Can you give me examples of open ended pet adoption questions?
July 29, 2014 10:05 PM   Subscribe

I am working to become an adoption counselor with a local no-kill animal shelter. What are some innocuous yet revealing questions that may have worked for you in a similar type of situation?

Obviously they have their own set of practices to which I am striving to adhere. The role is not a sales job, rather one of a filter. I am trying to obtain as much honest (or sniff out as much dishonest) information as possible from potential adopters, so that those in charge can have a clear picture to place the animal in a responsible home. I personally feel my strength in this kind of work is the ability to listen at length and sympathetically to just about anything. Do you have a suggestion to get folks chatting in this type of scenario? I know it is an art, but I would appreciate some perspective.
posted by Bistle to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've volunteered at several animal shelters. At the ones I like best and admire most, the people mostly try to get out of the way, providing a neutral, pleasant background but allowing the adopters to interact with the animals with as little interference as possible. Only in the case of really bad warning signs (people hitting or yelling at the animal, animal threatening to bite, etc.) would they definitely intervene, though they're always happy to answer questions if asked. It's really important that people get to meet a potential pet up close and think about whether it's the pet they're looking for in their own way, on their own terms. My advice is to let them do that, while of course you should offer support and advice if they ask you — and yeah, definitely important to remember that it's not sales; be neutral, and don't try to push at all. People approach big decisions like pet adoption in their own ways, and that includes some ways that seem bizarre or ill-advised to me (and I'm sure to you), but they're still adopting shelter pets, and that's a good thing.

Part of what you've said concerns me a bit about how the shelter that you're volunteering at will be approaching adoption:

I am trying to obtain as much honest (or sniff out as much dishonest) information as possible from potential adopters, so that those in charge can have a clear picture to place the animal in a responsible home.

Please realize that one of the worst pitfalls for an animal rescue organization is being too meddlesome and impeding adoptions. If you get too persnickety or judgmental, adopters will be turned off — people can sense this kind of attitude and are often already feeling sensitive about it — and the only result of this will be that fewer shelter animals get adopted. It's entirely counterproductive; most people who take the trouble to consider adopting from a shelter care about animals already, or they wouldn't be there, and even if in the worst case you'd end up putting an animal into a home that's in some way not ideal, this is still obviously preferable to euthanasia. (And even in a "no-kill" shelter, this is still the net outcome; freeing up a spot in that shelter certainly means that an animal from elsewhere in the shelter system can be saved.) Shelter volunteers often have the tendency, and I speak from experience, to fall in love with the specific animals that are right in front of them, and naturally want nothing but the best homes for them, and as animal lovers we naturally have strong opinions about how other people should care for them — but we need to remember that any loving home is better than a shelter, and that adopting one animal out always means another can be saved. Try to find reasons to accept adopters, not to reject them; think of it like matchmaking, not like gatekeeping.
posted by RogerB at 10:57 PM on July 29, 2014 [26 favorites]

What would you do if your pet harmed a child by accident? For example, a cornered cat slicing open a child's eyelid, or a dog that bit someone because she was so excited while playing? A dog that grazed a child over a ham sandwich?

All of those things have happened with pets we've adopted. We rehoused the cat not because of the injury but because the cat was miserable with being restricted to a safe zone and wanted to roam. With the dog that bit from excitement, we trained and trained because the shelter had prepared us for her personality and we knew she had a non-abusive fostering from puppyhood. With the dog that bit over food, we eventually put her down against the shelter's wishes (they wanted to put her in a kennel because she could not be re-adopted due to her attacking children, after we had had her for most of her life, and when they had not told us about her early history which included abuse) as she was old and hated change, so we decided a kind end in the home she loved was better than risking her attacking more children because we didn't trust them not to adopt her out again.

I would never ever adopt or work with that shelter again. It goes both ways - ask them what circumstances would make them consider euthanasia and rehousing.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:07 PM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh and consider the child decision. We got turned down for a wonderful elderly dog who one shelter staff said would be a good fit for us, because the more senior shelter staff said no adoptions to families with young children, full stop. Didn't matter that the dog had been in a family with children before, or that we were open to serious training requests and had raised kids and dogs together before, or that this dog was about as scary as an ottoman. She had almost no teeth left, she could basically gum children at most. She would rather that eight year old dog spend the rest of its life in a shelter than not go to a perfect home.

