Thursday, November 11, 2010

on adoption events

Many of us in rescue are encouraged to bring our foster dogs to adoption events, by rescue groups that are eager to get their dogs adopted out so they can save more lives. Many rescue groups even have a policy that dictates all foster dogs must go to a certain number of adoption events, regardless of the dog's temperament or background.

This one-size-fits-all policy does a disservice to many of the dogs who end up in rescue, who may not respond well to the pressure of exposure to many new people and/or other dogs all at once. For rescue dogs who are fearful, a few hours at an adoption event just adds another trauma to what may already be a long list, requiring further rehabilitation and training to recover. Many of these dogs may spend the entire event huddled behind a bush, or barking at other dogs, or bristling when people come up to meet them. This not only makes their chances of being adopted very small, but allows them to practice these frightened, reactive behaviors and get even better at being fearful and reactive.

All good training--training that has a chance of teaching behaviors that stick and are well-learned--works with a dog sub-threshold. This means that we keep our dogs in a place where they can remain calm and comfortable, whether by working with them at a distance from things that upset them (giving lots of treats as soon as they see another dog from a distance, but before they start getting upset) or by working with just a mild case of what upsets them (exposing to just one or two new people at a time, instead of a whole crowd).

When you think about it, for many fearful or reactive rescue dogs, an adoption event is a perfect example of the very old-school method of flooding--over-exposing a dog to something in the hopes that he'll "just get over it"--a method that has been shown to increase fear and reactivity in dogs (although in the short term, the dog may appear calmer because it is overwhelmed and just shuts down). At an adoption event, dogs are standing around amidst many other dogs, encountering people they have never met before, many of whom are coming up to them and touching them without asking. For dogs with "personal space" issues, this can be very stressful.

As I realized with my foster dog Pax--who spent the entire two hours of an adoption event barking and lunging--not all dogs are meant for adoption events. I should have realized it even sooner, with my foster dog Foster, who spent adoption events huddled behind me out of sight. Those experiences didn't help Foster or Pax feel more at ease, and they didn't get them adopted either.

In fact, in 3+ years of fostering and placing dozens of dogs and cats, only 1 found his forever home at an adoption event (that was PJ, who was pretty darn well adjusted). The vast majority of my dogs have met their adopters online. Here are some things you can do to promote your fosters without exposing them to the stress of adoption events.
  1. Craigslist ads. Go to, find your town or city, and click on "post" in the upper right. All kinds of people visit craigslist, so you'll have to screen carefully, but you should be doing so anyway.
  2. Petfinder. This terrific site allows adopters to search by breed and by location. You'll have to register to get an account, or ask the rescue group you work with for its ID and password. Be sure to upload a few sweet pictures, or even better, a video.  
  3. Petfinder ads can also be printed out, making it easy to create a flyer you can post at pet shops, vet offices, training facilities, etc.
  4. Get an "Adopt Me" vest or bandanna, and bring your dog to parks or along popular trails. If you are working with a rescue group, they should have some vests you can use; you can also order them from These environments, while certainly too stressful for some shy dogs, may be less stressful than an adoption event because they permit a dog to move around and because there is less social pressure to behave a certain way--for dogs and handlers! If you think your shy dog can handle a trail or a park, be sure you bring treats and reward her for calmly looking at and interacting with other dogs and people.
  5. Outfit your pup in his vest, and go to a pet store. Most pet stores will be happy for you to come inside and speak with prospective adopters, and have your own personal adoption event. This allows your dog to meet new people one at a time, with fewer other dogs around, and is less stressful for the fearful dog...although of course, even this is too much for some dogs! Call first to make sure this is OK with the pet store folk.
  6. Post your pet to neighborhood and community email listserves. 
These are just a few of the ways resourceful rescue groups and fosters can help their pups get adopted, without making them go through a level of stress they may not be ready for. If you have more, please feel free to share them. 


  1. Such a wonderful post! I wish shelters and rescues would be more selective with the dogs they choose to bring to events, how long the dogs are at the events without a break out of the limelight, and how they respond to the dog's stress level.

    I was at an event some time ago when a scuffle broke out between two pit bull mixes up for adoption. They started the day as good friends and were both very comfortable together. One of the dogs became very stressed out and after 3 hrs at the event started to get snarky with the other dog and ultimately really started a scuffle. The dog was barking/lunging at people in costumes and the other dogs around... the dog was a safe and sound dog for the first 1.5-2hrs but 3hrs in the limelight was stressful and he became quite edgy and the handlers did nothing to get him out of the situation. It was starting to get scary ... he was to the point where he could have bitten someone and it really wouldn't have been his fault.. he'd been telling them for about an hour that he was no longer comfortable.

  2. Thanks for your great comment and your great post on crowd stresss.

    Three hours is a lot for anyone to be in the limelight! I do wish more rescue groups were familiar with the principles we think about as positive trainers, but old habits die hard...

  3. I don't think our breed rescue does much in the way of adoption events. I never have seen any on their website. That being said I know that adoptable dogs seem to go quickly. They work mostly from applications on hand.


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