Ask Me Anything Answers: Adoption Standards

This “Ask Me Anything” series is answering the questions and topics that you said you want to read about on the blog. As we move forward, please feel free to leave additional questions in the comments section of answer posts or regular posts. Today’s question has two parts, which I will be answering one after the other:

Do you think it’s better to rigorously screen all potential adopters in order to make sure that each pup is adopted into exactly the right home for him/her? Or is it more important to get as many dogs out of shelters and into homes as possible, even if a portion of them then end up getting returned?

This is a really great question.  If you ask the entire animal welfare community, the opinions on how much we should screen adopters would probably be pretty split. Some people think any home is better than the shelter, and some people think you must make the absolute perfect match for your animals, not lowering your standards one bit.

In this day and age, progressive shelters (note that I say shelters, not rescues – rescues are generally a little different than shelters) are moving more towards having open conversations with adopters, rather than a “prove to me why we should give you this dog” approach. I LOVE that. Lots of shelters are doing away with the traditional “home visit” and spending more time talking with adopters and getting a feel for if the animal is a right fit or not. Many people, especially who have been in this field for a long time, do not feel comfortable with letting go of home visits. They are worried we’ll be sending pets to hoarders or dog fighters (I’m sorry I just have to roll my eyes here, but that’s for a different post). But the truth is that we can’t control every single little detail of an animal’s new home. Furthermore, we have to put some trust in our adopters that they will do what is right to help make the transition smooth and give the animal the best life possible.


I know a lot of you are shaking your head thinking, “but all the animals I have seen returned because the adopter gave up!” I agree with you. I agree that there are adopters out there who are just duds and who do not want to try their hardest to make it work with the animal. But there’s a good chance that there was an opportunity to either uncover that or work through it during the pre-adoption “counseling” session. Humans tend to be pretty transparent, and if you have an honest conversation with someone it is likely that you’ll be able to get a sense if they are interested in a particular pet for the right reasons. There will also be situations where that would happen no matter how much screening you did or did not do. It’s just life.

To answer the individual question directly: I think there should be a balance. I have lots of experience in “choosing” homes for each of my fosters. Because they were my fosters and I know them very well, I was able to tell someone right off the bat if they could possibly be the right fit or not. I had to be very careful, however, that I was not being too picky. It’s tough to do when you love your animals so, so much and you want the best for them and you think you have the best picked out in your mind – but the truth is that life is not perfect and somewhere something has to give if you don’t want to keep your foster pets forever (I see you, foster failures ;-)). None of my adopters have looked “perfect” on paper, but there’s so much more to the big picture than that. Besides, now all of their new families absolutely are perfect for them. What if I hadn’t given them that chance?

Adopted1What do you say to people outside the animal rescue community who complain that it’s too difficult or the requirements are too strict to adopt a dog, so they think it’s better just to buy instead?

I tell them I feel their pain! I think it totally sucks when shelters or rescue groups make adopters jump through flaming hoops. I agree that there should be standards and pets should not be adopted to just anyone, but I think we are doing ourselves a huge disservice when we make it easier to buy a dog than adopt one.  I sit here and preach about how people should look into breed-specific rescues, but then the rescue groups laugh in their face when they inquire about adopting because they do not meet the group’s “standards.” No, not all groups are like this. There are some really fabulous, flexible ones out there. But there are also some pretty rude, stuck up ones, which I think is a huge shame.

The bottom line is that I think it’s time we start putting a little more power in the hands of our adopters. Instead of trying to make it impossible for someone to adopt a dog, how about we pair them with a good match and then give them the resources to succeed! This is huge – I think we would have less returns if we made post-adoption help more readily available, including health advice, training resources and even just someone being available to walk them through the transition, should they need it.


Shelter workers are looking to put ourselves out of business. We are never going to do that though if we have the outlook that it is a privilege for people to adopt from us. Sending good matches out the door (note: “good” means the pair is safe for the community!) with resources should take priority over sending perfect matches out the door, in my opinion. It doesn’t take much to turn good into perfect before long anyway!

29 thoughts on “Ask Me Anything Answers: Adoption Standards

  1. I love this! Of course I can be guilty of having high standards for adoptive families. However, I can remember when I first decided to foster. I applied with a number of rescues, and didn’t hear back from any of them! With my above average experience with dog handling and training, and the fact that we live on a large private property, I was really confused. I even quit my job to allow myself more time to help the foster adjust! Since then, I’ve had a few people tell me that we were probably turned away because we have two dogs, one male and one female. Apparently, some rescues do not believe that pit bulls should be placed in homes with other same sex dogs… I wish those people could see our couch right now, where all 3 dogs are snuggling peacefully! Our foster (failure!) is now more social and balanced than ever, and I have so much pride in her transformation. Those other rescues lost out on a great foster family!

    • This is totally the reason, and it drives me insane. Thank you for persevering.
      Note to others, most open-admission shelters will have NO problem with this although they will strongly recommend a meet & greet first.

