How to get ‘less adoptable’ dogs adopted

old buff cocker wearing a sweaterWhen the term ‘less adoptable’ dogs is mentioned different images come to mind. Some might think of dogs with physical disabilities or old dogs. Others might think of dogs with behavioral challenges, dogs that don’t get along with other dogs or certain members of the human race. When I think of less adoptable dogs I have to admit that almost any dog over 6 months of age comes to mind. Everyone loves puppies.

There are those of us who would rather not adopt a puppy, we have had this experience and as fun as it might have been, are happy to forgo it, thank you very much. But as a friend involved in a recent adoption event commented, “it was like a fire sale on puppies,” people almost can’t help themselves from snatching them up. This is not always a good thing. Puppies get older.

The difference between an adoptable dog and a less adoptable dog is often just one thing-skills. Give a dog a few skills and they go from being ‘one-eyed, old and not quite what I was looking for’, to, ‘OMG isn’t he clever!’. Teach a deaf dog to sit and look expectantly up at a person and they move up a peg on the adoptability scale. Teach them to ‘down’ or ‘shake hands’ and potential adopters can think they are looking at the equivalent of a doggie prodigy. These skills can help get a dog adopted, other skills can help them stay adopted.

I am aware of the limitations of time, energy and money rescue groups and shelters face and so training dogs themselves may be a limited option, but it still surprises me that more that could, don’t require that new adopters take a training class with their dogs. Some shelters include the cost of these classes in the adoption fee. A trainer friend offers a 75% discount for a private, in-home lesson, to anyone who adopts a dog from our local shelter. In five years she has had 2 takers. Whether this is due to a lack of marketing the offer to new pet owners by the shelter or simply a disinterest on the part of the owners, I don’t know. But if the shelter made training mandatory (oh the dreaded word) perhaps more would have taken her up on the offer.

I frequently hear groups cheering about how many dogs they’ve adopted out but none shouting out the numbers of those animals that are still in the original home 2-3 years later. Judging by the number of times some dogs go through the system I’d guess that a note-worthy number of dogs are not. Dogs who are unsuccessful in their adoptive homes continue to drain the resources of the rescue system. Then there are the dogs who end up being passed on to another home, despite any clause in a contract requiring the dog be returned to the shelter where the adoption originated, the dogs who end up dead because of behavioral issues, the dogs who are never seen again after fleeing not long after adoption and the dogs relegated to a life on chain because of unresolved behavior issues.

Here’s my dream-large rescue groups, shelters and humane organizations change the culture of dog adoptions and make it fun and sexy to be required to attend a training class as a condition of adoption. Dog trainers are some of the most caring and giving professionals on the planet. I can’t think of one who I have met who wouldn’t support making it financially available to new pet owners to attend their classes in obedience, agility, nosework, rally, manners, tricks, CGC, you name it. Getting ‘less adoptable’ dogs into homes is just the first step. Keeping them there is the next.

This post originally appeared on the Dancing Dog Blog for Petfinder’s Adopt A Less Adoptable Pet Week.

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22 comments so far

  1. KellyK on

    I think you’re absolutely right. A trainer in our area offers free training for foster dogs, and also has Train to Adopt days at the animal shelter where you can bring a foster dog or work with a dog in the shelter.

    I know rescuse are hesitant to put requirements on adopters, but a lot already have other requirements—having a fenced yard or not having unfixed dogs in the house, or successfully completing an application. Doing basic obedience shouldn’t be a huge imposition, especially if there are trainers willing to do it free or at low cost.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Even if it’s not a ‘requirement’ sharing information about training and strongly recommending it would be a start. IMHO

  2. justthreadtwiddling on

    We adopted a 4 year old Australian cattle dog 11 years ago. She is getting quite elderly in temperament, especially with the Border collie pups we acquired a year ago, but she has been a great dog. It took longer for us to get to know and trust each other, but she has been a very loyal companion.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I have a soft spot for the ones with grey in their muzzles.

  3. Rachel on

    The rescue group from which I adopted my dog suggests taking a training class, but can’t really offer one. The group is volunteers-only and pretty decentralized (they get dogs out of shelters mostly in the south, then adopt them in new england, pretty large geographical areas).

    I would think maybe a voucher system would be good – like you get some of your adoption fee back when you provide proof you took a training class. I think some shelters do this with puppy sterilization (you get some of your adoption fee back if you show proof of spay / neuter when the pup is old enough).

    But then you have the problem of an increased adoption fee which makes the rescue group seem even less accessible to potential adopters. There are always tradeoffs I guess.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think the voucher idea is great. It’s a fabulous marketing idea for trainers. Include a free or discounted class voucher in with the adoption papers. If you can get people into one training class there are likely to be some who will sign up for more. I used to get a local trainer to offer a free ‘talk to the trainer’ session for people who adopted from the shelter when I volunteered there.

      • KellyK on

        I like this idea too. If the rescue can find trainers willing to offer discounted training, they might not have to increase the adoption fee by the full cost of training.

