Is there a good way to "shop around" animal shelters for pet adoption?
October 3, 2009 8:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm a potential dog adopter. Is there a responsible way to "shelter-shop", and if so how do I do it?

I'm considering adopting a dog. I've done a ton of research on breeds, vets, food, the adoption process once I've found a dog I want, and I'm in discussions with my building management about it (they're okay with me getting a dog, but they are going to get back to me next week about restrictions on size/breed/etc). But I'm a little confused about how to actually go through this.

I had a rescue dog growing up, but he was given to us by a friend who was fostering him, so we never had the "go down to the shelter" experience. I'm looking at petfinder obsessively and I've found a few candidates I'm interested in but they're all in different shelters, and some of these "shelters" are just groups of foster volunteers and not actually a physical location. Pretty much all of them say I have to fill out an adoption application before I ask any questions about or try to see any of the dogs.

Is there still a way I can just go to a shelter and be introduced to some dogs, or are all shelters going to be like this? Will it look irresponsible/uncommitted if a shelter knows I have "applications" in to multiple others? It feels weird filling out an application for a dog I *think* looks like it could be a good match, but the Petfinder description doesn't explicitly discuss the dog's energy level, for example, and I don't want a shelter thinking I'm an idiot for applying for a dog that couldn't handle my apartment.

I may just be a little paranoid, since the adoption applications seem so invasive (home visits? Are you serious?), but I do want to do this right.

(FWIW I'm in Boston and I'm willing to drive a couple of hours to a good shelter, if anyone has recommendations.)
posted by olinerd to Pets & Animals (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also -- few of the shelters I've looked at have "here's where we're located" or "here's how to call/email" us links to see if I can just set up a non-committal visit. Those that do have those links, I have emailed, and gotten the response "Please fill out an adoption application if you'd like to see our dogs."
posted by olinerd at 9:01 AM on October 3, 2009

I'm involved with cat fostering and I wouldn't think it was odd or bad if someone had applications into other shelters because they wanted to pick the animal who was the best match. I'd think that was a good sign that someone was committed and had done research.
posted by Melsky at 9:20 AM on October 3, 2009

Good luck on shelter shopping.

I went "just to look" at a dog and cat shelter and walked out 45 minutes later with a cat.

You have to be very, very focused or have a heart of stone not to walk away without a dog if you're genuinely in the market for one. For all your research, I presume you're going to a dog shelter becausde you want to give a needy dog a home.

Research be damned. Try and resist.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:51 AM on October 3, 2009

There are shelters, and there are rescue organizations. In my (limited) experience, the rescue organizations are sometimes more rigorous about who can adopt their animals, and depending on the breed, those dogs may have physical or psychological problems that make them a challenge to adopt. I think that's why some of those groups do the home visits and interviews and things. Not that it's a bad thing at all, it's just a different mindset from "going down to the shelter."

So, unless you want a specific breed, maybe you should stick with the "public" animal shelters? I volunteered at one for awhile, and people usually did just show up to take a look at the dogs. This may not work for you if you have moral objections to them putting down unadoptable animals. Not all shelters do this, but if you feel strongly about it, that would be a good first question to ask.
posted by cabingirl at 9:52 AM on October 3, 2009

I've gone to look at shelters 3 times in my adult life...we have a dog and 2 cats now. I think most places want you to fill out a form before seeing the animals as a safety thing for you and the animals. It's generally not onerous to do and it helps them get you on their mailing and fund raising lists.

Go look at multiple shelters and organizations, it's important you find a connection with a dog rather than just take one off their hands, that connection is important and it might take some looking.
posted by iamabot at 10:03 AM on October 3, 2009

Best answer: I volunteer at a shelter. As far as I know, people don't shelter shop except when they are very interested in a specific dog breed, but we do name the other shelters/rescues to those people without any hard feelings. A lot more people come multiple times to find just the right animal (again, more often with dogs than cats).

