A Teaching Moment

During my five years as Adoption Manager for DVGRR, one of my responsibilities was responding to inquiries that came to the adoption@dvgrr.org email address. About a year ago, I had a particularly memorable exchange with one gentleman who took issue with some of our policies. Our dialogue illustrates some of the all-too-frequent emotional barriers that affect the public image of rescues and shelters.

The initial email request seemed fairly innocuous…one of many that arrived from prospective adopters seeking to know more about DVGRR:

“Looking to adopt a Golden Retriever…do you only adopt them out if the person has a fenced in yard? I am asking because we do not have a fenced in yard but our 3 yr old Golden Retriever gets plenty of exercise. We take him to the creek, camping and dog park very often. Hope to hear back from you — Harold.”

I composed a reply, clarifying our fence and leash policies. I was always a little concerned if someone did not have a fenced yard that they might plan to exercise an adopted dog by allowing him or her to play off leash. I made sure to note that doing so would not meet our requirements:

“Dear Harold,

We do have a fence exemption policy whereby prospective adopters can apply to DVGRR even if they don’t have a fenced yard. You can find the information on this page of our website: Are you eligible to adopt ?   

There are two important caveats to this exemption policy, however. First is that our Adoption Contract requires that all dogs adopted from DVGRR (with or without a fenced yard) must be kept on leash when not in a securely fenced area. So if you currently allow your Golden to run and play off leash in your yard or other unfenced areas and would plan to do the same with an adopted dog, I’m afraid you would not qualify.

DVGRR recognizes that many older dogs can get sufficient exercise with nice long, daily leash walks and do not require a fully fenced yard.

The other caveat is that we limit the dogs who can be placed into homes without fenced yards to those that are on the more mature, less active side. The reason is that we feel those dogs can manage fine with leash exercise alone, whereas the young Goldens really need hard, off leash play in a fenced area on a daily basis.

If you are open to the idea of dog that is a little older (generally about 6-7 and up) and can comply with our leash policy, you would be able to submit an application with us on a fence exemption basis.

Please feel free to contact me if I can help with additional questions.”

My message was sent at 2:20 on a Thursday afternoon in mid-June, and seventeen minutes later I received the following response from Harold. I could practically hear the reverberation through cyberspace created by his angry punching of the keyboard:

 “I don’t agree with this policy AT ALL. I thought adoption would be a good thing to do because you are basically saving a dog and giving them love and affection that they need (fenced in yard or NOT). Anything is better than living in a small run being left out a few times a day to do its business. And yes…I am talking about animal shelters. Pet adoption centers are so uptight and it’s pathetic. I can understand being a little cautious so the dog isn’t going to a dump with people that won’t even pay attention to him/her but in order to adopt a younger dog (1-2 yrs old), a fenced yard is required? That blows my mind. I live in a mobile home park and my dog is VERY well taken care of and gets lots of exercise and yes, he is ALWAYS on a leash unless I have him in a fenced in area. Sorry for wasting your time but I will just buy one from a breeder so I don’t have to deal with this adoption policy bullcrap. I will continue to feel sorry for all the dogs in shelters that lay on cold concrete in little runs.”

Oh boy. Anyone who knows me can tell you I have a high boiling point, but rudeness is something I really can’t abide. I’ve never understood the need to make a point by belittling the person or organization you are trying to convince of your opinion. I’m much more inclined to follow the old adage, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

We had puppies going home — my reply to Harold had to take lower priority!

At the time, however, it was three days before the Golden Gala, two days before the June Meet and Greet, and one day before Adoption Assistant Sue Weller and I were set to start a marathon of adoption appointments for eleven puppies from Sammy’s litter. No time to worry about catching flies of any sort, so I put Harold’s scathing rebuke on the back burner (still fuming a bit, of course).

A week or so later, life at Gateway had quieted down a tad (trust me, it’s always go, go, go, but at least we were able to catch our breath!) and I had the time to write back on a Sunday afternoon. I decided to use my reply as an educational tool, to help “Harold” (not his real name) better understand the challenges that a dog rescue faces on a daily basis. Brevity is not my strong suit, so I may have gotten a bit carried away (but it sure felt good…):

“Dear Harold,

I have been stewing over your June 9 response to my email for some time now and while I initially opted not to reply I do feel it is important for you to understand the issue from another perspective.

I understand you were disappointed to learn that adopting a young Golden Retriever from DVGRR does require a fenced yard. You referred to this requirement as our “adoption policy bullcrap,” and trust me, while many prospective adopters are thankfully more polite in their reactions, I have heard these objections many times during the course of my seventeen years in rescue.