  4. Jana Rade on

    Absolutely awesome and so true! Wonderful advice!

  5. Donna in VA on

    Great post and I hope it gets wide circulation. I adopted through a shelter and took 3 classes (8 sessions each) through the county. It was very affordable and paid off in a dog I really can take almost anywhere.

    Are you aware Patricia McConnell co-authored a book intended for use by new adopters. She priced it to make it very affordable, hoping shelters could buy in bulk and include the book with every new adoption. It’s called “Love has no age limit”.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Donna. I was lucky to receive a copy of the book by Patricia McConnell and Karen London for review. It’s fabulous and should be part of any adoption packet. And yes, their goal is to provide it at a deep discount for shelters and rescue groups.

      • Merciel on

        I’ve been giving copies of Dr. McConnell’s booklet to adopters (and other rescue groups) for months and it’s gotten a very positive reception. It seems to hit just the right balance between providing enough information to be useful (and lots of good pointers to further resources!) but not so much that it’s overwhelming.

        Love this blog post, btw, in part selfishly because it validates my own approach to fostering. Yes! A trained dog is more adoptable! I’m NOT just wasting my time by putting each foster pup through weeks of “finishing school”! So gratifying to hear. 😉

        But, alas, while I can spend weeks training each and every individual dog that I hand-pick for fostering, shelters do not have that luxury. I think discount training vouchers are a great alternative, although I suspect the follow-up rate would be depressing if I knew it. (I got a voucher with my rescue mutt, and _I_ never used it, so I don’t expect too many other people did either.)

  6. fearfuldogs on

    Change rarely happens as quickly as we’d like. Proof positive is bathing suit season always arrives faster than we can fit into last year’s. But as with getting people to buy into anything, or buy anything, they often need to hear about it several times. All the TV shows either showing how to train dogs, or showing dogs performing are putting the idea in people’s heads that maybe they too should give it a try. What the average pet owner needs from a dog (and I do not use the term ‘average pet owner’ in a derogatory way) is usually not out of the range of the possible for most dogs. Especially those whose owners have a clue about how to use rewards to get behaviors repeated.

  7. Katie Scott-Dyer on

    Spot on Debbie. Working as a behaviourist in an animal sanctuary one of the first things I did with the staff was encourage them to spend less time leaving the dogs to play in their compounds and more time doing basic obedience to not only help raise their adoptability but to give the dogs mental stimulation. It’s had the bonus of raising staff morale too 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think you make a good point Katie. Most of the folks who choose to volunteer to work with animals would probably enjoy being given a few skills themselves on how to get simple behaviors on dogs. When I used to volunteer at our local shelter I would offer an orientation to other volunteers and most loved being the person with the cheese getting the dog’s attention and rewarding the dog for it.

  8. Tiny Lee on

    I absolutly agree with you. So many new owners of pets go in blindly not knowing how to care for them. Affordable or free training help would be great.

  9. Christian Rogers on

    Hey we run a rescue in Nc and need lots of help ?……please,,,,,

    • fearfuldogs on

      And what specific kind of help are you asking for? Please no requests for money OK? This is not the place for that, but otherwise, what are you asking for?

  10. Aliza on

    MOST rescues are volunteer only. He talks about “discounts” but most rescues are constantly asking for donations because food, flea protection, and vetting is not cheap. Now you want them to scrounge around more for your “discounted” trainer? You want cities to do that? Do you know how hard it is to get cities to help at all with shelters?

    • fearfuldogs on

      What is the alternative then? To continue to place dogs into homes and have them fail, be re-homed yet again, or returned to the shelter, live on a chain in the back yard, PTS? I’m not suggesting that shelters and rescue groups have an easy task at hand. There are always reasons why something can’t be done. And they are often good reasons, but it doesn’t change the reality for the dogs. You can be upset with me for suggesting that dogs be trained, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s what more and more shelters and rescue groups are putting energy into doing with the dogs in their care.

  11. Lori Price on

    I’m not finding that generosity where I live. I am currently fostering a lovely viszla/ pity mix. She loves humans and is well behaved and eager to learn and please. But she is dog aggressive. She was pulled out of a deplorable animal control facility that has recently been brought up on 44 counts of cruelty and neglect. There was no assessing and no evaluating her, she was simply pulled. We are a group of reformers trying to privatize that’ pound. We do not have the resources or the manpower to train or evaluate. No trainer has offered their services for free or at a discounted price. I will be paying for the services of a behaviorist for this dog in order to give her half a chance at finding a home as I have paid for the medical treatment for other Foster’s I have taken in and found forever homes for. I personally find the situation very discouraging and very sad. I wish more veterinarians and more rescue organizations would work together. I understand everyone needs to make a profit and I understand rescue organizations are all overwhelmed with the animals they are trying to place but most are so over worked trying to place their own animals that they simply must turn their backs on the others in need of assistance

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s not an easy industry to be in. Many of us end up providing for the vet care and training of dogs we decide to rescue. I know I have.


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