If you have a no-young-children policy, please make it clear up front. And address what happens if the couple have kids post-adoption.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:11 PM on July 29, 2014

I'm going to honestly say that all of the answers here depend on the shelter's politics, your politics, and the commenter's politics regarding pet adoption.

I could elaborate, but then y'know, my biases about pet adoption would show.

I guess ultimately you have to ask questions that protect BOTH the adoptive family and the pet. Your job is to determine where these protective needs are not in alignment, and where that becomes a wellbeing and safety concern for either humans or animals.

It's not your job to judge lifestyles. On one hand, that means the obvious like race or sexual orientation. On the other hand, it means your shelter might have looser or stricter politics and rules than you do, and you need to be clear on their ground rules before you head into this gig. It's their rules, not yours.

I don't envy you this role. Thanks for wanting to do it. I've only ever chosen to adopt rescue pets.

Totally noble of you. Not without controversy, sadly.
posted by jbenben at 12:18 AM on July 30, 2014

Best answer: When I adopted my cat they asked me what color cat I wanted. I said I didn't care...they said that it was surprising how many people answered with a specific color. Some people wanted to get a cat the same color as a deceased cat, but she said it was surprising how many people wanted a certain color to match their decor. That would be very revealing.
posted by christinetheslp at 12:22 AM on July 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, I appreciate the concern and discussion as to the politics involved but I am specifically looking for ways to establish a dialogue. For the sake of the question please take at face value that this is a shelter that prioritizes responsible pet ownership, and that my role is to try to ensure lifelong matches above all else. This extends to trying to match an animal to a person's personality. What questions might you ask that would be non-judgemental but potentially revealing? An example might be "Tell me about your first pet".
posted by Bistle at 12:54 AM on July 30, 2014

Best answer: If they are looking for a cat, ask them what they like about cats as opposed to other pets. If dogs, vice versa.

If they say something about e.g. cats being more independent, you'll know not to match them with a lap-cat, or if they say they like dogs because they are trainable, obviously you'll try to match them with one of your smarter animals.

If they say they want a cat because they travel a lot and have heard you can leave cats alone for weeks at a time and they'll just hunt for their own food, well... good job with that screening!
posted by lollusc at 2:00 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am specifically looking for ways to establish a dialogue.

A helpful approach works wonders. I've always been asked "have you had pets before? where did you get them?" and also "what will you do when you go on vacation? will it be an inside pet, outside pet, mixed?" It's best to leave this one open-ended even if your shelter specifically only allows, say, cats to be adopted as inside pets. This way, if someone answers "outside" or "mixed" you can follow up with "where do you live? how much property do you have? is it fenced?" and that sort of thing. For dogs, "will the dog have a crate? where?" If outside, "is it insulated or heated? will the dog be outside during all seasons?" For cats, "have you planned where to put the litterbox?" with a friendly tone. "Where will you have their food and water?" as well. This is the sort of thing that can come up with "have you had pets before" too; ask about how those animals were kept.

Dialogue comes pretty easily with people who genuinely care about animals. For first-time adopters, this sort of questioning can be a real learning experience: maybe they hadn't thought about a crate or litterbox. Or they think one of those small, shallow tray litterboxes you can get at a supermarket will be enough for, say, a Maine Coon kitten. (Lived learning experience of my own there. :) ) A lot of people don't necessarily think ahead to holiday plans either; those questions can open informative discussions and give people things to think about. It's also good if your shelter has on hand a list of trusted/certified pet sitters, dog walkers, animal supply stores with assortments of litterboxes, that sort of thing. Approaching it as a helpful exercise will be a lot more revealing. When you know your questions are to help, not police, it makes it that much more obvious when the more dishonest sorts react over-defensively. And it makes it really clear which people are just newbies open to learning more, and would probably be good fits. Experienced, responsible pet owners will be downright obvious.
posted by fraula at 2:02 AM on July 30, 2014

Best answer: What do you like in a pet? What do you not like in a pet? What is your ideal pet like? What would you do if the pet developed a medical or behavior problem? Where will the pet sleep? Where will the pet spend most of its time? What are your plans for this pet?