  2. Yay, thanks for answering my questions! I appreciate your insight. And now I’m super curious about the rolling your eyes parenthetical comment?!

    • Oh, haha, just specifically the dog fighting fear (because yes I know hoarders can be an issue). Do we REALLY think a “dog fighter” would go through the adoption process and pay for a shelter dog when there are a million other easier ways to get a pit bull dog (craig’s list, neighbors, family, friends, etc.)? Just my opinion.

  3. Big Bruno

    Things go in cycles. I’m sure some years ago they thought shelters were not doing enough home visits.
    Want to change things…change the law regarding spaying and neutering….AND ENFORCE IT! Years ago I could not imagine people not smoking at bars, at their desk, etc. Guess what…laws were changed AND ENFORCED. Big Bruno

  4. Great questions, great answers!!

    I feel the 2nd question – when we were looking for Edison, we applied at several rescues to be denied — Sam didn’t have a fenced in yard. Meanwhile, I had a fenced in yard where the pup could run, so there was no reason for the dog to be off leash at Sam’s house. They completely looked over the fact that I had a dog that had been through multiple obedience classes and had become a therapy dog. We had experience with bullies, as well as other “hard” breeds. So frustrating. We tried to remember that not only did they think they were doing what was best, but that it wasn’t a good rescue match for us, either!! In the end, we found Edison at a rural county pound in Ohio of all places — he needed us much more than a pooch that had been living with a family!

    Loving this feature — keep em coming!

    • Fabulous point – finding a great match to adopt often has to do with finding a great match in a rescue or shelter! That is why I loooove Jasmine’s House – they are totally a rescue that is the right match for me. They don’t have insane restrictions and are totally dedicated to making responsible matches and setting their adopters and dogs up for success. I think these strict rescues do truly feel like they are doing the right thing, but I also think the rescue community is starting to realize that might not be the best way to go if we want to get lots of animals adopted!

  5. Excellent post. Thank you for being so open minded and understanding in your writing. Even if people don’t agree with every single thing you say, your writing is very welcoming. I agree so much that shelters and rescues need to put more trust in our adopters, and then give them the resources to succeed! I’d like to see home visits gone, except in rare cases like if there is a unique medical or behavioral problem.

    • To be fair, sometimes home visits can be really helpful for the adopter, not just the rescue– when we had our home visit when we were applying to adopt our pup, the woman who was doing the visit was able to give us a lot of really useful advice based in part just on seeing our home, how it’s laid out, etc. Though we were first-time dog owners, so I can see how someone who already has a dog might not be as in need of advice as we were! Personally I’m in favor of keeping home visits but just not being quite so picky about what we find when doing them.

      • Yes I totally agree that sometimes home visits can be helpful, especially if it makes the adopter feel better. Lots of shelters that still do home visits do it as more of a counseling session anyway, like you described, not necessarily the old fashioned “let me make sure your house setting is up to par.” Unfortunately though they are a huge time and resource suck for shelters and I think we can be having the same helpful discussions in a more efficient way. But, like you said, sometimes they are needed! I don’t know many shelters that absolutely do not allow them.

  6. I have been pretty frustrated with adoption/foster process out here in the Portland, OR area. I happen to rent a townhouse (with a tiny fenced-in yard), so my breed and size restrictions are totally understandable. However, I have been turned down by two rescues: once because my resident dog barked at the volunteer during the home visit (no lunging, biting, etc. Just fear barking) and the other time was because I was renter (even though the dog was well within our restrictions). It is very hard because I consider myself incredibly dog savvy – Rufus is well exercised, trained, and spoiled. He still has some fear issues but he’s a GREAT dog and wonderful with people he knows. I’ve

  7. Kirsten

    I will see your pre-adoption discussions and raise you my ideal – pre-adoption hands-on experience! I’ve offered to take (and have taken) dogs on walks with potential adopters so they can see what I *really* mean by “reactivity” or “shyness” or “pulling”. I’d LOVE to see potential adopters come watch (or even participate in) a train-to-adopt class with the dog they’re considering. I am also one who thinks some returns could have been staved off by a home visit…but of course, then the question becomes, is it worth the time/resources to do home visits, when they’ve been shown to be a deterrent to a certain percentage of potential adopters? No easy answers, of course, but I think we should be treating all adopters – like dogs! – as individuals :)

    • We always try to have potential adopters take a walk with the dog while we discuss the dog and their previous or current dogs – they can get a better idea of the dog’s personality and quirks that sometimes only come out on walks, how well trained it is, if they think they can handle that particular dog, etc.

      • My adopters meet my fosters like 3 or 4 times before they make any final decisions. But that is a privilege I have as a foster home, versus a large shelter. We do have many adopters come into the shelter though who meet with their animal multiple times before taking it home after adoption approval.

    • Yep, totally agree. Like eeeeeverything else, I don’t think we should put strict “we are doing (or not doing) this for EVERY ADOPTER EVER.” Also, every shelter is different on time availability, so that will also determine what they can offer. Thanks for your thoughts, Kirsten!

