From the minute a pet enters a shelter, decisions are being made that will affect his or her life, possibly forever. What are they like? How do they behave? What do they need? The shelter’s intake process is a critical first step in answering those questions for all pets, but even more so for those with special needs, whether medical, behavioral, or related to the animals’ daily life.
Dr. Sheila D’Arpino is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and director of research for Maddie’s Fund. “An ideal intake process for special needs pets would involve getting to know as much as you can about the dog and cat before they come through your doors,” she said. “For owner-surrendered pets, I would recommend setting up intake appointments and getting everything you can from their current owner, including veterinary records if possible, and a behavior history.”
ASK THE CRITICAL QUESTIONS
Questions Dr. D’Arpino suggests asking:
- Has there been a medical or behavioral diagnosis by a veterinarian?
- What treatment has been tried, if any, and what were the results?
- What accommodations does the pet require in his daily life?
“The behavior history is crucial for pets whose special needs are in the area of behavior,” she said. “We know there’s no scientific validation of any of the behavior assessments we use in shelters today.”
What about special needs pets who come in as strays, and whose special needs may not always be obvious?
“Those are a little more challenging, because we can't get the history that helps us form the picture of the dog or cat,” she said. “But when we do determine they have significant special needs, we should try to send them to foster as soon as possible. This allows us to develop a picture of their behavior and needs in a home environment, because often when stress is reduced, their health and behavior can really improve.”
Foster care programs are important for all pets, but particularly so for those with special needs. “For any pet being in the shelter is stressful, but a pet who has special needs and whose life is a lot more challenging, being in a shelter exacerbates things a hundred fold,” Dr. D’Arpino said.
“There is research that shows stress reduces when pets go into a foster home. In the shelter, they have no control over their environment, but in a home they do. The change you see is very profound.”
ASSESS YOUR ORGANIZATION’S RESOURCES
Sending pets to foster care is ideal, as is a special needs-specific intake process. But is it always realistic for every shelter? “It depends on the shelter's leadership and their policies,” Dr. D’Arpino said. “Building flexibility into your admission processes is critical for providing the most options for special needs pets, as well as every pet in your organization.”
Dr. D’Arpino also suggests that shelters begin with assessing their own resources.
“If you’re just getting into taking in special needs pets and finding homes for them, and don’t have much experience with this population, it’s important to know your shelter. What are your resources? Do you have a veterinarian and behaviorist on staff or available to consult? If you don’t, you can likely find someone to help. I can’t tell you how many dog trainers tell me they go to their local shelter to help, and the shelter won’t let them.”
There are other avenues to explore to get the local animal welfare community involved when it comes to special needs pets. Her recommendations include calling local veterinarians and trainers about special needs pets in your shelter and ask them if they can evaluate the pet.
“For special needs pets, I want to find a home where those needs aren’t a problem. It might take longer to find that pet a home, and you might need a more aggressive marketing plan. The key is getting as many eyes on that pet as possible.”
A PERSONAL CONNECTION
Dr. D’Arpino has fostered countless pets herself over the years, almost all special needs. One in particular sticks in her mind.
“About 15 rat terrier mixes were part of a custody case, and some of them were super-fearful,” she said. “I fostered four of them in my home. One of them was a dog named Vinnie, who couldn’t even stand to be touched. But he improved slightly, and I brought him back to the shelter to find a home. But no one was interested in Vinnie.”
One day, she was at the shelter when a man came in looking for a companion. He was paraplegic, and was specifically looking for a dog to be a buddy, not as a service dog.
“He had gone to other shelters, and none of them would adopt to him,” she said. “I spoke with him about what kind of pet he was looking for; he was a wonderful guy! I introduced him to Vinnie, and he loved him.” It was truly a perfect match, as a special needs dog found his own special family.
MAXIMIZING ADOPTIONS AFTER THE HOLIDAYS
There are different reasons why people give up their pets around the holidays: often the animal is given as an unwanted gift, or the family simply underestimates the commitment required. Still the scene is unfortunately familiar at shelters and rescues during and after the holidays.
There has long been a strong belief in the shelter and rescue world that pets should not be adopted as gifts for fear of increased re-surrenders. This has influenced the way some animal welfare organizations handle this type of potential adopter. In contrast, a study from the ASPCA shows that perceptions from those who have received pets as gifts are much more positive.
In the 2013 study “Should Dogs and Cats be Given as Gifts?,” the ASPCA surveyed 222 individuals who received pets as a gift. When asked if obtaining a pet as a gift increased, decreased, or had no impact on the love or attachment to the pet, 96% thought it either increased or had no impact.
