“You saw me and knew you wanted to bring me home. But don’t let your excitement cloud your judgement — I need a family that will take care of me for the rest of my life. Are we a good match for each other?” — pet for life
It is so easy to say yes. ‘Sure, I’ll bring that awesome homemade thing I’m proud of making to the potluck.’ ‘Yes — This is the year I start my own vegetable garden!’ ‘Okay, I think I can squeeze that extra work project in.’ ‘Yes, a puppy would be such a great addition to the family! Let’s get one!’
We all know that owning an animal is a responsibility, but do we really understand what we are getting ourselves into when we bring a new dog or cat into the house?
Bailey Anthony is the Volunteer Manager for Black Dog Animal Rescue (BDAR) in Wyoming. Rescuing dogs and cats is her job, and it is her passion. In the last two years, she and her husband have personally provided foster care for over 30 homeless dogs. If anybody understands the excitement people feel when they decide to adopt a new pet, Anthony does. But all too often, the rescue business can be a heartbreaking, thankless endeavor as so many animals enter into her care after being relinquished by owners, black dogs included.
We spoke with Anthony to talk to her about the adoption process and to see what she has to say about responsible pet ownership, its lifetime commitment, and what she and her team of veterinary technicians go through on a daily basis when it comes to evaluating animal health.
A Pet for Life: What a Rescue Group Wants You to Know
BA: Probably the most common reason for surrender from shelters around the state [of Wyoming] is behavioral issues. Another main reason we see is that the family doesn’t have enough time to give. Reasons that dogs come back into our program vary. Sometimes pets don’t get along with other animals in the home.
KM: What would you say the root of a lot of the behavioral issues is?
BA: It’s hard to speculate on the story of these dogs and the things they’ve endured. We do know that the dogs are pretty resilient and they’re able to overcome all sorts of things that happened in their past. I think mismatch [between the animal and the adopting family] is most common. The owners aren’t prepared to spend time working with the dog on manners. Or maybe they overestimated their time and ability of what they’re able to give back into the dog; that happens occasionally for some of our more challenging dogs.
KM: What effect does rehoming have on the dogs?
BA: [Rehoming] is very stressful for the dogs. They get shuffled around all these different environments. The shelter situation is very stressful, especially the first 72 hours. It’s noisy and the accommodations usually aren’t comfortable. They’ve been abandoned by their family in some cases, so it’s just a really nerve-wracking, stressful time for them.
KM: Is there formal personality testing for dogs?
BA: We have volunteer teams set up in the towns where we pull dogs from around the state. These teams are working towards being on a standardized assessment, a trimmed down version of what is called the Assess-A-Pet evaluation that was invented by Sue Sternberg. The first step we are working toward in this formal evaluation is cage presentation. Really what we’re looking for here are shy or fearful dogs. If there are dogs that are cowering in the corner or refusing to make social contact with the person on the other side of the kennel door, there’s a really high correlation that that dog will have similar behavior in the foster home. We just need to prepare that family that they’ll have a shyer, more nervous dog at first. Things like barking and lunging and jumping at the kennel door are good indicators too, but they’re not as highly correlated. Part of that kennel presentation is soliciting interaction with the dog. The volunteer will turn to their side and extend their arm to the kennel door to see if they can get that dog to engage at all. That just tells us how willing that dog is to initiate contact with us.
Once they do that kennel presentation they remove the dog from the kennel and we do what’s called a sociability test. This test has four steps. The first is standing at the end of a leash and ignoring the dog and [then] sitting in a chair and ignoring the dog. Then they start finally talking to the dog and then they stroke the dog and then that’s repeated slowly after some breaks. We’re looking to see how much encouragement the dog needs to initiate contact with people. It’s really hard for dogs that are not sociable with people to find a connection. And those dogs can be really difficult to train if they aren’t motivated by affection from a person. While this isn’t a black-and-white yes-or-no test it helps us prepare the foster home for what to expect when the dog gets to their home.
