Open Adoptions in Shelters Help Animals and People

A view from the inside on what open adoptions are and how they can help animals.

Posted Feb 26, 2019

A few months ago, I posted a guest essay on the growing practice of "open adoptions" of animals in shelters and rescue organizations. The essay, "Is the Trend toward Open Adoption Good for Animal Welfare?" argued, in brief, that open adoptions hurt animals more than help. It generated a lot of heated discussion. I was asked by Dot Baisly, who has spent years working in the sheltering world, if I would provide the other side of the story: the argument that open adoptions have the potential to help animals and people, and that they can be more effective than rigid, closed adoptions in helping homeless animals find loving and lasting placements in homes. 

Dot Baisly is the shelter division co-chair for the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She holds a Master's Degree in Behavioral Ecology from Tufts University, as well as professional training and behavior certifications (CPDT-KA , IAABC CDBC and CCBD). She has been working in animal welfare for over 18 years, including behavior and training roles at shelter and rescue organizations throughout New York and New England, such as the Northeast Animal Shelter and Animal Rescue League of Boston. When not working with shelter animals, she trains service dogs for humans with disabilities for Paws with a Cause.

Here is my Q&A with Dot:

The practice of “open adoptions” in the animal sheltering world seems to mean different things to different people. Can you describe some of contrasting approaches to open adoption?

There are programs from major national organizations like HSUS’s Adopters Welcome, but many shelters are finding their own way to implement less restrictive adoption policies. Some still use a questionnaire to start off the interaction with potential adopters, while others use minimal paperwork or none at all. Some will ask for things like personal or veterinary references, or proof of home ownership or landlord approval, while others will not require the adopter to show verification. By definition, open adoptions means removing barriers to adoption and creating a welcoming and non-judgmental experience for the public. How each shelter attempts to implement this is different, depending upon their own needs, the community they serve, and, often, the number of animals in their care.

How would you like to see “open adoptions” defined?  

I see open adoptions as treating every adopter as an individual. Rather than taking a “cookie-cutter” approach, where every adopter is met with a rigid set of questions that require “yes/no” answers destined to disqualify them at some point along the way, we should be striving to meet adopters “where they are” and helping them to be the best pet owners they can be. This means working with each adopter to help them find an appropriate pet that fits their specific lifestyle. By supporting adopters rather than judging them, we can place more animals in homes and shorten their length of stay in the shelter.

To me, trusting people, assisting them with their unique needs, and supporting them through counseling and post-adoption follow-up is what open adoptions are about.

You talk about “open adoptions done right.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by “done right”?

Detractors often perceive open adoptions as allowing any pet to go to any home without an attempt to verify whether it’s a good fit. In my opinion, this is not at all the intent of open adoption processes. Getting open adoptions right means working with each adopter as an individual to help them find the pet that will best fit their lifestyle and situation. In some cases, it will become clear that a prospective adopter isn’t ready for a pet, but the goal is that a non-judgmental, conversation-based approach will help them realize this on their own.

Historically in animal welfare, I think we’ve unintentionally imposed certain practices that are economically biased, and traditional adoption polices are an example of this. If people of lesser means visit a shelter, and the first questions they are greeted with are about home ownership and financial ability to provide vet care, they are immediately put in the position of having to defend themselves as “good” owners. There are no perfect pet owners — but our quest to find them often causes the very pets we’re trying to save to suffer.

Requiring proof of landlord approval, for example, can be a larger burden on those living in low-income housing, where landlords are not always easily accessible or available to tenants. Another such barrier is requiring all family members to be present in order to adopt. For example, in a family where someone works more than one job, or works in staggered or evening/night shifts, it can become extremely challenging to find a time when all members can be present. Does this make it a less than ideal home? No, but in the sheltering field, we often see families in this situation turned away. As a result, they will turn to pet stores or backyard breeders, because the process of getting a pet is faster and easier. They might never try to adopt an animal from a shelter again, and they may also discourage others from doing so. The reality is that less than ideal outcomes will happen at times, regardless of the restrictions we impose — but these strict requirements can stop many wonderful placements.

What are some of the most serious misconceptions about open adoptions?

That a lack of rigid screening leads to inappropriate placements. Inflexible applications and interactions with adoptions staff that are more akin to “inquisitions” can make shelters feel less than welcoming and push potential adopters to backyard breeders and pet stores. More open and flexible screening allows shelters to meet the client “where they are” and serve people of all backgrounds and economic status.

It does not mean that more inappropriate placements occur. These occur with strict screening also. I have personally seen more cases than I can count of adopters that seemed perfect “on paper,” but then failed to provide much-needed training, enrichment, and behavior support. Often, we still see those puppies come back to the shelter as adolescents or adults with major behavior concerns.