And please DO be persnickety! I have seen far too many pets in completely inappropriate, verging on abusive at worst/neglectful at best homes too many times (to which they were often adopted from a local shelter), and believe me, many of them would be better off back in the shelter, or in some cases even euthanized (yes, really).
posted by biscotti at 2:38 AM on July 30, 2014

Best answer: A question on my shelter's form that gave me (first time pet as an adult) some food for thought was: "can you imagine circumstances in which you would give the pet back? What are they?" I suspect that someone who says "never" is as revealing as someone who says "yes, if the kitten scratches furniture before she's declawed next week." An interview question doesn't give much time to react, though; I needed to sit for a minute with it.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:12 AM on July 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In all situations, I like to ask people about their worst experiences, as it shows both what they consider to be a problem, and also how they deal with it. In this case, I might ask them about the worst pet-related disaster they've ever had, or maybe if they've never had pets ask them what the worst thing they could imagine happening with this pet would be. If you get a sense of what they consider problematic, you can steer them away from animals that might be more prone to that kind of problem.

I'd also suggest you talk to them about their standards of veterinary care, what they would do in a medical emergency, how they might pay for expensive treatment, etc.

I'd also emphasize (as others have above) that I hope you consider any of these questions holistically, as a part of getting to know a prospective owner and matching the right pet with them, rather than having litmus test questions that automatically disqualify people based on their answers. While it's true that there are people that are not ready (and might never be ready) to be good pet owners, there are also many different ways of being a good owner that might not be the way you would handle a pet, but would provide a wonderful experience for both the pet and the owner.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:48 AM on July 30, 2014

Definitely ask about vacations/holidays and how people plan to care for their pets during those times. Also talk to people about their daily schedules to make sure they'll have enough time to care for their new pets (I've had dogs my whole life and was still a little surprised by how much time having a dog takes when I adopted my dog as an adult). Also talk people through the expense of owning a pet, especially if they're planning on relying on dog walkers.

Also, be open to non-traditional homes - apartments, people with small kids, etc. Of course, not all homes will be good for all pets, but great pet owners can live in a lot of circumstances (and I know a lot of happy, well cared for dogs that live in small apartments).

On the flip side, please also be totally honest about any issues the pet may have. I have a shelter dog, who was tested by a trainer and found to be a resource guarder. The shelter, however, disclosed none of that and told me that he was a "perfect dog for a first-time dog owner." Resource guarding dogs are hard to deal with and need experienced owners. My husband, who was a first-time dog owner, really struggled to handle our dog once the dog got settled in and started guarding. We would have approached our dog's early days with us much differently had we know he was a guarder (he didn't show any signs of it for the first 6 months we had him, and then it all came pouring out at once and was really scary and disheartening). We've worked it out now with a lot of training, and he's a great dog, but it was irresponsible of the shelter to adopt him out without disclosing his problems.
posted by snaw at 8:03 AM on July 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a data point: Our family has a specific cat color preference because...we happen to think it's especially awesome. I'm now glad I didn't make jokes about matching the decor. That would definitely not have been very revealing in our situation.

Something that was, though: Ask prospective forever families to talk about current and past pets -- best thing about them, worst thing about them. An adoption counselor who let my husband ramble a little about caring for a cat who had health issues for years, matched us with the (unrelated) pair in the photo, and I really think it made a difference.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:05 AM on July 30, 2014

For dogs: "Are you looking for a particular breed/age/size, and if so, why?"

This might reveal if someone wants the popular dog du jour, or a toy for their kids to be discarded or ignored when the kids move on to the next new thing.

If someone doesn't have a strong opinion either way, that could also mean that they may not be ready, and are just window shopping or looking on impulse.

But at least it opens some dialogue.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:34 AM on July 30, 2014

Best answer: "If they say something about e.g. cats being more independent, you'll know not to match them with a lap-cat..."

I wouldn't be quick to jump to this conclusion as "independent" can mean many things for a cat owner, not necessarily an aloof cat. I love my lap cat and love that cats are independent. What independence means to me is not having to wake up at 2am to let him out to go to the bathroom. Or, that I have to run home after work to walk him. Independent cat to me means to me the opposite of dog.

Some good questions:
* Why now?
* Where do you see yourself living in 5 years?
* What are you most looking forward to with your cat/dog?
posted by vivzan at 12:50 PM on July 30, 2014

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