How to Find Homes for "Hard-to-Place" Pets  

Posted by — Kim in , , , , , , , , ,

Here's an incredible article for rescues and shelters...hope you find it helpful! –Kim

Big Dogs, Shy Cats: Placing Them in Droves
By Tompkins County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
You have an adoption program. You have a spay/neuter program. Your community is saving more and more of the pets who come to the shelters.

Now what about the big, black, clumsy dog who has been living on the end of a chain for a year? What about the lovely kitty who takes a swipe at anyone who pets him for more than 60 seconds? The twelve-year-old pooch with a permanent limp and goofy eye? The blind kitten? How do you find them homes?

Finding homes for so-called "hard-to-place" pets is about taking responsibility, allocating resources wisely, doing some great marketing, and demanding – and getting – results. Here is a guideline for getting the job done.

Step 1: Accept Responsibility
Complaining about how hard it is to place certain animals or bemoaning the lack of loving homes in the community won't save the lives of shelter pets. It is up to each shelter, rescue group and humane society to take responsibility for the job of finding homes not just for the "cute and cuddlies" but the old, shy, hyper and disfigured pets who come our way.

Unfortunately, too many shelters create their own stumbling blocks by continuing to rely on outdated clichés and beliefs that do nothing but make excuses for not saving lives:

Myth: "There are too many animals, not enough homes."
Reality: This is the old standby of the humane movement – an excuse developed to explain why the movement itself was killing so many pets. The truth of the matter is: there are homes out there, and it is up to us to appropriately promote our pets so they find their way into those homes. If there are really "too many animals and not enough homes," why are breeders and pet stores still in business?

Myth: "For every three animals we get in, we adopt one. You do the math."
Reality: Type this little gem into Google and you'll get 41 hits. That's 41 shelter directors making excuses for their own failures to get the job done. The fact of the matter is: shelters that save only 1/3 of the animals coming in are the exception today rather than the rule. And promoting this type of negative, depressing view of the shelter is more likely to keep people from coming to you for a pet than it is to guilt them into supporting you.

Myth: "If you increase the QUANTITY of homes, you have to reduce the QUALITY of your adoptions."
Reality: Shelters with high adoption rates have no higher return rates than shelters with poor adoption rates. Increasing the number of adoptions does not mean abandoning adoption standards.

Myth: "You just can't find homes for older/ugly/special needs/behavior problem pets."
Reality: In many cases, these animals are actually easier to place than so-called "perfect" pets! Many adopters like to feel that they are helping a special animal. Finding homes for "hard-to-place" animals requires attention, resources and marketing, but it certainly can – and is – being done all over the Country.

Taking responsibility means abandoning negative thinking and changing gears. Placing big cats and shy dogs requires creative thinking and hard work – something every single shelter staff member should already be good at doing. Justine needed action, not excuses.

Step 2: Adopt Accountability
Accountability requires a critical review of operations, programs and staffing to ensure that they are generating lifesaving results. It also means appropriately allocating resources.

Eliminate unnecessary programs
Just because you have always offered a certain program or just because it is a long-time favorite of the humane movement does not mean you must continue it. If your organization's goal is to save companion animals, your programs and services should be geared to get concrete results in those areas.

Eliminate unnecessary overhead and staffing
Review operations to determine which positions are key, whether any job duties are unnecessary or redundant, and streamline operations.

At the Tompkins County (TC) SPCA, we had:
  • An Executive Director
  • A Director of Operations
  • A Shelter Manager
  • A Development Director
  • A Spay/Neuter Coordinator
  • A Volunteer Coordinator
  • A Humane Education Director
  • A Veterinary Technician
  • Four kennel staff
  • Four and 1/2 front desk staff
  • Three humane officers
After reviewing our operational structure we decided that cross-training employees, increasing individual productivity, and making maximum use of our volunteer resources would allow us to increase spending in areas that directly save lives.