Most people who work at these places will be fine -- even happier -- knowing you're looking at multiple animals and researching, not the first cute puppy you see. If you want to set up a visit but aren't sure that this dog is appropriate, give as much information as possible about what your situation is, so they can suggest other dogs that might fit better. (Some shelters do not have the manpower to do this by email, fyi.)
posted by jeather at 10:12 AM on October 3, 2009

Best answer: depending on the breed, those dogs may have physical or psychological problems that make them a challenge to adopt.

This may be true for any homeless dog. It is not true that dogs are in rescue because of this. (I don't think that's what you're implying, but I just wanted to make it clear.) Most shelters with physical buildings do not have the space to hold all the dogs they rescue, so into private foster homes they go. In fact, a dog cared for in a foster home often does better in the adoption process, because the rescue people know more about his/her temperament in a home situation and can recommend or not recommend certain dogs for particular home situations. Dogs who spend most of their days in crates in a shelter do not always exhibit their true personalities.

Is there still a way I can just go to a shelter and be introduced to some dogs, or are all shelters going to be like this?

It depends on what is available in your area. Many rescues who have to farm their charges out to foster homes will make these animals available to be seen at adoption events, either at a large chain like PetSmart, or at various community fairs, festivals, whatever.

If a rescue will not make their dogs available for you to interact with before adoption, do not adopt from that group.

Will it look irresponsible/uncommitted if a shelter knows I have "applications" in to multiple others?

Not at all. But aware that many rescues communicate with each other about people trying to adopt. So make sure you are honest and consistent on all your applications. If you are indicating a preference for the typical bully breeds (in that that is the only kind you are interested in), be aware that you will be scrutinized quite carefully.

They will not think you are an idiot if it turns out the dog you were interested in turns out to not be a good fit. In fact, they will think you are a responsible potential dog owner who is going into the process with your eyes open.

the adoption applications seem so invasive (home visits? Are you serious?)

Remember that people who are part of dog rescue take each animal that comes through very seriously. I would be more worried about a rescue that hands over a dog without vetting you much. That shows they don't really care about finding good homes, but are more interested in numbers and turnover. And you'd be surprised at how many people will lie on an application just to get a dog.

It costs the rescue time and money to place a dog. Dogs that are returned to the rescue after being adopted can be traumatized (or at least very confused), plus now they're taking up room that another homeless dog could have. So they are just as interested in you getting the "perfect" dog as you are. The home visit would not be like if DCFS came to see if you were a good foster parent for a human baby. It's mostly just to see that your home circumstances are what you said they were, that the dog will have a safe home, and you don't have a dog fighting ring set up in your yard.

Good luck. It can be a slow process, but the reward is worth it.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:20 AM on October 3, 2009

Most of the hoops are just to make sure you are serious about having a pet, and not just getting a puppy because it's fashionable, or you want to give it as a gift, or use it as a live sacrifice. They will also often require a donation of a couple hundred bucks for similar reasons -- if you can't afford the two hundred or so up front, you can't afford dog food either. If you don't want to pay the two hundred up front, then you don't want the dog enough to take care of it properly.

My family's rescue organization of choice doesn't do home visits or have an application, but the volunteers at the shows make a point of chatting up every potential adopter, which itself can go a long way toward weeding out the crazies and deterring those who just want a new toy.

So, yeah, no one's out to nail you, they just want to keep the animals safe. If you're serious about adopting, that'll show and you have nothing to worry about.
posted by Commander Rachek at 10:32 AM on October 3, 2009

Many shelters don't have the time to keep their Petfinder listings 100% up-to-date. There will be dogs that have just come in to the shelter who won't be listed yet. It's always worth stopping in to take a look. In your situation, I would take a trip to the MSPCA and be completely up front that you're still negotiating with your landlord but want to start looking at dogs. (No shelter will allow you to actually take home a dog without your landlord's approval.) If you feel like you're "wasting their time" (which you wouldn't be!), throw some money in the donation jar while you're there.

Confession: sometimes I stop at the shelter to look at dogs even though there's no way I could adopt one right now.
posted by shiny blue object at 10:38 AM on October 3, 2009

Just a reminder that home visits serve the VERY important purpose of weeding out pet hoarders.

