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Too difficult to adopt a dog?

How to get your pet adoption application approved

About 350,000 homeless dogs and cats were killed in U.S. shelters in 2020, according to Best Friends. That number has dropped significantly in the last 10 years, which is wonderful! When I first wrote this article in 2012, that number was still in the several million.

Today, people still hear and read statements such as “There just aren’t enough homes” or “Urgent! Needs rescue by Friday!” Yet, when they attempt to adopt an animal, their applications are still rejected. Worse, many potential adopters don’t hear back from the shelters at all.

It doesn’t quite add up, does it?

Every adoption agency is different, of course. Some are totally reasonable. They welcome a wide variety of adopters and see each person and each pet as individuals. They keep their adoption fees as low as possible.

They don’t do background checks or home visits. The application process is intended to match each person up with the right pet.

Others shelters and rescues are a bit “nutty” to put it nicely. In an apparent attempt to protect the animals, the volunteers and staff members use strict, across-the-board policies. Adoption fees are outrageous. Background checks and extensive home visits are required, along with invasive questions:

Do you plan to have a baby, ever? Do you plan to get married? Will you be moving, ever? Have you ever given up a dog, for any reason? Are all your animals licensed?

Too difficult to adopt a dog

People are heartbroken when they are told they can’t adopt because they can’t offer a “good” enough home.

The whole adoption process is easier when you know what to expect. So this is my attempt to help as many people as possible go into the adoption experience with the right expectations.

**This is an emotional topic that tends to trigger people. Be kind to one another and to me in the comments. Thank you!**

Tips to help your dog adoption application get accepted

1. Research the different pounds/shelters and rescues in your area.

It’s easy to get confused by all the different terms – shelter, humane society, rescue group, pound, impound, holding facility, adoption agency, etc. What is the difference?

The meanings of these words vary from city to city or county to county. Each community is different. Yes, this is very confusing.

Some pounds serve as the city’s public shelter and will adopt dogs out to the public. They are often less picky about who can adopt. Other pounds will only allow rescue groups to obtain the dogs.

Familiarize yourself with the shelter system for your own city or county. Look up the various websites or make phone calls to find out which animals are available for adoption to the general public. Emails often go unanswered due to staff/volunteer shortage. So calling is usually better.

Two black labs
Ace and my foster dog, Dora

City or county pounds and shelters are usually the least picky about who can adopt because there is urgency to get the dogs out. Rescue groups are pickier because their animals are often living in foster homes and are not in danger of being killed at a shelter.

2. Visit the shelter in person before applying.

Go to the shelter or to an adoption event and introduce yourself to whoever looks in charge. Express interest in adopting and volunteering. Ask questions about the organization.

Tell the volunteers or staff members a bit about yourself (but not too much). Don’t admit to having indoor/outdoor cats, for example. Don’t mention you’ve used a an e-collar or chain slip collar.

You want to make a good impression as a good dog owner before you turn in your adoption application. It’s much easier for the volunteers to judge and reject people they have never met.

3. Become a volunteer.

If you are genuinely interested in becoming a volunteer, sign up to do so. Although, this process can also take several months so I’m just throwing it out there as an option. I know not everyone has the time to do so.

Most shelters and rescues are in need of additional volunteers. This is a great way to help animals, and it’s a great way to have an “in” for adopting.

Unfortunately, there is quite the double standard when it comes to volunteers adopting a dog vs. the general public adopting a dog.

If you foster for the rescue and you have 6 dogs at your house, you are a hero. If you are not a volunteer with the rescue and you have 6 dogs at your house, you may be called a “hoarder” and banned from adopting. I’ve seen it happen.

The KC Dog Blog wrote a good post about this double standard. Very interesting.

4. Read over the adoption requirements.

Once you know which groups have animals for adoption, familiarize yourself with the adoption procedures. Typically these are available online.

Look up the fees and requirements. You can expect the fee to be anything from about $100 to $900. Breed-specific rescues will charge on the higher end, especially for puppies. They can charge this much because there is a BIG demand and people will pay it.