We now have:
  • An Executive Director
  • A Shelter Manager
  • A Development Director
  • A Veterinary Technician
  • Two and 1/2 kennel staff
  • Two front desk staff
  • Two humane officers
Case in Point: Humane Education
Shelters offer humane education programs hoping children will grow up with more humane views than their parents. In communities nationwide, shelter employees, often with dogs and cats in tow, enter classroom after classroom where overworked teachers needing a break meet them with relief, and wide-eyed school children pet animals while grinning from ear to ear.

Meanwhile, generations of shelter directors boast to their constituents about the number of school children they are reaching with their humane message and promising that the light at the end of the tunnel – the mythical place where animals are cherished and have lifetime homes – is as close as the emancipation of these kids. It is a lovely thought.

But has this effort ever been challenged to see if it actually gets results? In fact, no shelter director – not a single one – can point to any: Are more animals being sterilized because of humane education? Are people keeping their pets longer? Is the death rate at the shelter declining because of it? Will these children grow up to be more responsible pet owners? No one has any answers.

Despite tight budgets and cuts in areas of animal care, shelters continue to send legions of staff members into classrooms without any proof that it has, is having, or ever hopes to have any impact whatsoever on the death rate in shelters. 150 years of humane education has yet to produce a single study showing it has made any difference.

In reducing the numbers of staff, we did not reduce programs and services to help animals. In fact, we increased programs, increased services and increased lives saved!

Add Necessary Programs & Staff
With fewer managers, less staff and less fluff, the TC SPCA could afford to increase our programs and still save money. We:
  • Hired a dog trainer
  • Went from sterilizing 10% of shelter animals before adoption to sterilizing 100%
  • Started a TNR program (trap/neuter/return) with free spay/neuter for feral cats
  • Created the Angel Fund to provide surgery and other medical procedures to save injured pets
Each one of these programs directly impacts "hard-to-place" pets; yet previously, the shelter believed it could not afford to implement them.

Is it expensive to save lives?
Yes, but it is also cost effective...

...If you cut unneeded positions and programs, you will have extra revenue for spay/neuter, medical care, adoption incentives and other truly lifesaving programs. And the community will donate more if you are successful and show them that you spend their money wisely!
In the period 2000-2002, the TC SPCA went from a shelter:
  • that was killing 100% of feral cats to killing none
  • that was killing healthy dogs and cats to killing none
  • that was killing treatable sick/injured dogs and cats to killing none
  • that reduced the death rate by 75%
  • that spayed/neutered 10% of animals prior to adoption to 100%
Yes, all of this costs money, but in that same time period, we...
  • reduced total expenses by approximately $150,000 per year
  • reduced the number of employees from 16 to 12
  • went from a $150,000-a-year annual budget deficit to a $23,000 operations surplus
  • nearly doubled the average gift
If we can do it, anyone can!
Step 3: Pet Retention
Programs and strategies to promote pet retention are more effective if you can offer them before people come to you wanting to surrender the pet. The more a community sees the local shelter as an expert resource on all animal-related issues, the more chance you have to solve problems before they lead to surrender.
Develop and cultivate your role as expert every chance you get:
  • Take advantage of free pet behavior advice  you don't need board certified behaviorists. Instead, use resources available in your community. In Tompkins County, volunteer Sandy Snyder fosters about 100 cats for the TC SPCA every year  all of whom go on to find homes. Through her volunteer work, she has seen and solved a lot of behavior problems. Although she has had no formal training (she is an automobile mechanic and shop owner by trade), she has a wealth of information on cat behavior problems. And Bob Sherwood knows more about litterbox problems than anyone else in Upstate New York. Why? If a cat is surrendered to the TC SPCA for such a problem, the cat goes to Bob's place for fostering and rehabilitation. Bob works in a DNA lab by formal training, and he is a cat lover (and lifesaver) by experience. Shelters can also tap into resources like dog and cat fanciers, local training clubs and feral cat caretakers.
  • Train staff and volunteers in behavior basics, so that when they answer the phone or have contact with the public, they can offer simple, effective solutions. Feel free to use TC SPCA materials that are available on our Web site.
  • Make it easier for people to have pets by encouraging pro-pet policies in your area. For example, develop a pet-friendly rental listing and promote businesses, such as groomers, supply stores, poop scoop services, dog walkers, pet sitters and doggy daycare. The TC SPCA promotes more businesses than the yellow pages at no cost to merchants, and the public gains more resources for properly caring for their pets.
These services not only help prevent pet surrender, they make your community a more pet-friendly, pet-knowledgeable place, which in turn makes it easier to find good homes for your hard-to-place animals.
Step 4: Comprehensive Adoption Programs
Adoptions are – or should be – the cornerstone of every animal shelter' operations. You've heard it before, and we'll say it again – Shelters must develop comprehensive adoption programs:
  • Public Access Adoption Hours. Believe it or not, some shelters still close at or before 5:00 every day. Even underfunded libraries have public access hours. Being accessible to the public doesn't necessarily mean more hours, just different ones. For example, instead of being open 9 am to 5 pm when most people are at work, try opening at 11 am and closing at 7 pm. That way, working people have a chance to adopt or reclaim lost pets. In addition, stay open on weekends and close a different day, say Monday, when most people are just starting their work week and may be too busy to visit the shelter.
  • Offsite Adoptions. If the people can't come to the animals, bring the animals to the people. People love seeing pets where they work and play.
  • Special Events. Attend church bazaars, business ribbon cuttings, car sales events, blues festivals  any neighborhood/community event. We even attended a Harley Davidson motorcycle festival! And don't hesitate to develop your own special events. Some of the events the TC SPCA puts on include:

  • Home for the Holidays  We have animals available for adoption at the local mall every day of the month in December, and Santa personally delivers the new pet.
  • Every Valentine's Day weekend, we have pets available at the same mall, and Cupid provides a nice card for each adopter.
  • Dog Days  Every September, to increase dog adoptions, we offer several special incentives.
  • Twice the fun, twice the love, not twice the cost! During kitten season, two adult cats can be adopted for the price of one.
  • Foster Care Program. This is a must, not only for saving easy to place animals like healthy kittens, but for rehabilitating and training hard-to-place animals, as well.
  • Rescue Groups. By working closely with rescue groups  purebreed or otherwise  shelters can not only increase adoptions, but also tap into group members' knowledge about fostering, training, behavior.
  • Incentives. Talk to local businesses  most are delighted at an opportunity to promote problem resolution and more.
When people adopt a pet from the Tompkins County SPCA, these are the goodies they receive:
  • Free health exam at any local vet
  • Free dog grooming at local pet salon
  • 10% discount at pet supply store
  • Free dog behavior advice for life
  • Free month of dog doodoo pick up
  • Free engraved pet ID tag
  • Free bag of pet food
  • 10% discount at puppy class
  • 10% discount for pet massage
  • Pet Lover's Guide to new pets
  • Free bag of goodies
  • Discount at local coffee shop
  • Periodically: free video, free Kong, free collars/leashes, etc.
We pay nothing for these incentives – they are all provided by local businesses for free in an effort to gain clients.
Step 5: Presentation
Let the animals sell themselves by cleaning them up, making the shelter a fun and inviting place, and giving the dogs a few skills.
  • Work with groomers in your area to make your pets look their best.
  • Place toys in cages with the animals  it looks homey and adds color to the animals' surroundings.
  • Just as people are more likely to enter a store where others are already shopping, the same holds true for shelter animals. So, make sure you have adoption counselors and dog/cat socializer volunteers working with the animals at your peak visitation hours. People are drawn to an animal who is interacting with a person. Simply having a volunteer petting an older cat or sitting in the lobby with a long-term dog can make all difference.
  • Let people take animals out of their cages and play with them in a comfortable setting. Potential adopters will stay longer, and are more likely to adopt.
  • If you have the space, set up a doggy pool and/or have Frisbees and tennis balls in a fenced yard, and invite the people to walk and play with the dogs.
  • Give your hard-to-place dogs an edge  training. Teach your longer-term shelter guests how to shake hands, sit and roll over. Adopters love it! Not only does a little basic training promote the dog, it helps ensure a more permanent placement!
Step 6: Promote Your Pets
Every animal has a story – a story that will help open homes and hearts. Telling that story gives the animal a personality to which potential adopters can relate, and people love to adopt animals who have been on television, radio or in the newspaper. Promoting just one pet in these media outlets generally results in multiple adoptions the same day.
