What constitutes a suitable home for a dog?


In last week’s post, I shared the information that I was on the hunt for a dog – searching on behalf of a couple I know. Both husband and wife are athletes who run for fitness and would love to have a dog who could accompany them on runs. But they are also both nurses who have long work shifts, so a dog who lives with them will have to be able to endure a certain amount of time alone at home (nursing not being a work-from-home sort of job!).

The couple lives in an urban area, so when they are at work, their dog will spend most of his or her time in their house, though they have a dog-sitter lined up (their neighbor downstairs, who has a dog I found for him!) and a dog-walker. Both the sitter and the walker will be available to take the dog out for midday breaks, but nevertheless, I know that it’s important to find a dog for them who will be content and comfortable spending time home alone. Of course, any dog can experience an onset of isolation distress – or, worse, separation anxiety – upon rehoming. But my goal is to find a dog with a mellow, “happy to accept my fate” bent to his nature.

Then I saw a social media posting for a local dog who needed a new home. He had been surrendered by a family who were having some sort of housing crisis, and had been living on a chain in a fenceless backyard for some months. The family’s neighbor, heartbroken over the dog’s plight, had begged the family to be allowed to find the dog a new home, and they agreed it would make their own lives easier to not have a dog as they try to find their next housing situation.

Well, it was a lovely dog, just three years old – but one of a highly active breed. I sent an inquiry to the woman who had possession of the dog, asking about the dog’s personality, and one thing she said made me more than a little interested: She mentioned that, despite the fact that the dog had very little shelter and was living in mud and filth, was never allowed in the house, and got very little attention from his former owners, he never barked! “Ooh!” I thought. That sounded like a good candidate! We made arrangements to meet a day later so I could meet the dog. I told her I’d be happy to foster him so I could get him neutered, tested for heartworm, and get to know him better. After all that, I would know better if he was in fact a good candidate for the couple I had in mind, or, if not, I would commit to finding a more suitable home for him.

She brought the dog to my home the next day, and I was even more interested. He has a lovely temperament, was very neutral with my dogs – neither excited nor threatened by Woody’s rambunctious play overtures or Otto’s grumpy admonitions to “Hold still while I sniff you!” The dog was quite predatory around my chicken pen, but he took my admonishments to leave them alone in stride. The most concerning behavior I saw was how he ran along every inch of my fenceline, multiple times, looking through and over the fence as he loped along, stopping every once in a while to inspect its height or a low spot underneath it. I wouldn’t expect much different from the sort of hunting breed he is, but mentally, I was already warning his new owners to not let him off-leash for months, until they got to know him very well and had a good recall on a long line.

Alas: Neither I nor the couple I was hoping to place him with made the cut. The woman who was rehoming him made the decision to place him with another family she knew, because – and here is the kicker – their home is on five acres of land. She loved seeing him run, and imagined that with five acres, he’d live out his life running around that acreage in perfect happiness.

Factors that go into dog placement decisions

My take on that decision? I was bummed, both for the couple I had in mind and for the dog. I have no way of knowing this, and I’m not going to follow up just to see if I’m right, but I’d bet $100 right now that if the dog did, in fact, go to the five-acre family, within a week’s time he’s either going to be in the wind (lost, ran away) or in a small fenced and covered pen. Not many people I know have five securely fenced acres, and without such a fence, that dog is going to be going, going, gone!

This particular placement decision was up to an individual’s discretion, so it’s not a great example. But this seemed like a good opportunity to talk about placement criteria, which, in every case, seems like it should come down to more than just one factor.

Shelters and rescues sometimes have a formal list of rigid placement rules that they follow when considering prospective adopters; in other cases, shelters or rescues may have internal guidelines as to what constitutes a “qualified home,” but they will make exceptions for the right family/dog combination.

My local shelter gives prospective adopters a questionnaire that is intended to spark a conversation with the adoption counselor and the prospective adopter. There are no hard-and-fast “wrong answers” that people can give in response to these questions that will eliminate their chance of adopting any dog – but some of their answers may call for a discussion about whether it’s appropriate for them to adopt a specific dog.

Some dogs can be trusted or taught to stay within a boundary fence that they could easily slip under or through – and other dogs would see this as an opportunity to run off and see the world! A rule that says a prospective adopter must have a “fenced yard” does nothing to qualify or disqualify this dog and this fence as a match.

For example, while I’m aware that some shelters require adopters to have a fenced yard – which eliminates many great prospective placements! – my local shelter will weigh their preference for adopters to have a fenced yard against the size, age, breed type, and personality of the dog. If the prospect is a little senior couch potato, for example, a litterbox and/or leashed walks will be just fine!

My local shelter is perhaps most concerned about making appropriate placements to families with babies or toddlers. They worry about tiny dogs in families with toddlers – but will make an exception if they meet the child or children in a “get acquainted” room with the prospective dog, and see that the kids are very gentle, have self-control skills, that the parents are paying close attention and giving alert guidance to the kids, and so on. They won’t place anxious dogs or excitable dogs who have little self-control with a family with small kids – and will decline to adopt any dog to a family whose child seems bent on hurting a dog, or engaging in activities that are sure to make a dog defensive. That said, you won’t find these policies written down anywhere; they just try to have a conversation with parents about what they are observing and try to make it clear that it’s their job to make safe placements for the sake of all parties concerned.

My two cents: Hard-and-fast rules don’t allow for appropriate individualized placements.

In a placement competition, who should get the dog?

Then there are the cases where a shelter or rescue has to decide, to the best of their ability, which of several prospective adopters should get the dog.

Some groups have a first-come, first-served approach, where the first qualified adopter would get the dog. Others may send someone to conduct home inspections, and make their placement decision based on whose home and family really seem to suit the dog best. That’s amazing, but not possible for many rescues.

I have known people who have become frustrated about “losing” in what seemed to be an adoption competition – some, more than once! – and who relieved their frustration by just buying a puppy, either from some Craigslist/backyard breeder or a pet store that’s stocked weekly with new “inventory” from puppy mills. Yuck!

In some cases, the rationale for their rejection was ridiculous. I know someone who was turned down by a shelter to adopt a cat, because they own an intact female dog! This person is a long-time steward of an uncommon breed of dogs, and has been breeding these dogs in an incredibly careful, responsible, and limited manner for over 20 years, but Nope! No cat for you! That’s nuts.

I don’t want to cast aspersions on anyone who is involved in having to make adoption or placement decisions; I assume that anyone involved with rescue has a vested interest in making safe and appropriate placements for the “recycled” dogs in their care. And I don’t want to encourage people to express the incredibly insensitive statement that some shelter is making it harder to adopt a dog than a baby. It shouldn’t be too easy to adopt, and families should have to meet some sort of minimum standards for the dog’s health and happiness. But sometimes, these criteria are too rigid. Where is the middle ground that results in the best placements?

What are some of the rules or standards that shelters or rescues have for prospective adopters that you consider very sound or ridiculous?

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