Rebekah and Nathan Patin began looking for a dog to add to their household in 2015, as a companion to their pup, Violet. The couple, who live in an apartment in a Washington suburb, had previously bought dogs from breeders. This time, they wanted to adopt.
The Patins were looking for an adult dog that didn’t have any special needs, such as separation anxiety. Because they don’t have kids, they were fine with a dog that wasn’t great with little ones.
They first approached a rescue group specializing in French bulldogs, since “we love everything about that breed,” Rebekah Patin said. The group had three dogs that seemed like a good fit. The Patins put in an adoption application – and promptly got turned down.
They were given two reasons. One was that they have no yard. “Also, ideal candidates worked from home,” Patin, 30, said she was told. “The most length of time we aren’t home is six hours. It was frustrating.”
At any given time, U.S. animal shelters and rescue groups house millions of homeless animals, and hundreds of thousands are euthanized each year. So tough adoption processes can come as a shock to potential adopters. Typical reasons include those given to Patin – unfenced yards or long working hours – as well as having children or other pets. A Milwaukee-area NBC affiliate recently reported on a 70-year-old woman whose adoption application was denied because she was deemed too old.
Proponents of this high-bar approach say it’s in the animals’ best interest. Donna Darrell, founder of the New York City-based nonprofit organization Pound Hounds ResQ, said her group has a long and difficult adoption process by design. The seven-page application even begins with the warning that “not every person who desires to adopt a dog should do so.”
Darrell said the criteria are so tough that she might not even adopt one herself. Her aim, she explained, is “to get the right dog in the right home. . . . If it’s not the right home, you’re setting up that dog for failure.”
But that view is increasingly being challenged by groups including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – whose own president and chief executive, Matthew Bershadker, says he was turned down when he and his family looked for a dog about a year and a half ago. In fact, he was rejected twice.
Once, he said, it was because the dog they had settled on was offered by an out-of-state group that required a pre-adoption home inspection. It didn’t have anyone to send to Bershadker’s residence in New York, so that was that. The second time, he said, “they simply said, ‘You work too much.’ Despite assurances of a dog walker . . . and a fenced yard, and I mean, it was kind of crazy.”
Bershadker and his family wanted an adult dog that was good with kids and other animals. An ASPCA staff member in Texas found “a perfect match,” he recalled – but even then, Bershadker had to travel to Texas to interview with the group before adopting Tarzan, a Labrador mix, in 2016.
It was an eye-opening experience, he said. If the process is this hard for the leader of one of the nation’s largest animal charities, “it’s clearly overly restrictive,” Bershadker said. “We have 1.5 million animals dying in shelters in our country, and these groups are putting barriers in between homes and their animals.”
The ASPCA is one of the major animal protection groups now urging rescue groups and shelters to practice what they call “open adoptions.” Bershadker said the philosophy stems from the belief that “most people are good people, particularly people who are walking into a shelter or a rescue group to save a life.”
A phrase that’s used a lot in this context is “removing barriers to adoption.” The application process tends to be based in conversations, not criteria. Organizations practicing open adoptions generally do not do home visits or phone landlords to make sure pets are allowed. Groups say they focus on what they often call “good matches” between human and animal.
That doesn’t mean no criteria are used. For example, Becca Stern, director of adoptions for the Humane Rescue Alliance, a shelter in Washington that uses open adoptions, said it doesn’t send cats home with people who intend to declaw the animals. The shelter also checks animal control investigation records and local law enforcement cases for any history of animal abuse, she said.
Those who favor this approach argue that anecdotal evidence, as well as published research, support the idea that pets adopted through open procedures do just as well.
“It’s very, very, very rare that we send an animal home and it goes home to a bad situation,” Stern said.
Bershadker points to another reason for open adoptions: the estimated 1.5 million cats and dogs that die in U.S. shelters every year.
“We want to make sure it’s the right placement . . . but we want to get these animals into homes,” he said.
What’s more, some fear, a negative experience trying to adopt a pet could turn someone off adoption forever.
“I think it hurts us as a movement,” said Sheila D’Arpino, director of research at Maddie’s Fund, a foundation that works to lower euthanasia rates in shelters. “We want to involve our communities in the solution to the problems,” she added, and that can’t happen “as long as we’re treating them like they’re not worthy.”
Darrell said she’s familiar with those arguments. But she’s still not convinced she should loosen Pound Hounds ResQ’s procedures. Her primary concern isn’t shelter pets that face euthanasia, she said. It’s the 200 or so dogs her rescue cares for each year.
“Some rescues require fosters or adopters to have a yard. We don’t do that,” she said, nor does her group say no to employed pet-seekers. “99.9 percent of people work.”
An estimated 14,000 animal shelters and pet rescue groups operate in the United States, and they do so essentially autonomously – free to use whatever adoption procedures they deem best.
One group – Utah-based Arctic Rescue – requires hopeful adopters to take a dog for a hike. The group specializes in high-energy dogs that need a lot of exercise, and “the whole idea is to make good matches,” said founder Maren Gibson, who added: “People have said they can get security clearance faster than a dog.”
The diverse approaches mean that if people looking for pets are rejected by one organization, others might well think they’re great.
That’s what happened with the Patins. After striking out with the Frenchies, they and Violet paid a visit to the Washington Animal Rescue League – a D.C. shelter that has since merged with the city’s other major shelter to form the Humane Rescue Alliance.
The trio met three prospects. Violet seemed shy with the first two, Rebekah Patin said. With the third, a little Chihuahua, she was instantly comfortable.
They adopted Whiskey that day, Patin said, and she and Violet groomed each other in the back seat of the car all the way home.
“Ever since, they have been attached at the hip,” said Patin, a dental hygienist who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
Two and a half years later, Patin said she is still grateful to the shelter for placing such a wonderful pet with her family – even though they don’t have a yard.
“They knew,” she said, “we had a good home to offer to a homeless animal.”