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Adoption Innovation: Rethinking Returns

An innovative program treats adoption returns as opportunities rather than failures.

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Ollie was adopted through the open-returns program. Read his story.

When Prairie Paws Animal Shelter in Ottawa, Kansas, received our $3,000 Kia Pet Adoption Grant to reduce or waive adoption fees, Executive Director Vanessa Cowie decided to try out an innovative approach to adoptions: The shelter waived fees for cats and dogs who’d been at the shelter longer than two weeks, and adopters were told they could return the pets at any time, for any reason, with no financial downside — and, more importantly, no judgment.

“Waiving the adoption fees allowed adopters to try out dogs in the home they typically wouldn’t have tried,” Cowie wrote in her grant report. “If the adoption didn’t work out, the dog could be returned, risk-free, and the adopter could try another dog.”

The results? “These trial adoptions were incredibly successful,” Cowie wrote. “Not only did this grant help us place 39 of our pets into loving homes, these 39 were our pets with the longest lengths of stay.”

I spoke with Cowie to get more information about this new approach to pet returns.

How did you get the idea for this program?

Every shelter has long-stay dogs. What we noticed is that if they stay with us for two weeks, they are more likely to stay with us for six months. It was almost like this two-week period was an indicator. 

I knew that the Petfinder Foundation did these fee-waived [grants], and I needed a way to fund the adoption fees of that population of dogs and cats without sacrificing the shelter’s revenue. [So] we could fund an idea, and it was risk-free for us and risk-free for the adopters. It was like, we’re going to get the adoption fee anyway, so let’s target the population of dogs that need this.  

We also realized that, if they get returned once, they’re more likely to get returned twice. So it was like, ok, these dogs that stay here for more than two weeks, and cats as well, if they get returned after that amount of time, they are statistically more likely to get returned again. So let’s look at this as if they are definitely going to be returned. And how will we approach this now that we know that this is the most likely outcome?

That totally changed the way we approached those adoption consultations. Having this Petfinder Foundation funding, it was like: “Don’t worry about the adoption fee. These cats and dogs are fee-waived for a reason: We need them to go into two homes before they find their forever home. Can you be one of the homes that helps them get one step closer to their forever home?” 

The adopters were like, “I get that you need basically two households to try this dog or cat out to give you enough information to know what their forever home even looks like.” 

When a pet would get returned, we had a Google sheet that listed the date, which animal it was that was funded by the grant, and — say it was a $100 dog adoption fee; it would say “Spencer, $100,” and the date, and it just calculated. If Spencer came back, which he did — and most of them did, that was the point — then we would take him off the list. So it’s not like he consumed grant money every time he got adopted. It was that for that one dog, the grant funded him coming in and out three times during that [period]. And of all the animals that we adopted through this, there was only one out of all those 39 that came back outside of the grant period. So they all got forever homes except for one, of 39. And those animals had been with us for a long, long time.

We need them to go into two homes before they find their forever home. Can you be one of the homes that helps them get one step closer to their forever home?”

Could you do it without the sponsored adoption fees? Say, offer two-week trial adoptions and then charge the fee at the end of that period if the family decides to keep the pet?

I think what changed the whole program was that we didn’t give people a timeline. We didn’t say the trial was two weeks, 10 days, or three weeks. They didn’t know how long they had to find a behavior problem. They could still return these animals tomorrow if they wanted to. We didn’t give them a deadline. We didn’t know when to charge [the adoption fee,] because we never did.

It just takes the revenue piece out of the equation.

Yeah. Now we know, too, that about $2,000 to $3,000 is what it takes to run this for a month, with a shelter of our size, and get 40 of our most difficult animals out. So if we did that twice a year, we know what we need to run it, how long to run it, and what the results should be. Which is awesome!

Neo, who was also adopted through the program

When someone returned one of the pets, did you go through a debriefing with them to get information to add to the pet’s file?

Yes. We would tell them that at the time of adoption, “This animal got returned once before.” And they would go, “Oh, how horrifying!” And we would say, “No no no no, the reason we’re telling you is because we learned X, Y, and Z. So you may very well want to return this dog because of those behaviors, and it’s fine. They’re fine.” And we would also tell them, “Don’t be afraid of returning. It’s the same as a foster.”