Additionally, 86% of the pets referred to in the study were still in the home. The study concluded that denying adopters who intend to give the animals as gifts may unnecessarily impede the overarching goal of increasing adoptions of pets from our nations’ shelter system. “We found that receiving a dog or cat as a gift was not associated with impact on self-perceived love/attachment, or whether the dog or cat was still in the home. These results suggest there is no increased risk of relinquishment for dogs and cats received as a gift.” Read the complete study here.1
While some groups have embraced holiday pets, the animal welfare community is still divided, even with the research, explained Dr. Emily Weiss, ASPCA vice president of research and development. “Sheltering organization and rescue groups work independently and all have their own opinions, so it takes a long time to change their behavior,” she stated.
Two perfect examples are Texas-based Austin Pets Alive and Atlanta-based FurKids. Austin Pets Alive is a large no-kill shelter with several rescue programs throughout Texas. According to shelter spokeswoman Lisa Maxwell, the shelter stands by their policy that people aren't allowed to adopt if the pet will be given as a gift outside their immediate family. On the other end of the spectrum, FurKids has been very successful with long-lasting holiday pet adoptions, says founder and CEO Samantha Shelton.
Post-Holiday Adoption Strategies
Here are ways your shelter or rescue can get the word out on post-holiday intakes you may receive, and prevent resurrenders2:
1. A Value-Added After-Holiday Adoption Promotion
For a value-added adoption special, consider promoting an “Adoption Starter Kit” such as a pet collar, leash, water/food bowl, or bag of food.
2. Low Cost Post-Holiday Adoption Specials
Share a special promotion with other local shelters -- it allows you to join forces for any marketing costs and it creates a sense of community.
3. Convenient Adoption Hours
Shelters who want to increase adoptions during the post-holiday season want to consider additional hours on weekends, and staying open later on working days.
4. Photos Work Wonders
Invite local photographers (pro, hobbyists, and college students willing to work for free or at a very low cost) to come to the shelter and take beautiful photos of your homeless pets, then post them on social media sites such as your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. If you don’t know how to use social media, volunteers are willing to help with it.
5. Coordinate Surrenders
Speak with families who plan on giving up their pet and ask them to wait at least a week before turning them into the shelter, so you can promote the animal on your social media page. This way, the animal has a greater chance of being adopted and it’s less stressful – it also allows for space at the shelter for another animal.
6. Promotional Flyers in Your City
Get your shelter or rescue flyers up in local pet stores, fast food restaurants, gift shops, vet offices, and anywhere people sit and wait, like auto repair/oil change shops, doctors and dentist’s offices, and the DMV.
7. Prep for Your Own “Puppy Bowl”
Instead of getting ready for the Super Bowl, plan a “Puppy Bowl” at your shelter or rescue! Get the word out on social media and contact the local media for coverage.
8. Use Zoetis’ PawPath to Educate Your New Pet Parents
PawPath was designed with shelters, for shelters. It’s a free digital offering exclusive to Zoetis For Shelters members that helps you provide a fun, personalized, fully-automated support experience to new adopters. You can find out more here.
The “holiday afterglow” does not apply to shelter and rescue animals; it can be a stressful time for homeless pets, and those who take care of them. But by planning your organization’s strategy now, there may be a greater chance to ‘clear the shelters’ in early in 2018.
THE MANY OF VOLUNTEERS - AND WAYS TO KEEP THEM COMING BACK
Kindness, spare time, and a selfless love for companion animals are only some of the traits that shelter and rescue volunteers have in common. But above all, they give love and care to those who truly need it. Strong bonds are formed with the animals they help, as well as between the volunteers themselves. Volunteerism knows no boundaries; in fact, those who help can have four paws, too.
Below are some examples of the many shapes and sizes that volunteers take, as well as examples of how to keep them engaged.
One Paw Helps Another
Sav-a-Bull, founded in 2010, is a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to rescuing and providing New York's 'Pit Bull' shelter dogs with the support needed to successfully pair them with responsible homes.
Sav-a-Bull has rescued 82 Pit Bulls (and one German Shepherd) to date from municipal New York shelters that euthanize, or were found abandoned, tied-up, or roaming the streets.
Founder Colby Webb believes rescue, medical care, thorough training, responsible adoption, and ongoing adoption support and education can save lives and restore the image of this misunderstood dog.
Webb's own rescued Pitbull, Dan, is living proof of the power of her process. Dan was adopted from the Animal Care Centers of New York in October 2010. Her “foster failure” is a now a Registered Therapy Dog, and a volunteer to all rescue dogs that come into Sav-a-Bull, along with human volunteers that help.