The third and fourth steps are other animal evaluations. We’ll meet at least two other dogs during the evaluation. [We] try to have them meet a male and a female but that’s not always possible given who is available in the shelter. We also walk the dogs through the cat room. We have fosters that have cats or small animals so that’s the best way we can place them in one of those foster homes.[Finally] we send them off to a foster home. That’s an incredibly stressful, confusing thing for these animals and we typically recommend that our foster homes give the dogs 36-72 hours to get used to their new environment, have some quiet time in their kennels, and catch up on some rest they were probably missing out on from the shelter. And once the dog transitions to their adoptive home that sort of stress is one of the reasons we recommend kennel training: so the dog has a place they’re comfortable and that sort of transitions them from home to home, so they don’t have to go back and start at square one when they move from the foster home to the adoptive home.
KM: For a foster family with kids, how do you decide a dog is okay to put with them?
BA: Testing with kids in the shelter situation is very difficult. It opens those kids up to a safety concern, so we don’t require that in our shelter evaluations. If there happens to be a family with kids in the shelter and they are able to observe how that dog interacts with kids, or if the volunteer has grandkids and feels comfortable having the dog meet the grandkids, sometimes we’ll arrange for that. But generally if the kids are under five we try to be really certain about how that dog will interact with kids. If it’s unclear the dog is safe to be around kids we’ll remove it from the foster home immediately. We aren’t willing to put anyone in any sort of safety risk. We highly encourage our foster homes to not allow any unmonitored time between their children and the foster animal. There are so many risks. Homes with kids are just cautioned to take it slowly. Those dogs need more time in their kennel transitioning to the home, but in our minds it is better than being in the shelter.
KM: Could you speak about the specifics of matching an animal to the right adopter?
BA: We do think it’s important that we’re available to match available dogs – and cats now, we’re doing [cats] here and there – to the right home. In a foster home environment we’re able to learn a lot more about them than if they were just living in a shelter: if it’s a home with cats or small kids, or which dogs may need a fence of a certain height, and that type of thing.
Most of the time, we get applications in that are sort of generic rather than for a certain dog, because people know we’ll help match them with the right dog for their family. So we get a lot of applications that say, ‘I have cats. I’m not looking for a specific dog but it has to get along with cats.’ ‘I have young children. I’m not specific on the sex or breed or age as long as it can get along with my children.’ I think people know they can come to us and we will do our best to match them up with a dog that works for them. Adoptable dogs that are good with cats and kids and don’t have behavioral problems go through our program pretty quickly. [Adopters] understand that and they’re usually willing to wait it out until we find the right match for them.
KM: What would you like people to consider before bringing an animal into their home?
BA: I think probably the first thing I would like people to do is be patient with the process. Adding a new dog to your family is really exciting, and people oftentimes want that to happen right now. Sometimes if you adopt through a traditional shelter that can happen right now, but going through an organization like BDAR, without having dogs on site, it takes some extra time to get the application screened, to find a time that works to meet the dog. It’s just a little bit of extra coordinating, and we totally understand people who want the dog and want it right now. They can go to the shelter and that’s great. But for us if they could just give us some time to help find that right fit, that would be really appreciated. We can’t just read an application all the time and know that dog will work in your home. It’s a conversation-based approach that takes a little longer than you would normally see in a shelter environment.
Another thing I would like people to consider is if they’re ready for a dog and if they’re ready to make that commitment. I think a lot of people say ‘that sounds like fun’ right now but don’t necessarily consider that they may have children in the next couple of years, or be moving, or changing their family situation. A lot of those things can be stressful for dogs if they’re not included. Just asking people to think of the lifespan of the dog would be great. A lot of people want to help and think they have to do so right now to save a shelter dog, but shelter dogs will still be around in a year or two. It’s much better for us, for the family, and for the dog, if people know that they’re adopting at the right time and can commit to the dog for its full lifespan.
If that’s something they can’t commit to, [if] the 10, 15-plus year commitment is too long, looking into adopting a senior pet is a great option. Trying to find adopters for senior pets can be extremely difficult, but in reality it is less of a commitment than if you are choosing to adopt a puppy. I would encourage people to consider that more often.
Yes there is a lot to think about when making the decision to adopt a pet. Knowing what you’re getting into is extremely important for setting yourself up to what can become one of the most rewarding relationships and experiences you can have with a fur-buddy. Once you make the decision that you will be patient and you will commit to a pet for life, enjoy the ride.