I "shopped" when we got our rescue dog: I looked at Petfinder and Craigslist, and met two dogs in person before meeting the one who snores on our bed every night now. Both other dogs were being fostered, and after filling out the form, the fosterers brought the dogs to our house, so see how they'd interact with us and with the cats. The third (who we did adopt from) had us come meet the dog at her nearby home (she had a cat so we saw the dog being friendly to it).

Getting a dog when I was a kid was usually a matter of seeing a box of puppies outside the grocery store. It's a lot different now, but now I understand, knowing how easily dogs could land in homes where they end up being abused: tied up in a yard all day; left in a crate 20 hours at a time; packed in with dozens or more in a small, filthy spaceā€¦I'd rather it were a little more difficult to acquire a pet if it makes these things less likely.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:49 AM on October 3, 2009

If you want a specific breed, check out the various breed rescue organizations. If you want a Bouvier, for example, there's a Bouvier rescue organization. Then you'll be less likely to walk out with the first dog that grabs your heart.

And they will, you know.
posted by musofire at 10:49 AM on October 3, 2009

Best answer: I've got two dogs that came from two private shelters.

The first dog - Saw dog on petfinder, went to the shelter, decided I liked the dog, filled out minimal paperwork, gave them cash and brought the dog home. Even though the dog had already been returned to the shelter TWICE that they told me about. Got a cat from this shelter and had pretty much the same experience of walking in, picking cat, paying, leave with cat.

The second dog - saw dog on petfinder, filled out a very detailed application (with an essay section), made an appt to meet the dog, drove to see dog (shelter was 1.5 hours away), brought the dog home. The process took about a week. The shelter was very proactive about checking my vet reference and engaging me in an email dialogue, sending me requested pictures (dog had been hit by a car and was going to require a month of antibiotics for a place on his leg), telling me about the dog's disposition, etc.

When given the chance I recommend the second shelter very highly. Run by awesome people and they actually do the legwork on finding out about people who are taking the animals home and they are very open on petfinder listings about returned animals.

Until dealing with the second shelter it didn't occur to me how poorly the first shelter was run. I really think if I had handed them my wad of cash that I very likely could have just left with the dog and not filled out ANY paperwork. They were also less than honest about the dog I got from them. They told me she doesn't like children - they did not tell me she wants to freaking EAT AND DESTROY children. I love the dog and have had her for four years but it would have been just super if they'd been completely honest with me.

Breed specific rescues want to make sure your home environment is suitable for the dog. Most of them won't adopt unless they do a home visit. It's not meant to be invasive so much as to make sure your home is a good environment and that you're the right kind of person for the breed and in particular for a dog that has possibly been placed in a breed particular rescue because it's been abused, repeatedly bred, lived in a cage its entire life, or whatever. (The good news is that most breed specific rescues will be painfully honest about the dog's past.)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:39 PM on October 3, 2009

