I know you.
Even though we may have never met I know you.
I know you because it takes a certain kind of person to get involved in dog rescue. You have a huge heart, dog hair covering a good portion of your clothing, there are dog treats in your car, you spend much of your waking hours helping dogs, preparing to help dogs or thinking about helping dogs.
You are tired but keep going. You have little money, but keep spending on the dogs. You are overextended but keep squeezing in time to help out. You are a hero. What I call a Rescue Rock Star.
But you can do better.
Yeah, that’s right. I did just say that. You can do better and you’re not alone. We all must do better – all of us in rescue. We can and must do better.
Before you curse me out (am I too late?) let me explain. I’m not saying that you should do more, I’m saying you could do what you’re already doing better. Believe it or not if you make a few changes you can greatly supercharge your rescue efforts, saving more lives.
I thought so (I told you I knew you). Here are 7 things you and your rescue need be doing to maximize your rescue efforts and help more dogs.
1. Give New Dogs Time To Adjust
When you get a dog in how fast will you adopt them out?
Let’s say a new dog is brought into your rescue for whatever reason (transfer from the south, saving a death row dog, owner surrender, found stray, etc) and someone want’s to adopt them the very next day. Do you adopt them out?
If you say yes, than I don’t think you’re seeing the big picture (which happens to be the Achilles Heel of most rescue organizations). If you’re just doing the obvious math: homeless dog + home = success, you’re missing the real point of why we do what we do.
We are NOT trying to just match up any dog with any home. We want to find the RIGHT dogs for the RIGHT homes and there is no way you can know anything about a dog in such a short time.
The first three to four weeks that a dog comes into a new environment are what’s called the “honeymoon period.” The dog doesn’t understand where it is or why he’s there and can be a little shell shocked and inhibited. So you rarely see the dog’s true behavior until about a month in where he settles in and feels comfortable to let his fur down and be himself.
You also need some time to get to know the dog and learn what kind of people and environment he would do best in so you can make the best match possible. The big reason dogs get returned is because it wasn’t a right fit – the wrong dog for those particular people.
You can’t expect the potential adopters to be able to make that determination – that responsibility is all on us. Only when you’ve spent some time with the dog will you have an idea what kind of home they would do best in. And I know nothing is 100% and we can’t know for sure, but we can – and need – to do a better job of setting them up to succeed.
In my rescue we always keep dogs (not including young puppies – they can go earlier) at least 30 days to get to know them, see if there are any health issues and learn about the dogs personality. Taking this little extra time up front can save you a lot of returns – and every time a dog is returned they chances for adoption drop.
2. Don’t Put Dogs In Situations They’re Not Ready For
Too many dogs in rescue are in situations where they are set up to have a bad experience. It’s always because of our haste to get them adopted or our lack of understanding on what really is best for the dog. We need to really think things through and do our best to see things from the dog’s perspective.
One example I see all the time is dogs at crowded public adoption events that are anxious and uncomfortable. So now we have a dog that is not feeling too great in an unpredictable and uncontrollable environment where lots can go wrong. At best they won’t show well and won’t get adopted. At worst they will bite someone.
Another big problem I see is well meaning volunteers rushing into close interaction with new, strange dogs. You know the scene – a new super cute dog comes into the rescue and all the dog loving volunteers want to rush over and meet the new guy. They go right into the dog’s space, lean over to pet the dog or worse, hug him (not something dogs like, sorry to say).
If you follow tip #1 and get to know the dog first and identify what his comfort level is you should be able to have a pretty good understanding as to what the dog can handle. Of course, you’ll never know for sure but you can have a good idea.
If you saw me at one of my adoption events when I meet one of our new rescue dogs you would think that I didn’t like dogs. I don’t rush over to meet him but instead just observe the dog to see how he behaves so I can figure out how comfortable the dog is so I know how much to interact with him. Then, and only then, will I move in.
You don’t have to move this slow with all dogs – that super friendly dog that jumps into your lap doesn’t require such a long courtship. The next tip will help you determine how fast and far to go with each dog.
3. Always Let The Dogs Initiate Contact
As a dog behavior consultant for the last seven years as well as being involved in dog rescue for that time I’ve come in contact with quite a few dogs. Many of the dogs I deal with have issues and can be aggressive. Because of this you would imagine that I would get bit quite often. But I don’t.
Given the amount and kinds of dogs that I work with most people are usually amazed that I’ve only be bitten a handful of times (I hope I’m not jinxing myself here).
It’s not because I’m special or have some kind of dog trainer mojo, but because I’m smart (at least when it comes to dogs). I make sure I follow tips 1 and 2 and then infuse tip 3 into my subconscious, which is to ALWAYS let the dog come to you.
When working with new dogs and/or dogs with some sensitivities (aggression, anxiety, fear, over excitement, etc) never, never, never (did I mention never?) go into the dogs space – always let the dog decide if and when he want’s to come you.
This is what I’m always teaching kids because almost all kids get bit when they have gone into the dog’s space when the dog wan’t okay with it. And passionate rescue people often act like little kids in the presence of a cute dog in need.
So don’t move toward that “sad” looking dog because you want to cheer him up. Instead crouch down with palms up, call the dog over and see what the dogs does. If he comes over to you, great he made the choice to come see you (that doesn’t mean you gained the right to pet him over his head or touch his ears though). If he doesn’t, he doesn’t want to get that close to you at this time and you need to respect that.
