you didn’t know - I think you have a moral obligation to not buy there, the same way that if you knew your clothing was made by a company known for using victims of human trafficking to produce their product, you’d stop buying that product. (Or at least I would hope you would. I guess if we have to have that moral discussion, we’ve entered a whole other realm. So let’s stick to dogs for now.)

So here are a few thoughts for both potential adopters and rescue groups:

To Potential Adopters:

Dozer is a 2 year old purebred American Bulldog who has been looking for his forever home for a while. He's currently at Lollypop Farm in Victor, NY. Click his photo to get more information!

Most people don’t realize that a rescue group and a shelter are not the same thing. The shelter is akin to your local dog pound, where dogs are housed in a kennel situation. And regardless of what you think, your town, village, city or county does have a pound. Shelters also often have looser adoption policies, because they can’t handle the number of animals coming in every day. And if you’re looking for a particular breed? The ASPCA estimates that about 25 percent of dogs turned over to shelters are purebred. Look in your phone book under “animal control” or call your local village or town office and ask about your local municipal shelter or pound.

A rescue group is a private organization, usually without an actual facility. The dogs are cared for in foster homes and shown at adoption events. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of rescue groups across the country, many of them breed specific. You can go to Petfinder.com  to see animals listed in your area. And also visit sites like RescueMe.org, where regular people who need to rehome their pets – maybe they’re moving, someone is allergic, etc – list their own animals. It would take a long, long time to exhaust those possibilities.

According to the ASPCA,the majority of people in the U.S. obtain their pets from family, friends and acquaintances; 15 to 20 percent of dogs are purchased from breeders, and 10 to 20 percent of cats and dogs are adopted from shelters and rescues. So while you visit shelters and talk to multiple rescue groups, also talk to friends and family who may know someone with a dog that needs to be rehomed. Let them know you’re looking to add a furry family member. Chances are you’ll make a connection that way.

Last resort? There are reputable breeders who are not puppy mills. Although, as I mentioned before, breed specific rescues abound, and your local shelter probably has more than a few purebreds looking for homes right now.

If you’re turned down, ask why and listen to the answer. Consider that maybe – just maybe - you’re being turned down for a legitimate reason, usually because the dog you’ve picked out isn’t the right dog for you. The folks at the rescue likely know something you may not know – that the breed you’ve chosen is banned in your community, for example. Or they watched your children try to hug a dog around the neck and realize that you may not be as saavy about raising a dog as you think you are. (If that last one confused you: looking a dog directly in the eyes is considered a challenge to fight in dog language, so if your 3 yr old is eye level with a dog, and then goes in for the hug – which dogs also consider restrictive and challenging – it’s just a matter of time before the dog bites the child. You  may not see it, but the rescue folks will, and that’s a definite red flag and the reason many rescues restrict adoptions to families without young children.)

Remember that when you’re working with a rescue, these dogs have been living in someone’s home, not in a kennel like they would at a shelter. So these people know the dogs, know their quirks, know what riles them up, know how they react to kids and cats and other animals.  These folks are pretty perceptive at identifying things that might mean the dog you’ve fallen in love with isn’t going to be a good match. Be willing to consider many dogs, not just the one you saw online.

As for complaints about rescue group attitudes: I’ve met some cranky, bitter rescue people. But I’ve also met some super nice rescue folks. If you remember that they take dogs from filthy, disgusting, neglectful, deplorable, abusive, situations, it’s easy to see how they can get jaded and bitter. It doesn’t excuse rude behavior, but it might help soften the blow a bit if  you remember that they do the dirtiest work in the rescue cycle, work most of us never see.

Finding the right dog – not just the dog you want, but the dog who wants you, too – can be a long  process. If you’ve tried one adoption event, or one rescue group, before you ran to the pet store, you aren’t getting my sympathies. (And if you think finding the right dog is a matter of visiting one adoption event, it may be that you’re not ready to put in the time to actually have a dog. Dogs are a lot of work. They bark and pee in the house and chew your shoes and shed on your furniture and disobey and eat from your plate. And that’s usually just the first week they’re in the house.)

To Rescue Groups:

Lindy is an 8-month-old retriever mix currently at the Rochester Animal Services shelter. Look at that cute face! And they say she's even cuter in person! You can find a furever friend at your local shelter. (Click the photo for more info about Lindy.)

People with complaints about rescue adoption restrictions have a point, and it’s important that you hear them.

Lack of communication on the  part of rescues is definitely a problem. I was told by one rescue group leader that when they don’t have the answer, they just don’t respond, which is not only irresponsible, it adds to the negative image of rescues. So make sure you respond to people, no matter how stupid you think their questions may be.

About those stupid questions? You know more about dogs than the average dog owner, and you always will simply because of your rescue work. Don’t penalize potential adopters for their lack of information, especially if they seem willing to learn. Most adopters don’t understand what a rescue does, what kinds of deplorable conditions you’re going into to rescue dogs. Look at every interaction as a chance to educate, not alienate.

Be clear about why you’re not going to approve an application – not just a vague “you have kids” but “the energy level of your family might be more than Fido can tolerate, because he has some reactivity issues and needs a calm home. Let’s consider a dog with a lower energy level who would be a good match for your active family.”  If you’re going to take a firm stand on adoption requirements, you need to have the backbone to tell potential adopters the real reason why you’re not approving them, even if it hurts their feelings.

Watch the negativity. I know some rescue folks who constantly criticize everyone who questions their methods and publicly belittle people they’ve deemed bad animal owners - and other rescues – on Facebook and Twitter. That bad attitude is the reason some people simply skip the rescue and head to the pet store. The folks at the pet store, who are usually only in it for the money, are often nicer to people than the rescues are. And it’s a plain fact of life that people will go where they think they’re appreciated, not where they’re belittled.

Remember that you are not God and you can’t predict the future. Some questions rescues ask are legitimately ridiculous. No one knows what will happen in 10 years – will you have kids? will you move? will someone get sick? will you be able to pay for vet bills? To deny a potential adopter a dog because he can’t answer those questions satisfactorily (ie: I will not have kids, I will  not move, I will not get sick, I can pay for vet bills forever) is asking too much. 

In The End …

I can’t think of a single reason for someone to run to the pet store to buy a dog. Potential adopters may not like hearing that the one dog they saw online isn’t a good match and be unwilling to consider other dogs. But that’s no reason to continue to support the puppy mill cycle. There are myriad rescue groups, shelters and legitimate breeders all willing to help you find the right pet for your family. If you exhausted all of those resources, maybe it’s just not in the cards for you right now to have a pet?

And on the flip side, if rescue groups were a little less judgmental, more dogs might find loving, lifetime homes. There are few “perfect” homes but lots and lots of  “good” homes. If you don’t work with those families who want a dog, they’ll go somewhere else. Why not use the opportunity to see if you can meet their needs and your dog’s needs too?


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