Playing Matchmaker

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So you've found a prospective adopter! Great! Now you have to figure out whether this adopter would be a good match for your foster dog.

Most adopters are good people who want to do the right thing. They are, after all, applying to adopt a homeless dog instead of just buying one from a pet store. And they are applying for your particular foster dog because something about that dog connected with them. Please keep these things in mind; the adoption interview should not be an inquisition to see if these people are "worthy" or a hostile cross-examination geared toward finding flaws in their dog-raising practices, but a cordial, pressure-free conversation. Even if you ultimately decide that this is not the best match for your foster dog, there's nothing to be gained by making people feel bad for trying. Interacting with a rescue group should always be a positive experience for the prospective adopter.

Joey, a pup from Leland, Mississippi, who was adopted from WAGS in June 2008

If the adopter has already submitted an application to WAGS and been approved, then you have some information to use as a starting point. Review the application and see if anything sticks out as a potential source of concern or something you'd want clarified. Especially in the hubbub of a busy adoption event, the volunteers processing applications often don't have time to add an in-depth interview on top of the routine paperwork, so the burden falls on you to make sure that this is truly a good fit.

You're looking for three things, as Pam Green so neatly summarized in her article "Interviewing Prospective Adopters":

  1. Commitment to and responsibility for the dog
  2. Knowledge and understanding of the dog's needs and good caretaking practices
  3. Love for the dog

Observe how the adopter interacts with your foster pup. Ideally they will treat the dog with gentleness and respect, carefully watching the dog for signs of affection or discomfort and reacting accordingly. Also watch how your foster furball responds. Sometimes dogs make their preferences very clear; one of my fosters took it upon herself to reject two perfectly nice adopters in no uncertain terms. (That was the one I had for three months. She was a picky dog, and it took her a long time to find the people she loved. But once she did, she bailed on me and never looked back.)

Ask the adopters why they want a dog. Hopefully the answer will be something along the lines of "I want a close companion" or "to be a part of my family." Then ask what that means. What activities will the dog partake in? What would a day in this dog's life entail? Where would she sleep and eat? How many hours per day would she spend home alone, and how would she be kept out of trouble during that time? Are they committed to ensuring that the dog gets enough exercise? Most of this information should come out as the conversation flows naturally, but it may be helpful to keep a notepad and a checklist of questions to use as prompts if the need arises.

Find out if the adopter has other pets currently or has had them in the past. Not only do you want to be sure that your foster dog is going to be able to live safely and happily with any current companions, but you want to know how this person treated his or her pets in the past.

Chester, adopted from WAGS in September 2011

How long did this person have those other pets? Watch out for adopters whose prior dogs mysteriously kept "running away," or were "uncontrollable," or are described in unduly disparaging terms. You want someone who shows clear love for his dogs, provided a stable life for them, and, if need be, arranged a gentle end in the twilight of their days rather than letting them suffer.

How were they trained? Use of punishment-based training on prior dogs may not necessarily be a dealbreaker -- the revolution in positive training is relatively recent, and many people felt uncomfortable with older methods but used them because they were unaware of better alternatives -- but be wary of anyone who brags about using these methods, claims that the dog somehow deserved to be beaten into compliance, or is resistant to learning about positive training techniques. I once spoke to a prospective adopter who told me proudly about how he "broke the will" of his prior "untrainable" dog and hit her periodically to keep her obedient. He was not interested in hearing about other methods. Needless to say, he did not go home with my dog.

Has the adopter been confronted with any medical or behavioral problems in other pets? Any bad habits? If so, how did the adopter address them? Look for evidence that this person is truly committed to his dog and worked to resolve any issues in a humane, effective manner. Not everyone can afford to spend thousands of dollars on medical treatment for a sick or injured dog, but you do want someone who undertook the measures they could afford. Oftentimes the best owners are those who rose to the challenge of dealing with a "problem dog" who demanded more from them as trainers and caregivers than an easier dog might have. A wise instructor once told me: those are the dogs that make you a great trainer. If your prospective adopter had such a dog in the past, find out all you can about how she dealt with those challenges. It will tell you a great deal about how she's likely to deal with your foster.

An indulgent, permissive owner is not necessarily a bad match if your foster dog is extremely sweet and submissive, but would not be a good fit for a dog who needs more structure. Conversely, an owner who believes he needs to be a harsh, unforgiving "alpha" is not a good fit for any dog. And be wary of anyone who claims that previous dogs never had a single solitary health problem or annoying quirk. There is not a dog on the planet who hasn't at least pooped in the house or eaten a book once.

Find out if there are children in the household, how old they are, and what their behavior is like. Ask if the adopters intend to have more children. A young dog coupled with young children (under 5 years) can be a recipe for disaster, especially if both parents work long hours and don't have much experience with dogs. Not only might small children inadvertently provoke the dog into biting, but it's entirely possible that the parents' attention, patience, and resources might be absorbed by the children, with nothing left over for a puppy in need of intensive training. At that point, the dog might become a burden rather than a joy, and is likely to be returned to the rescue or dumped.

If the children often have friends over, particularly if they're young and/or noisy friends, shy dogs or ones who tend to guard against unfamiliar people may not be good matches for that home. A gregarious, never-met-a-stranger pup would probably be a better choice. In general, a calm, mature dog is a better match for a family with small children, but regardless of the dog they choose, be sure that everyone in the family is committed to the adoption. It is not realistic to expect the children to do that work; the adults are the ones who must be responsible. Be sure that prospective adopters really understand how much work is involved in training, socializing, and supervising a new dog with their family, and that they are absolutely committed to doing the work.

Dexter, formerly "Pluto," adopted from Carpathia Paws in July 2011

While many families do just fine and never have any serious problems at all, when things do go bad, they go very bad. If your foster pup loves children, the kids seem appropriately respectful of the dog, and the family seems truly committed, by all means, go forward with the adoption, but please proceed cautiously in these situations.

In many cases, you will find yourself educating the prospective adopter about one issue or another. See how receptive they are to the information. In my experience, most adopters are eager to learn about their furry new family member (although it can be a lot to absorb and many people are overwhelmed by the amount of information, which is one reason that I like to hand out a copy of Patricia McConnell's booklet Love Has No Age Limit with every adopted dog -- it's handy to have a hard copy that they can refer back to as needed!). Occasionally, however, you will encounter someone who is dismissive of anything you have to say, convinced that they already know everything, and/or of the opinion that it's ridiculous that they should have to be educated about how to care for a dog. Not coincidentally, these tend to be poor candidates for adoption. I just grit my teeth, smile, terminate the interview, and move on.

Finally, broach the topic of a home visit. Explain that the purpose of a home visit is not to find reasons to reject an application (by now you should already have a good sense of whether you're comfortable placing your foster dog in this home), but to help dog-proof the house and remove potential trouble spots before the new foster pup arrives. You may not actually do the home visit, but you do want to see how the adopter reacts to the suggestion. If the person becomes defensive or declines a visit, that's a big red flag. If the adopter welcomes the suggestion and wants to schedule the visit right away, that's a great sign.


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