Before you decide to characterize DVGRR as being “uptight and pathetic,” please consider the following factors:

  • We have been rescuing and placing Golden Retrievers since 1993, so we have extensive experience with this process and take our responsibility to the dogs in our program very seriously.
  • ALL reputable, responsible organizations have policies and procedures that they have established in order to best accomplish their mission, which in our case is to provide new beginnings for displaced Golden Retrievers. To operate without clear policies would be to invite chaos and inequity. Families and individuals can always opt to go elsewhere if they disagree with our policies, but we hope they at least take the time to understand the rationale behind them and do not expect us to make exceptions just to accommodate their particular situation.
  • Since our inception, we have taken in hundreds and hundreds of young Golden Retrievers surrendered because their families found them to be “too much work, too much time, too hyperactive, etc.” Nearly always, lack of sufficient exercise is a major contributor to the problem. We know without a doubt that young Goldens need a huge amount of daily exercise, and our commitment is to place those Goldens into better situations than they came from – not ones with the same potential problem.
  • We have seen firsthand the risks of allowing a dog to run and play off leash in unfenced areas, and it is not pretty. The temptation to do this without a fenced yard is very great, but the consequences can be devastating. Perhaps you would like to hear about Charlie, a wonderful six-year-old who entered our program two years ago with a badly fractured, badly infected front leg. He had been hit by a car after he ran out of his yard (“just that one time”) and the family allowed him to suffer for weeks without appropriate treatment until they finally realized their finances were not going to improve. DVGRR took Charlie in, paid over $3000 for his surgery and follow-up care, nursed him back to health, then found him a great adoptive home. 

    Charlie endured a painful surgery and many weeks of rehabilitation after running out of his former owner’s front yard and being struck by a car.

    Razzy, a delightful one-year-old, came to us under similar circumstances in January 2010. His back leg was shattered into pieces after he too was hit by a car. His family never thought it would happen, but when it did they had no funds to help him. Our cost for Razzy’s care exceeded $4600. How many families do you think are prepared to take on that kind of cost, even when they love their dog? These are not isolated situations. Are you starting to appreciate why we do not condone the practice of allowing dogs to be off leash in unfenced areas??

  • I believe our fence exemption policy is extremely fair, in that we do consider adopters without fenced yards. Many rescues will not consider an adopter at all without a fenced yard. We recognize that dogs can still be cared for responsibly without a fenced yard, but that key word is “responsible.” WE would not be responsible if we did not set some parameters on which dogs we placed into homes without fenced yards. I personally did not have a fenced yard for many years while I was involved with DVGRR, yet I adopted four Goldens during that time. All were middle-aged or senior dogs that could manage well with nice long walks on leash.
  • Which brings me to the subject of age…. You say you “thought adoption would be a good thing to do because you are basically saving a dog and giving them love and affection that they need.” From your response, however, it seems apparent that you are only interested in saving and loving a young dog. Sorry, but if you REALLY wanted to rescue and save a dog you would not bypass or dismiss those that are a little older. This focus on young dogs is one we see quite often, and frankly it is a very shortsighted perspective. Of course the young dogs need homes, but so do the dogs in our program with a few years under their belts. Why should they be overlooked just because they may not be quite as energetic or may not have quite as many years left to spend with their new families? Take a look at our website on any given day, and you will see a slew of wonderful Goldens with much love and devotion to share, who are waiting longer than average simply because they are perhaps five, six, seven, eight years old or older. They typically can be placed into new homes on a fence exemption. Why are you not willing to consider one of these dogs to add to your family?
  • Lastly, please do your homework before assuming that dogs in rescues or shelters are all miserable and forlorn. We are very proud of the fact that Goldens residing temporarily at our Golden Gateway facility receive a ton of daily exercise, attention, training, and LOVE from our staff and volunteers. They are far from ignored or neglected. I do not know where you are located, but I invite you to visit us and see for yourself. I’ll personally be glad to give you a tour and show you our exercise areas, playgroups, special program for puppy mill breeder dogs, etc.

    Playtime at Golden Gateway!

I wonder — how many shelters have you seen in person? Many others are also striving to improve the living conditions for the animals in their care, and those that aren’t would no doubt love to do so but do not have the funds. In my opinion, our society has very skewed priorities when it comes to animal welfare, opting to funnel money into many other directions (entertainment, sports, etc.) rather than shelters and rescue programs. When was the last time you made a donation to a shelter to help them improve their ability to help? Instead of “feeling sorry for all the dogs in shelters that lay on cold concrete in little runs,” how about offering to help, either with a donation of money or time as a volunteer? Or better yet, how about opening your heart to dog that may not be as young as you would like but who still deserves a chance at a new beginning in life?

I appreciate your taking the time to read this information and hope that I have shed some additional light on our adoption policies. I also hope that you will reconsider your opinion of rescues and shelters who are striving to do their best for the dogs in their care.”