We had to change our volunteers’ perception of this, because they would villainize anyone who returned an animal.

That was my next question. That’s a dramatic mindset change.

Right. As soon as we knew we wanted returns, and were encouraging returns in a different way, we had to totally take down [the notion] that somehow this was traumatic to the dog. You know, volunteers would take dogs home to foster for the weekend. Do you think the dog knows the difference between being fostered and being adopted and returned? No, they don’t! There’s no research to support that they’re traumatized by the in and out process. 

The sentence that we started to say was: This dog needs to be returned three times. Statistically, the pattern we’re seeing with this dog is, he needs three experiences in a home. You’re not willing to foster him, but an adopter is willing to take him home for two weeks or three weeks or whatever they’re comfortable with. And we’d actually process the adoption, so they are legally the owner of that dog, but they get to bring him back any time, which is already our policy.

[We had] to tell the volunteers that: That returns are really helpful for difficult dogs, we learn more, we go into it knowing that they’re likely to get returned, we communicate that to the adopter, and we get multiple debriefs. We get adopters going, “Hey, you know how you said that the last home said he wasn’t good with dogs? Well, we know why that is. It was because of a certain situation. With our neighbor’s dog, they got along great, but we had them in this circumstance.”

And so we could piece together a better version of the story, have a lot more information, and be able to communicate that to the next person.

Ollie was the one that I put in the grant report. That dog had been through our shelter double-digit times! 

Do you think the dog knows the difference between being fostered and being adopted and returned? No, they don’t!”

Did his final adopters have a 30-foot wall?

(Laughs) He was beautiful — a gorgeous purebred golden retriever, just stunning. Never knew a stranger; the most friendly dog on the planet. And so when you say “Ollie’s been returned nine times,” they’re like, “Oh my god, why?” And we could say specifically what type of fence would keep him in and specifically what type of crate would work, because we had nine people experiment with him.

And every one of those people who returned Ollie adopted a different dog from us. So we didn’t lose adopters. And we communicated that at the time of adoption, too: “If it doesn’t work out, we really encourage you to meet another dog, because we will learn more about your lifestyle and the type of dog that is a good fit for you. And when you bring this one back, I bet you there’s another one you can try.”

So we had these families bringing in, taking out, saying, “Ollie did this, this, and this; I really think the next home should use this type of fence because our neighbors had that type of fence and he never got out of that, but we just can’t change our fence and we would like a dog that’s more like this.”

So it became more of like, a trying on shoes experience (laughs).

So rather than villainizing people who return pets, you’re engaging them as your research team so they become your collaborators rather than your opponents.

One other big thing we had to change, [was that] our adoption counselors used to take a photo with the pet [upon adoption] and post every single one on social media. And I said, we’re stopping this, because the return rate is 12%.

That was a really hard pill to swallow for the volunteers, because they want to celebrate every single adoption in real time, and it’s like, but that’s not the world we live in. You’ve put so much pressure on that family now to keep that dog forever, when it may not be a good fit. And I know that dog has a return history of eight times! We’re not celebrating this adoption! We’re not going “Al finally got a home” until we know that [the adopters are] really comfortable with us celebrating it.

So we don’t celebrate every single adoption. We celebrate very specific ones, or we have an alumni [Facebook] page where we let them celebrate themselves, so adopters can, in their own time, go, “Hey, it’s really working out with Al. I know you guys really liked him. Here’s some photos of him, we’re hiking, we’re doing this.” 

We even stopped using this language of “forever home.” Because these are just regular human beings trying to adopt a dog. 

Is it still a struggle with the volunteers?

It’s still a struggle with some. We have volunteers who have been with the organization for 15 years. Change is hard, and this was a lot of change in a really short amount of time. And with my leadership style, there’s been a lot of reducing the barriers to adoption and eliminating as many as we can. So this was just another ingredient in a much bigger pie: “AND we’re not going to call landlords, AND we’re not going to require that people have a fence, AND we’re not going to look up the BSL ordinances in your town if you want to adopt a pit bull.” 

How did you get your staff on board?

We cross train, so our adoption counselors and our animal-care technicians are the same employees. On some days they’re cleaning kennels, they’re medicating, they’re exercising dogs, and they’re running playgroups. And on other days, they’re at the front desk processing adoptions.