“Dan also aids our other rescue dogs by helping with walks, adventures, snuggles, and just hanging out. He gives them the purest form of socialization—and these once-frightened creatures learn to trust,” said Webb.
Joanie, Webb’s latest foster Pit Bull that came into the rescue, was originally seen by a good Samaritan on the street in desperate need of medical attention. She was abused and abandoned, and had developed a life-threatening infection on her legs that had ravaged the flesh down to the bone in some areas. Thanks to Sav-a-Bull and with medical help donated by City Veterinary Care, Joanie was given proper medical care and currently lives with Colby and Dan. Joanie and Dan became very bonded and Dan has guided her from day one. This is one touching instance of how both human and animal volunteerism can provide support and care to shelter animals.
Retired CFO to ‘Cat Cuddler’
After retiring from corporate America, both Kurt and Connie Lippincott decided to spend their free time volunteering with the Somerset Regional Animal Shelter (SRAS) in Bridgewater, NJ. They had always loved cats, and have three of their own. Cleaning shelter cages, taking the cats out of their environment to exercise, and helping older cats get adopted are some of the responsibilities they have enjoyed with their three years volunteering at SRAS.
“We have a ‘Cat Cuddler’ volunteer group at the shelter, and my wife has a blog that explains the behavioral aspects of cats. Even though you cannot save each cat, this is such a great environment and group of volunteers.” said Kurt.
The cat volunteers are especially close—they get together for lunch frequently. A great example of the connections developed between volunteers—all with a common goal: helping cats find forever homes.
With approximately 300 registered volunteers and 50 active helpers, SRAS has always been a Bridgewater community pillar. “Our staff and volunteers make everything possible—we couldn’t do it without them”, said Brian Bradshaw, shelter manager for SRAS. He has five volunteers helping out 5-to-6 days per week socializing the animals, cleaning cages, and working behind the scenes maintaining an internet presence and organizing shelter events. In 2016 the shelter received enough monetary and service donations to renovate the shelter, making it better equipped for the animals and more attractive to potential adopters.
“Our staff and volunteers make everything possible—we couldn’t do it without them”, said Brian Bradshaw, shelter manager for SRAS. He has five volunteers helping out 5-to-6 days per week, who do everything from socializing the animals to cleaning cages, and ‘other unsung heroes’ work behind the scenes, with jobs like maintaining an internet presence and organizing shelter events.
Top Retention and Motivational Tips
As every successful shelter and rescue knows, keeping and motivating staff and volunteers is critical. According to ASPCAPro, the Ark-Valley Humane Society in Buena Vista, CO, has a 75% retention rate among volunteers and has a personalized training program that gives volunteers what they need to be successful in shelter roles. Here are a few of their time-tested tips:
Hold Frequent Orientations
- Every two weeks, senior volunteers or staff members conduct an hour-long orientation for new volunteers. Holding frequent orientations lets the shelter keep each meeting small, with only four to six potential volunteers, so there's more personal contact.
- Volunteers get a tour of the shelter and information about different volunteer roles such as dog walking, cat enrichment, kennel assistance, administrative support or grounds work. Potential volunteers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the volunteer handbook and time sheets, which are used in order to keep track of and acknowledge their hard work.
- Before leaving, volunteers are given name badges and asked to sign up for one-on-on sessions with staff. Senior volunteer Phyllis Kittel says signing up at that point increases the likelihood that volunteers commit to the program and saves scheduling time down the road.
Conduct One-on-One Training
- All roles get specialized instruction; however, volunteers who wish to walk dogs or provide cat enrichment are also taught how to read dog and cat body language and learn protocol for interacting with each species.
- Volunteers must pass a proficiency exam before they are allowed to interact with the animals on their own.
Get Staff Buy-In
- Given the amount of time dedicated to individual volunteer training, all Ark-Valley paid staff members must be committed. Volunteer Coordinator Ruby Osberg says that without volunteers 'staff wouldn't be able to run the shelter the way they want it to be run' since the staff is too small to provide all the enrichment needed.
- Osberg shares with staff that taking the time to train volunteers on the front end saves time in the long run and avoids possible pitfalls by keeping the volunteers and animals safe—and contributes to the high volunteer retention rate.
- Kittel adds that it's important for senior volunteers to step in and help with one-on-one trainings when the staff's workload is particularly heavy. 'Ideally, one person should oversee all the volunteers—and if the staff doesn't have time to do that, a senior volunteer can fill that role, too,' she says.
Shelter and rescue volunteers make an immeasurable difference in the lives of animals, and nothing gives greater satisfaction than helping them find their forever homes. Thoughtful volunteer programs are a key way to increase retention rates—and show that the ‘human side’ of the sheltering equation is equally as important.