Trust is not something you’re automatically given just because you love dogs and are here to help. It’s something that you have to earn over time. It needs to be the dog’s decision, not yours.
4. Focus on Long Term Goals
Once again I’m going to tell you to focus on the big picture. We need to do the things today that will help give each dog a better chance at a great tomorrow (and forever). This takes a bit of thought to understand what our goals are and how we can best accomplish them.
In rescue our goal is always to find each dog the right home. So, how can we further that cause by the little things we do every day?
Here’s something I see all the time at shelters that is hurting the chances of getting dogs adopted. A volunteer comes into to spend some time with the dogs in the shelter, takes a dog out of his kennel and brings him over to a fenced in area for some off leash play time so he can get some exercise and shake off the kennel craziness. The dog gets to run around as fast as he can, playing with toys and bouncing off the walls and then is returned to his kennel pooped out.
Why is this bad, you might be asking?
This did let the dog get some much needed exercise and make his today a little better. But how did it increase his chances for adoption? Yes, giving him that release helps keep him sane in the shelter environment but could we be doing more? I say yes.
The problem here is that there’s no structure – just excited chaos and over time that’s the association the dog is going to make with being taken out of his kennel. So when a potential adopter comes to see him he comes out of the kennel like a rocket, is jumping all over, not paying attention to them so the people think he’s a maniac and are not able to make a connection with him.
Providing exercise is important but it needs to happen differently. I prefer to start off with some structure, then a little training followed by the reward of play at the end. Take the dog out of the kennel and go for a short walk, then do some simple obedience (sits and eye contact are all you really need) and then go into the play area where you do structured play – even play needs to be structured. You can do that by just doing some simple training (once again sits and eye contact) while playing. Practice getting the dog excited and then calm again.
The goal is to get the dogs used to looking to people and rewarding some manners so that when someone comes to see him he will show well and be able to connect with them.
5. Better Communication
A problem in rescue is that volunteers are all on different schedules, doing different things without knowing what everyone else is doing. There’s no consistency and this makes for an unorganized rescue that’s not leveraging their efforts. You need to all work together with common goals so that we can see quicker and greater results.
The first way to accomplish this is to have systems in place and make everyone aware of them. If everyone knows the protocol for what they are supposed to be doing when they go to work with a dog (ex. walk first, then training, then play) or the chain of events when someone is interested in a dog then there is less confusion and you’ll all be helping move forward instead of everyone spinning in circle, going nowhere.
Make sure you have some way for volunteers to know what others are doing with the dogs. Just listing what time each dog last went out is not enough. You need to know what the last person did with the dog, how they were doing and how you can contribute best.
Kennel cards, daily binder or big white board can do this on site and a Facebook group is a cheap and effective way online. Everyone’s on Facebook anyway and it’s easy to just let everyone else know what’s going on and what needs to be done. It will keep you guys connected as a group, helping you work together on common goals and increase the camaraderie of the group.
6. Educate Adopters Better
You can’t assume that people who adopt a new dog from you actually have any idea of how to take care of him (no matter what they tell you). It’s our job to educate each person who takes home a dog on how to help the dog adjust and how to make sure they stay together forever.
Provide them with some written handouts that go over some basic tips so that they know what to expect when they get their dog home and how to deal with things that may arise. I would include a sheet on house training for puppies as well as what to do with a full grown dog that is house trained but may have some accidents during the adjustment period (which is very common).
You should also tell them not to give the dog too much freedom too quickly. Explain the honeymoon period and tell them to use a crate in the beginning (unless the dogs has anxiety issues with crating). Many dogs get into trouble early on because they are given the run of the house before they are ready for it.
I like to also offer some online resources such as some helpful Youtube videos on training or some good blog posts or articles that you can link to. There’s lots of great free content online that you can point them to so they can get off to a good start.
Lastly you can develop relationships with some local trainers, vets, dog walkers, boarding facilities and daycares so they have a wide assortment of resources that can help them now and through the years ahead.
This takes a little time up front but if adopters are properly prepared for their new dogs there’s a much greater chance they will stay put for good.
7. Follow Up
The day you adopt a dog out is not the end, it’s just a new beginning. What you do from this point on can really impact whether a dog gets returned.
How are you following up with new adopter and when?
The first month or two are critical to be in contact with them so you can discover issues before they become “deal breakers” and troubleshoot them. By the time the adopter calls you to tell you of a problem it’s been going on for too long and they are probably at the point of frustration (which isn’t good for anyone).
Ideally I like to reach out to them at the two week, one month, three month and six month marks. You can call them for those, which is always the best option, however you may not have time or the ability to remember to do it every time. The good news is you can automate this by using email marketing software like Mailchimp or Aweber.
When someone adopts a dog from us I add them to our adopter email list which automatically sends them a welcome email (containing all that great education we just talked about), then check up emails at the one, three and six month marks. I set up the emails once and then they go out automatically without my involvement. How cool is that?
It’s an easy way to have the follow up without taking any more of your valuable time. Yes, most of these programs do cost money but are very affordable – and it’s well worth it to keep these dogs in their happy homes.
Ready to Raise The Bar?
Okay there you have it, my best tips on doing rescue better that I’ve battle tested over the years. Figure out where you and your rescue may be falling short or could use some improvement and make the necessary changes. I know you’ll see the difference.
I believe we need to take rescue to a whole new level. If we educate ourselves and work together we can work smarter and save so many more lives. Just the fact that you have read to this point tells me that you are dedicated to do what it takes to improve all you do. I salute you.