The reason I wanted it that way — obviously we have a small enough staff, we only have 10 employees — I wanted them to know the dogs. So when they were adopting out a dog, I didn’t want them to go, “Hey, I don’t know anything about this dog; let me go get someone who does.” I wanted them to say, “He does this in playgroups, he loves the pool.”

But I also wanted them to have a vested interest in getting them out. And if you are in animal care, you get attached to the dogs; you want to see them get out. I don’t have to tell you to do it because you want it to happen. So I really didn’t have to get any buy-in from the staff, because every single adoption counselor has a vested interest in the best outcome for every animal because they care for them every day.

Did having this different attitude toward adopters change your shelter’s relationship with your community?

Yeah. it did. Even the way they talked about the shelter on the alumni page was different. And the Google reviews, all the stuff that you shouldn’t read late at night but you do (laughs). A perfect story was a dog who came through the Kia promotion a couple times — Neo, a three-legged pit bull — who finally got a really good home. And that adopter just recently posted on the alumni page, “Hey! I know everyone really loved Neo. Here he is with our kids at the park.”

And another alumni was like, “I had Neo for two weeks! That’s so awesome! Now I have Sarge.” And someone else wrote, “Hey, I had Sarge for two weeks!”

So they really become a community themselves.

They did. And there was no, “You jerk, you returned Neo.” It was like, “Yeah, but we ended up with this dog instead.” It totally changed the dynamic of pet owners to pet owners. It got everyone off their high horse. No one was self-righteous, because no one’s the perfect pet owner any more. There was no, “You failed the dog.” It was, “You did the right thing, because now look at the home he’s in, and now look at the dog you have, and look how perfect those families look now.” Whereas if you switched those dogs, [you’d have] two very unhappy families.

[In addition,] we also then got to go, we are not really going to vet you that closely. Because if it doesn’t work out, bring him back. We’re not going to go, “Oh you don’t run three miles a day, every day?”

I think it made us much less judgmental and easier to work with. There was a free flow of information [from adopters]. They would say, “Hey, we left him in a crate for eight hours and he did this.” Normally they would lie about that. They would say, “We were walking him 12 times a day and he still chewed up the sofa.”

[Instead,] it was “We did this, and this was the outcome,” whereas I think if you go into it [with the attitude that], “You need to be the very best pet owner every single day for the rest of this pet’s life,” they will never communicate to you the situations in which these incidents happened.

So it made everyone more transparent. It made the adopters much more accepting of each other, it made the volunteers happier over time because now they can see these posts. It’s just a slower thing, because Neo’s adopter didn’t post until August and they got him in May, and the whole time, the volunteers were like, “They’ve probably got him locked in a dungeon, they probably sold him on Craigslist.”

It’s just like, give the adopters time to feel comfortable enough to promote their own experience. We’re not going to take that from them, and it will be so much more genuine and so much more worth the wait when you see this real piece of information that we didn’t choreograph and we didn’t script from here at the shelter. We’re now seeing a change of mindset in the volunteers because we’re starting to see happy endings.

There was no, ‘You failed the dog.’ It was, ‘You did the right thing, because now look at the home he’s in.’ “

Pets take a few months to settle in and decompress, so if you get feedback after that, you know it’s authentic.

Yup. Everyone just had to take a little bit of pressure off of everyone else. Take the pressure off the dog, off the staff, off the adopter; everyone just relax a little and try it out and see how it goes. 

Having the funding to back it was important too, because the people who bust their butts to raise money, they needed to know that we weren’t sacrificing $3,000 in adoption revenue.

What would you say to someone who’s concerned that people who want free pets are going to be subpar pet owners?

We know there’s no bearing on [a fee-waived pet] being mistreated or being loved any less, but I have seen shelters say, “Our returns do go up [when we waive fees].” But it’s not because of the adopters, it’s because you’ve lowered a barrier on an animal who needed it, and you got him out! And that’s great that you got a return, because it means you got an adoption, and you got him out.

Even if your return rate is higher for fee-waived adoptions, it’s because those dogs were more likely to be returned anyway. And you need to get a couple of returns under their belts to get them into a home that’s a good fit.

–Emily Fromm, Chief Development Officer

Further Reading