WHAT'S GOOD FOR ANIMALS CAN BE GREAT FOR THE COMMUNITY
Each shelter and rescue has a story, just like the animals it gives a temporary home to. The common denominator, the connection, and the driving force is to help as many animals as possible to find forever homes.
Michael Good, DVM, founder of the Homeless Pet Clubs, knew at 15 years old that he wanted to be a veterinarian. Early in his career, he was helping 50 local rescue groups as their supervising veterinarian, where he saw many shelters and rescues give up because of lack of money to survive—and where euthanasia was the only option to control a population of homeless animals.
“I couldn’t look these beautiful creatures in the eye and then take their life away. I’d sit with the animals for a little while, so they could at least feel love before they had to die,” said Dr. Good.
In addition to his veterinary practices, in the mid-1990’s, Dr. Good became the medical director for a shelter in his native Fulton County, Georgia. When he started, he inherited an unfathomable euthanasia rate -- every three days there were animals put down and the euthanasia rate compared to the shelter population was way too high.
Dr. Good was determined to find a solution for homeless animals and made it his life’s mission.
In 2010, the Homeless Pet Clubs was founded as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to help animal rescues and shelters adopt-out more pets, and for the past 5 of 7 years, continues to be financially supported only by Dr. Good and donations to help keep the program running.
Homeless Pet Clubs
Homeless Pet Clubs gives students, civic leaders, and business owners the opportunity to share their love of animals by promoting animal rescue, responsible pet ownership, adoption of shelter animals, and animal welfare. It also gives animal lovers from diverse backgrounds that don’t necessarily work in a shelter or rescue, a way to leverage different strengths to save the greatest number of at-risk animals by participating in:
- Sponsoring a homeless animal to increase visibility for adoption
- Telling the story of their sponsored pets via Facebook, emails, and posters
- Volunteering at adoption events
- Raising funds to support their local shelter and club
It is also free for clubs and shelters or rescue organizations to join. To date, there are 2,000 Homeless Pet Clubs across the United States.
Shelter and Rescue Participation
The mission of a Homeless Pet Club is to use flyers, posters, email, Facebook and other social media, and various projects, to help find homes for dogs and cats in county animal shelters, humane societies, and rescue groups. It is a grass-roots effort and every type of club relies on word-of-mouth to spread the word about the animals they are sponsoring. It also drives awareness and traffic to Homeless Pet Clubs rescue and shelter partners.
Pet sponsorship is a way to promote pets through advocates who tell each animal’s unique story--and give the pet as much exposure as possible to potential adopters. A shelter or rescue can upload as many (or as few) pets as they want sponsored with the pet's information.
The Warwick Valley Humane Society, one of the 105 shelter and rescues enrolled in this program, has experienced an uptick in adoption rates that can be attributed to their participation in the program. Pam Schutz, DVM, has had success with the program.
“Our shelter became more engaged with the community – and it’s been a great way for people to hear about our animals, and want to come in a meet them—and their chances are greater for adoption!” said Dr. Shutz.
“I’d tell other organizations to get involved – it costs nothing and if we’re too busy to upload our animals’ information; the Homeless Pet Clubs can do it for us. It’s really a win-win opportunity to help our animals in this way,” she stated.
Homeless Pet Clubs can be started anywhere in the country where a sanctioned shelter or rescue group exists, such as a state or county facility, humane organization or rescue group. The organizations must meet or exceed expectations:
- Meet standards of humane care and cleanliness
- Make a commitment to reducing euthanasia and saving the lives of pets in their facility
- Agree not to euthanize any pet that a club has chosen to sponsor
- Provide care for the sponsored pet until it gets adopted
Response from the school, business, and civic clubs hosting Homeless Pet Clubs has been very positive, with each club choosing pets to 'sponsor' and promote for adoption. In one Georgia county alone, more than 50 school clubs were established in three months' time, and their support helped find loving, forever homes for more than 200 animals. Teachers lead the charge for the school clubs, and report benefits to students including:
- increased involvement
- decreased absenteeism
- increased enthusiasm for learning
- improved social skills
- increased compassion
- heightened sense of achievement
- improved self-worth
- decreased bullying
- expanded awareness of networking for good
- increased responsibility
- increased creativity and cooperation
“Communities can build on their love of animals and ultimately come together to transcend social status,” Dr. Good stated. “Animals level the “playing field” for all socioeconomic groups and animals don’t judge you. We want children to learn to be kind to all living things; be kind to animals and be kind to each other.”
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