Take Justine for example. She was a blind kitten who came to our shelter with her four blind siblings. We featured Justine in our "Pet of the Week" spot in the local paper, and 20 people showed up to adopt her. Not only did we find Justine a wonderful home with people who could handle her special needs, but her four siblings were adopted into equally good homes – all as a result of one free newspaper spot!
These are some other venues for promoting your hard-to-place pets:
  • Radio PSAs (the FCC requires radio stations to allocate time for free public service announcements; take advantage of it!)
  • Public access television
  • "Pet of the Week" feature
  • Local radio programs
  • Pet advice column
  • Press releases
  • Posters in windows of local businesses
  • Speak to community groups – bring an animal!
  • Offsite adoptions
This is how we promoted Grandpa, the very elderly dog pictured:
"Hello, I am a little old man. I like to sleep a lot. And I don't cause too much trouble. I don't hear so good, so if you sneak up on me, I get a bit spooked and flinch. So you need to make sure I see you when you want my attention. I know kids today like a dog who can chase a ball and stuff. I'd like to play but I don't really have the energy. Someone left me here to die, but I don't want to. I want to live. I want to sleep inside for a little while. Do you have space in your heart and your home for me? I promise not to be too much trouble. All I want is a little love and dignity at the end of my days."
Well, Grandpa was adopted soon after we told his story on our Web site.
Tippy, a run-of-the-mill black cat, sat at our shelter for three months. So, we told his sad story in the local paper (see ad on right). Thirteen people came to adopt him when the feature appeared, and we adopted out Tippy and six other cats the first hour we were open!
Keep in mind that you also need to promote your hard-to-place pets in the shelter itself. Adoption counselors, volunteers and staff can be these animals' biggest allies. For example, some potential adopters enjoy having personalized "shopping" assistance. Adoption counselors can accompany people through the shelter, talking with them and directing them to some of the harder-to-place animals.
Asking shelter staff and volunteers to take a personal interest in certain animals can also pay off: If they will spread the word at work, in church or social groups, to friends, family, email lists, etc., your hard-to-place pets can reach a much wider audience. Networking helps animals, too!
When promoting your hard-to-place pets, be up-front about their problems. If a cat is grumpy and doesn't like petting, say so. There are people out there who will adopt him! If you have an old dog who doesn't do much, explain that. Someone will want to give the senior a loving home for the rest of his days.
Good homes can be found for all the old, "ugly," big dogs ... the shy cats ... the compromised pets most shelters would deem "unadoptable" ... all of them!

Tompkins County SPCA

This entry was posted on Thursday, July 17, 2014 at Thursday, July 17, 2014 and is filed under , , , , , , , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



This is one of the best things I've read on this topic. I wish all the shelters would take heed to most of the suggestions listed. OVERNIGHT, we could be rid of the problem of crowded shelters, etc.! - Linda

July 16, 2009 at 3:20 AM

Actually, this is THE best article I've ever read on the subject. It should be required reading for all employees and volunteers at all animal shelters everywhere. Kudos to the very knowledgeable author on this remarkably instructive and thorough presentation.

August 2, 2009 at 11:26 AM

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