  8. Our local rescue in PA was well known in our county and also had animals in Baltimore, but also well-known for being difficult to adopt through. Couldn’t adopt a hound without a fenced yard – my dad’s hound lives on 3 acres now trained off leash to move off the road during off leash runs if she sees a car (traffic, visibility, acoustics, and neighbors are the most ideal in the world for this) and stay within sight of my dad. My hound mix lives in an apartment and is leash walked (but didn’t look like a hound until he was 6 months). Can’t adopt any dog with kids under 7 – wthat should really be an issue of helping the family find the right dog. If someone consulted me about buying a dog due to difficulty adopting, I’d feel obligated to tell them the millions of things to look for in a good breeder, extra costs of spay/neuter and vaccinations, and try to point them the way of the shelter or Crossroads, which don’t make you jump through hoops if your family seems honest and well-suited for a dog. We have had a foster-to-adopt that didn’t work out and an adoption that didn’t work out, but both people seemed like they would be wonderful dog owners – an AVS major and one who wanted to be a vet until she realized she had difficulty dealing with the emotionally difficult parts of the job while working as a vet assistant. The reasons for the returns were not related to the match in either case.

    • Yes, good point – sometimes it is just not the right match and you wouldn’t have known that from the initial meetings and discussions. Also, like you said, if someone tells me they are absolutely 100% going to a breeder, instead of shutting them out I will try to educate them on what to look for in a responsible breeder.

  9. I attended the No More Homeless Pets Conference put on by Best Friends this past year. My favorite story was told by The Executive Director of PetSmart Charities and how she was turned away as an adopter because of her travel schedule. This is a woman who has dedicated her life to animals and hires an in-house dog sitter when she leaves town! Needless to say the shelter was appalled when they learned who she was but not all of us hold a title to change a shelter’s mind.

  10. Great post. Despite the early note that the focus here is on shelters rather than rescues, I really wish more rescues would take this advice to heart. I think a good deal of them do a huge disservice to the adoption process. If they put half of their “screening” energy into improving marketing materials and public outreach, broadening their potential adopter base, and distributing quality educational materials for owners, they’d be finding successful forever homes a lot faster.

  11. Katie

    I think it is really important to just talk to people! You can gain some much information from adopters and rescues/shelters just by having a conversation about things. Our local shelter simply lets you fill out a form, meet the dog, and basically says yes or no in a matter of minutes. When we adopted through MABB, the questions were a lot more thorough and involved a detailed phone interview. People are often a lot more forthcoming if you just ask open-ended questions and see if the answers fit. Definitely don’t think shelters should just be shoving dogs out the door with any adopter who comes in, although a home visit might be a little overkill.

  12. I love love love this post! You & I have talked about adoption standards quite a bit, so I know it’s no surprise that I completely agree with you. Adopting out a dog should be a lot like training a dog – it’s up to us (those in the rescue community) to set people up for success just like a trainer tries to set up a dog for success. And I would add that returning or rehoming an animal shouldn’t be a black mark on person. We are human, life happens, and sometimes a match just isn’t meant to be. But I won’t get started :) So glad you spoke to this!

  13. Interestingly enough this is not just with dogs. There are some guinea pig rescues in the UK who are very strict, refusing to allow to rehome to houses with children under 10, homes without grass in their back garden, etc. They can be quite bizarre and the adoption process equally frustrating. Despite Mummy’s experience with guinea pigs and the fact she runs the blog so the rescue could see how the piggies are getting along one rescue said they would not allow her to have them because the youngest little hooman was 9 at the time.

    It breaks our hearts and also makes us think, no wonder people go to pet shops instead where they can walk away with a pet today, no questions asked really.

    You have to be able to draw a line between being sensible and helping the animals and putting people off completely.

    Very interesting.

    Nibbles, Nutty, Buddy & Basil

  14. I completely agree. I have been turned down so many times just because of my location, that I work a full time job or because I don’t have a fenced yard. As an adult, I have had three dogs – my first pup was rescued from a high-kill county shelter with absolutely no adoption standards. I had her for over 15 years until we had to put her down at 17. My second dog was adopted from a no-kill local shelter but the manager had conversations with each potential adopter and liked us. Our new puppy, adopted a couple months after putting down my 17 year old lab, was adopted from a high kill shelter with no adoption requirements. None of the rescues we contacted and very few of the shelters would even consider us, regardless of our track record. It still continues to be very frustrating and other people who aren’t as adamant about adopting a homeless pet might have gone to a backyard breeder or a pet store when faced with the kind of obstacles we had to endure. Nathan Winograd wrote a few great articles on this very subject. If we are less concerned with adhering to a strict set of guidelines and just matching pets up with people, we can save more animals and help reduce the demand for breeders and puppy mills. It’s all about economics

  15. Imzadi83

    Great article! I’d like to see home visits as optional. Yes they can be very helpful. But I know there are many potenally great owners who just don’t want some stranger going through their home. The only reason my neighbor bought a dog instead of adopting is because they didn’t want the home visit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s