When I was looking for both of our two adopted dogs, we would visit public shelters regularly. Shelter staff are normally more than happy to let you visit with the dogs if you explain that you want to see what dogs are available. Take a whole load of Pupperoni and small Maxbones and every dog's your friend. You soon get a feel for the sort of dog that you want to adopt (and also understand that most dogs don't look their best in a shelter environment). They are often scared among so many other dogs; otherwise cheerful and friendly dogs will cower in their cages. Not many shelters bathe or even brush the dogs, so they can look a lot worse than your friends' dogs. Most public shelters will allow you to take the dog out in their yard and spend some time with it before deciding - you can go back again (but check how much time the dog has left - many public shelters have to euthanize their dogs after a few weeks if not adopted, as they have so many more arriving). You do need to steel yourself: you'll want to take every one of them home.
Private rescues tend to be more selective and will often ask you to submit an adoption application. But this is non-binding. It just allows them to see that you are serious and to check up on you. The last thing a rescue wants is for their animals to be abused, returned or abandoned again. Many dogfighting rings and lab suppliers get animals from shelters (or from class B suppliers, who in turn get dogs from shelters). Private rescues tend to be run by people who are trying to adopt dogs & cats to more responsible owners.
We adopted one dog from a private rescue and the second from a public shelter. Both are really nice dogs, but we did spend weeks seeing dogs before we made a decision - and we asked specifically about their temperament before visiting with them. The first adoption took two weeks of reference-checks and a letter from our landlord. The second adoption took $25. As a result of all these visits, I help out with a rescue association and I do greatly respect the trouble that they take to check that people are not class B suppliers. So an adoption application is not binding - it just checks that you are the sort of person who would make a responsible dog owner.
Let me also challenge the notion that shelter dogs have more physical or psychological problems. As I said, I help out with a rescue organization. Most dogs are surrendered for one of three reasons:
1. The dog was not self training. It messed in the house, chewed something up, or took food from the counter. Many people are too stupid to own a dog and many dogs only have to "disgrace themselves" once to be given up.
2. The dog nipped at someone (again, not self-training). Of *course* puppies nip - it's what dogs do. It is not a sign of a bad temperament: they just need to be taught (gently) that it is not acceptable.
3. It grew up. The average age of dogs in shelters is 18 months - two years old. That is when they lose the puppy cuteness and their owners lose interest. Many dogs get relegated to the yard or chained to a tree at this point. I always think the ones that we get are lucky to avoid that fate (we don't euthanize). We tend to get a lot of excuses ("moving to somewhere where they don't take pets," kids are allergic"). But you know, because the owners are so obviously not sad to leave their dogs.
Yes - you do get the odd problem dog (like fluffy battle kitten's kidovore). But most dogs only "psychological" problem is that they are scared of being abandoned again. The only family they ever knew dumped them in this frightening place with lots of barking, scary dogs everywhere. Take them out on their own and they become a different animal. Once you adopt them, they stick to you like glue for a few weeks. Then you become their family. If you do adopt one of these dogs, take it to Petco or Petsmart and get it bathed, first thing. It'll look (and smell) like a different dog!
posted by Susurration at 8:10 PM on October 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

My experience (different country, but seems mostly the same) with a rescue organization was that it was the sort that didn't have a central location. I fell in love with our dog's photos online, and the write-up of her personality from the foster mom seemed perfect for us. We did the application and had the home visit with another volunteer who lives fairly close to us (very pleasant, not intrusive at all), all before even seeing the dog in person because the foster family lives over an hour away, and they didn't seem much interested in us going there (which would have been a bit of a problem anyway, since we don't have a car).

But I was just very, very set on this dog, and we did a lot of back and forth phoning and emailing, passed our "exams" and eventually the foster mom brought her to us... So we ended up with what I like to call our "internet-dating dog" or "mail order bride." But, of course, at the point she brought the dog, we could have changed our minds. She spent about 45 minutes with me, told me some anecdotes about things that happened while Sky (our dog) lived with her, negative and positive, told me as much as she knew about her background and history, we talked about Vets and health issues and other doggy related things. I gave her tea and carrot cake, and gave Sky water and treats.

It was my first experience with this sort of thing, and I was very happy that it was handled the way it was, because I was able to learn a lot about Sky and whether she would fit with us. Even so, she changed quite a lot after living with us for a while. She seemed quite depressed at first, and much older than she was supposed to be. She didn't seem very energetic or enthusiastic about anything, except my home-cooked dog food. :) She was much more frightened of everything than I was expecting. We knew she was at-risk for a certain communicable disease very common to strays here, and I worried about her health, because she seemed so lethargic. Every bit of that changed. She seemed older because her long hair was matted so severely in some areas that it was pulling at her skin, and it literally hurt her to move around (we waited a week before taking her to the groomer, thinking that it would be a bit less scary for her that way, but if we had understood about this problem we would have done it straight away). She was depressed and frightened because she had been abandoned (just as Susurration mentions, right around the two-year mark), fostered, re-homed, and returned. Then fostered again, then we got her. That's the thumbnail history, but she was left on her own by the first family, put alone in the yard by the second family (she is so not a yard dog! She's the absolute by-your-side-every-second companion dog!)... all very traumatic.