It didn’t take long for Harold to reply, and his tone was much more conciliatory than before. I have to admit (very sheepishly, I might add), that I was a teeny bit disappointed….I guess part of me was looking forward to an ongoing fiery debate! My rational side, of course, was pleased that Harold seemed to “get” at least some of what I had tried to convey:

“You have some good points and I’m glad you took the time to get back to me. I am sure all humane societies are not the same but the 3 or 4 that I have been in were not so pleasant. I agree 100% that humane societies should be cautious of who they are adopting their dogs out to but at the same time, wonder why all of these humane societies are over populated and can’t afford to feed or shelter the animals? I’m assuming it’s probably because 50% of the people get turned away because they don’t ‘meet the qualifications’. I never said I wouldn’t adopt a 5 or 6 year old dog. My pup is going on 4 years old! I am not against older dogs at all…now a 9 or 10 year old, that’s iffy because my dog’s energy may give him/her a heart attack! If it would be my only dog than that would be fine. Sometimes I just think that humane societies are so quick to judge people. You gave me examples of “younger” dogs getting hit by cars because they weren’t on leashes. Again, that is not everyone…my dog is on a leash at all times unless in a fenced yard. I have been donating my change which adds up to 40-60 dollars a month for a year now to the Harrisburg Humane Society. I have taken many blankets and dog food.”

Harold’s logic still left a lot to be desired, however, so I continued my “lesson” on pet overpopulation and shelter realities. I was grateful that I had access to carefully compiled statistics to draw on in making my point:

“Harold — thanks for your reply and comments. I’m very glad to hear that you have been supporting the Harrisburg Humane Society and also glad that you are not opposed to an older dog. The understanding I had from your first reply was that you did not want to pursue anything further with us because you thought we were too strict in requiring a fenced yard for the young dogs.

There are many reasons why humane societies and shelters are overcrowded; I would not agree, however, that it is largely due to prospective adopters not meeting the qualifications. Our rate of turning down applicants is far less than 50% and our process is probably more rigorous than most shelters. My figures for 2010 show that we received 421 adoption applications and of those only 25 were declined….that is a 6% decline rate, nowhere close to 50%.

More likely reasons why shelters are overcrowded include people allowing dogs and cats to breed irresponsibly, people not valuing pets as part of their family and giving them up when they become too much trouble, people not taking the time to properly train their pets and then getting frustrated with problem behavior, and — sadly, more and more — people encountering severe financial stress and being unable to afford the care of their pets. This article (Pet Overpopulation) from the American Humane Association outlines some of the same issues.”

Harold’s complaint about placement agencies being “quick to judge people” is one that crops up often in animal welfare circles, and truly, we do need to monitor ourselves carefully to be sure we maintain an open mind. I closed my last message by reminding Harold that judging of others can be a two-way street, however:

“I think the temptation to judge works both ways….rescues and shelters want the best for their animals and as a result I’m sure sometimes we do make judgments that are not completely valid — we are certainly not perfect. But, we too are often judged harshly, and I believe unfairly, by the public, who may not understand the full picture and the daily challenges faced behind the scenes. That is why I wanted to share some of the reasons behind the policies we have developed….they are not created in a vacuum, they are based on years of experience in seeing what makes a successful or unsuccessful adoption.”

I would love to end this email saga by telling you that Harold “saw the light,” thanked me profusely for my insight, and eagerly adopted one of our wonderful middle-aged Goldens. In reality, I never heard from him again.

One of the things we all love and admire about dogs is their ability to be non-judgmental. It’s a quality we humans must strive for as well, taking a lesson from our less emotion-bound canine companions.

Still, I would like to think that our correspondence benefited both of us – Harold in learning that adoption decisions are not as black and white as he thought, me in staying sensitive to the many perspectives and perceptions the public often brings to our door.

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This entry was posted in General.

4 comments on “A Teaching Moment

  1. gadgetsmom says:

    I recently had a similar heated “debate” with of of my dearest friends about DVGRR being “just another snobby breed rescue”. Our conversations also got down to adoption policies set by respectible rescue organizations. It was right around the same time that DVGRR rescued the NC20, so I was particularly loaded with amazing examples of how untrue her perceptions were, at least in regards to DVGRR. I’m sure I will refer back to your informative email to Harold in the future if/when discussing DVGRR with friends, family and acquaintences when appropriate. Thank you, once again, for a thought provoking post. I’m already looking forward to June’s!!

  2. Vanessa Murray says:

    I must say you were certainly polite, maybe spending time with Sammy’s puppies helped. I appreciate your arguments about the leash/fences and the consequences that can happen by letting your dog run loose. You never know when a squirrel, rabbit or in Darby’s case a ball will divert their focus and off they go. Why take a chance? I loved reading your blog and look forward to the next post.

  3. Monica Kulaski says:

    Donna, your gift for writing and getting to the point never ceases to amaze me. I loved spending this morning reading your blog (rather than attending to everything waiting to be done). I am looking forward to all future posts. Monica

  4. Laura Gilmartin says:

    Great blog Donna. You really have a gift for writing as if you were talking to the person. No big words, just down to earth conversation. You made so many great points in your letters to Harold, but at no time were you ever condescending – you just told him the truth. Great job.

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