Regardless of the approach to adoptions, it’s important for all shelters to realize that the relationship with the animal and adopter is not over when the animal leaves the shelter. Post-adoption support and remaining in touch with adopters plays an important role in trying to ensure that the adoption is successful over the lifetime of the animal. 

Why do you think it’s so difficult to let go of preconceived notions about “the right way” to place animals in loving homes?

It’s usually about attempting to gain a sense of control. As humans — and shelter staff — it’s natural to want to control outcomes. We want what’s best for the animals. We want to ensure they are safe, happy, and healthy once they’re adopted. These are admirable goals — ones we should continue to strive for. But the issue is how we get there. No matter how hard we try, we can’t control the behavior of animals or people. And restrictive adoption policies certainly have not been proven to achieve this. There are lots of studies that show open adoptions don’t result in more negative outcomes. One example is a 2014 study by the ASPCA that showed those who adopted through a policy-free adoption process provide “similar high-quality care and are just as likely to be highly bonded to their pet as those that adopt through policy-based adoptions.”

If we let go of our need for control and allow ourselves to start from a place of trusting people, we decrease animals’ length of stay in the shelter and more quickly open space to save new ones.

That said, it’s easy to understand why we try so hard to control outcomes. Numerous studies point to the fact that negative emotions have more impact on us than positive ones, and we process bad information more fully than good information. In animal welfare, we are exposed at a higher rate to situations of abuse and neglect. It can be hard not to let this affect our approach, but we have to remember that most people are good. They are coming to us to adopt, and we have an opportunity — and I’d go a step further and say a responsibility — not only to help them do that, but to provide education and to position ourselves as a trusted resource in the future.

In your experience, can rigid screening practices prevent good matches? Can you give some examples?

Oh, can I! I was on the other end of rigid screening when I applied to adopt a dog through a Rottweiler rescue. The process went something like this: I filled out a five-page application and received an automated reply. They proceeded to call my vet before even talking to me about my application or letting me meet with the dog. At the time, I owned cats — not a dog — so they asked my vet (where I also worked as a vet tech and manager) if my cats were overweight. The application asked whether I was involved with any training associations, and I gladly provided my certifications and the clubs I belonged to, as well as the private behavior consulting business I ran. It also asked whether I was involved in rescue, which I was. I had worked for or volunteered at about five shelters and rescues at the time.

Based on my history and experience as a trainer and behaviorist, I naively assumed that, of course, they would allow me to adopt this dog with little effort, but they insisted on a home visit before even allowing me to meet the dog. Needless to say, I found another dog much faster without having to jump through so many hoops — and sadly, without going through a rescue. In fact, I ended up adopting a retired service dog, from an organization I worked for as a trainer. Many of my friends and colleagues in the animal welfare field have had similar experiences.

As an aside, a few years later I was asked by a third party if I could complete a home check for that same rescue. I declined the offer. I just couldn’t stomach the irony of judging someone else in the same way.

In an open adoption “conversation,” what are some red flags that might be raised, and how would they be addressed?

A conversation is full of red flags, but the issue is how they are addressed. For example, I might ask an adopter who is interested in a bully breed about home owner’s insurance. It’s very common to find that people don’t know if their insurance will cover the animal. I will talk with the adopter about the possible “bully” restrictions, provide resources to help them find alternative coverage, and trust that they will do what is right for them. For example, I adopted a 1.5-year-old Pitbull to a young man who lived at home with his parents. During our conversation, they discovered that their home owner’s insurance did not allow for this breed type. I could have easily denied the adoption of this dog that was visibly suffering in the shelter from stress. Instead, my adoption team and I allowed them to adopt and find the appropriate coverage. The post-adoption conversations — and photos — showed a completely different dog, free from stress, and a happy young guy and grateful family.

If, in a conversation, it becomes clear that a family has re-homed or lost multiple pets — or experienced other issues repeatedly — I will address each pet and situation as an individual and make a decision with the adopter about what is best for them. That may mean that they don’t adopt an animal that day — or at all. My goal is to ensure they do not feel judged, and to help them come to the right conclusion on their own before I deny them. Occasionally, there are situations in which adopters — or certain members of the family — do not show any connection to the animal. In these situations, if we can’t come to a reasonable compromise, I will ask them to think about it and come back later to meet the animal again, or find some other way of ensuring the connection is worth it to them. Often, if they are not truly committed to the animal, I never see them again, and the decision was made without a blanket denial — so they will hopefully remain open to adopting in the future or speak highly to others about shelter adoptions.