But, again, as Susurration says, washed and clipped and loved and fed a healthy diet, she's so beautiful and healthy and happy. She's the sweetheart of the neighborhood, and people are stopping us all the time to ask about breeding her to their male dogs (sorry! that ship has sailed!).

So, my experience was that it was extremely helpful to have specific info about her behavior, traits, and characteristics, negative and positive (she's not at all destructive, but don't neglect her, stick her in the yard and leave her on her own all the time, or she might kill your chickens! this actually happened with the first people who adopted her) from the foster mom, but that her true personality didn't shine forth until she felt secure and connected. A brief visit would not have revealed that, but other things that were important to us (not a big barker, not a cat chaser, medium exercise, doesn't need a large space, not aggressive, not a guarding type) were all exactly as described. It was definitely worth it to go through the vetting process, even though it was a bit extensive and we had to wait longer than seemed logical, but perhaps that was part of it, too, to see how serious/committed we were, especially since she had already been brought back once.
posted by taz at 2:36 AM on October 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

i don't know about shelters closer in to boston, but i've been to a shelter down on the cape, and they were fine with "yeah, i'd like to come in and see the dogs." in orleans, the shelter has a paper posted on each dog's kennel area with name, age, a bit about the dog's behavior (eg "good with adolescents and young children, unknown with very small children. needs a home with lots of exercise"), and some other similar info.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:58 AM on October 4, 2009

So many others have covered many of your questions, but I volunteered at the ARL in Boston and have to say it was a great place, who took care of their animals well and made sure that you were well informed about any behavioral problems that the animal may have (my dog came from there and they said he had food aggression, and when I said I could deal with that they made we watch as he attacked the plastic hand when it went near his food. They spent a couple weeks working with him before I could take him home, but they certainly didn't hid anything from me). They also do a (in my opinion) thorough behavioral assessment that included interactions with other dogs. Plus they have a fenced yard where you can take the dog out into to see how it is outside the cage because (as was stated above) many dogs are very different in the kennel. The MSPCA has a good set up as well, but I didn't volunteer there, so less first hand knowledge there.
posted by katers890 at 8:34 AM on October 4, 2009

There are also events where multiple shelters and rescues will bring animals to one place at one time so you can check them out. In my area, they do this about once a month at the zoo.
posted by paulg at 12:11 PM on October 4, 2009

While others have done a pretty exhaustive job talking about different options for adoptions, I just want to mention one more thing about rescue groups. Many of them take pets off the kill list at the shelter and give them foster homes until they can be adopted. This means that when you adopt from them, you're kind of saving two dogs, because you've got this one and also opened up another space for fostering.

I got both of my cats this way, and I would recommend it because I was able to meet them in someone's home, where they were comfortable, rather than in a cage in a shelter. The adoption fees are more, but the money goes towards the food/care/etc. of the foster pets that they have.
posted by iliketolaughalot at 4:08 PM on October 4, 2009

Best answer: I've fostered dogs for the local shelter as well as a local rescue organization. People above are right on a few fronts.

1. Shelter - tends to be the "local pound" or literal physical shelter location, often run by the city or county. Lost dogs are brought in there. People 'surrender' their own animals. And finally, some animals are removed from bad situations and end up there. Adopting an animal from a shelter like this tends to be the least 'invasive' for the human.

But yes, most require you to fill out an application first, for a few reasons. You would NOT believe how many people have given up many dogs in the previous year due to finances or landlord issues or "didn't want a dog anymore"-type reasons. Seriously. They're just not good candidates for adoption, because those animals end up running away, getting killed, or getting returned - usually in a worse state (and now losing yet another family). The application susses out your past pet history and ability and willingness to commit to another animal at this time. It also lists things like: do you have a yard, cats, young kids, crazy schedules. All of these things matter when placing individual animals with someone.

SOME shelter dogs end up getting fostered, in private homes, for whatever reason - usually they need a quieter environment for recouperation or someone just took to them and wanted to give them a better shot.

2. Rescue - tends to be private organizations - non-profits that rarely even have a central office. They tend to be run entirely by volunteers and it takes an inordinate amount of work to run a rescue organization. You wouldn't believe it from the outside -- I sure didn't.

These dogs are all entirely placed in volunteer homes, and foster dogs stay with their fosters for anywhere between a few weeks and a few months. We really get to know the dog - I personally know all of my foster dog's exercise needs, food issues, public personality, private/home personality, ability to deal with stressors of all kinds, tolerance or love of kids/cats/strangers/aggression, have started to work on training, and have likely already housebroken the puppy.

Many foster families put lots of effort into each dog, and want that dog to do well - in the home best suited for it. A home visit - with the dog they're potentially interested in - is a great way of checking out the situation. I'm not there to judge cleanliness, decorations, or class. I am there to look for dog/pet hoarding, proximity to busy road and how to best deal with entry/egress in that situation, and how to make plans for the puppy set-up if applicable.

And in terms of people coming to look for a dog -- sometimes people will say things like "we're looking for a young, fun lab-type dog that is really easy-going and doesn't need to run very much." Which is just darn near-impossible to find. So we work with them to find out what their life is like, how they imagine their life to be with a dog, and what kinds of reasonable compromises we can reach to find the best dog for them. If a dog gets returned, the dog gets put back into the original foster home (usually). We put effort into rehabbing and pulling dogs out of horrendous situations, and just want that dog to enter into a great new life -- it's not a judgment on you at all - we're like matchmakers and want to find the best match for everyone involved.

Again, the intial application here is so that I don't waste my time as a foster parent talking with tons of applicants who are obviously not suited for a particular dog. The very small dog I have now needs his own space and does not deal well with things being swung at it, or people crowding it too much. He needs to be with an older couple, or a calm single person. He's terrible with kids and growls at them. I put this (in nicer language) on his profile, and out of approximately 50 applications, HALF of them had multiple kids under 10 in the household! If I called and had even a 10-15 minute chat with them all, we're talking HOURS. I have a job, school, family of my own. No time for that!

So yes -- we need applications so we can focus on those that are appropriate for a given dog, and make sure you're not someone who wants to:
a) give the dog as a gift (you wouldn't believe how frequently this happens. Probably 5 out of 50 applicants for my current foster dog wanted to give him to an unsuspecting person.)
b) had to give up animals for suspicious/unresolved reasons
c) just incompatible with this particular dog (kids, living situation, energy requirements, training abilities)

Most rescues will also do a week or two trial at your home, if it gets that far. Then you can see if the dog is right for you without making a 15 year commitment blindly. Then again -- some of the best dogs I've ever had came from some random situation without any kind of pre-vetting.....

Sorry for the long answer, but I thought you might be interested in a behind-the-scenes of dog fostering and shelters. It's really not apparent why these rules exist like this, but they do work for some people, and we have incredibly high placement and happiness ratings. And I get Christmas/birthday cards from all of my foster dogs :-)
posted by barnone at 9:18 PM on October 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Just as a followup:

I did end up going to a couple of ARL/SPCA shelters in greater Boston, and was actually really disappointed with my experience there. For the most part, the shelter employees/volunteers ignored me. Only one really engaged me to talk about the right dog for me (and they didn't have any good matches).

But I did talk with a few rescues, after filling out about seven different applications, doing four or five phone interviews, and then two home visits, which weren't as scary as I'd expected. Finally, after a 2 week trial foster period, I've ended up with a beautiful 6.5 year old lab/golden mix named Kismet (obligatory adorable picture) from one of the smaller rescues. So thanks everyone for your help!
posted by olinerd at 12:46 PM on November 2, 2009


*scruffles him behind the ears*
posted by rmd1023 at 1:13 PM on November 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yay!!! She's beautiful! And she looks so happy and right at home; sincere congratulations to you both. :)
posted by taz at 2:12 AM on November 3, 2009

::sniff:: No, really, I think I've got something in my eye...

Thanks for the follow-up! Kismet looks like The Perfect Dog.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:16 AM on November 3, 2009

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