The adoption requirements vary greatly, but expect to see wording such as “all pets must be spayed/neutered,” “all pets must be up to date on vaccinations,” “must own a fenced yard,” “we require a home visit/background check,” “must provide three references” and “all pets must live indoors.”

5. Read over the adoption application.

Most shelters have adoption applications on their websites these days. Look for questions such as “Do you own a fenced yard?” Or “Do you allow your cats outdoors?” Some shelters use these questions to automatically weed people out. If you answer “incorrectly” you will be on the naughty list.

On the other hand, some shelters are simply trying to match each pet up with the right family. Some cats may need to be outdoor cats if they have litter box issues, for example. And dogs don’t need a fenced yard to be happy. Some will even climb right over a fence.

6. Be cautious about admitting …

… to re-homing an animal for any reason.

Although there are perfectly good reasons for re-homing an animal, rescues don’t always see it that way. For some organizations, if someone has re-homed an animal, she will automatically be banned from adopting. I have seen this happen with the rescues where I was a volunteer.

If you re-homed an animal in the past, don’t even mention it. If you feel like the topic can’t be avoided, then don’t say you re-homed the animal because of a new baby or because you were moving. You re-homed it because you knew the animal would be happier with your daughter/best friend/etc.

…  you’re pregnant.

Some rescues are under the impression that anyone who has a baby will re-home her animals. It’s ridiculous, I know, but some rescues won’t adopt to homes with kids. It’s unfortunately one of the blanket policies you could run into.

If you’re dealing with one of those rescues, your personal references should be warned not to mention your plans for children.

… any plans or thoughts about moving.

Because, you know, everyone who moves abandons their animals. Make sure all your personal references are well aware of your plans to stick around forever 🙂

… you own indoor/outdoor cats or barn cats.

I saw a man get rejected on the spot from adopting a cat when he casually mentioned a time he took an outdoor photo of his current cat. Oops! No cat for him! Kitties should “never” be outdoors.

For the sake of the application process, just consider all your cats “indoor only” cats. If you slip and mention something about your cat being outdoors, just add “oh, on a leash and harness!”

If you have barn cats, don’t mention them, especially if they are not spayed/neutered or vaccinated (and I do think you should get them fixed, if possible!). If you provide any food or shelter for feral cats, don’t mention them, either.

… you own an outdoor kennel.

Yes, you would think this would be ideal for a lot of dogs. It certainly would. The dog would have access to the yard while you are at work as well as shelter in the garage or house.

However, these kinds of kennels or dog doors are a huge red flag on adoption applications. Some rescues are extremely leery of these because they fear the dogs will spend too much time outdoors and won’t be a part of the family.

I’ve seen applications get rejected – no questions asked – because the person mentioned an outdoor kennel.

If you have to pass a home visit and the person asks about the kennel, say something like “The previous owner built that, and we haven’t taken it down yet. Isn’t it ugly?”

7. All your dogs are indoor dogs.

For the sake of avoiding rejection, just say all of your dogs sleep in the house at night and live indoors. If you plan to adopt a dog to live outdoors most of the time, don’t mention it. Be prepared for rejection if you do.

If the subject can’t be avoided, tell the volunteer you will be outside with the dog all day while working together on your farm. Make sure to say the dog will be allowed to sleep in the house at night.

8. Get all your dogs and cats spayed/neutered.

I plan to keep my Labrador intact and unfortunately that means I won’t be able to adopt a dog from most shelters in the future.

There’s very little flexibility here. I see where rescues are coming from, but there are perfectly good reasons not to have an animal altered. I wish more rescues would look at each individual situation instead of enforcing a blanket policy.

If any of your animals are not spayed or neutered, be prepared to sit down with a volunteer and explain why you have chosen not to alter your animals. Be prepared to move on to another shelter or adopt a pet off of Craigslist.

9. Make sure all pets are “up to date” on shots.

There is not lot of flexibility here, either. If you choose not to vaccinate your pets for health reasons, be prepared for automatic rejection. I choose not to vaccinate my 16-year-old indoor cat who has kidney disease as he’s had plenty of vaccinations throughout his life. However, this is a reason most shelters will not allow me to adopt.

Hopefully the shelter manager will be open to talking with you, and this is when you should explain why it’s not best to vaccinate your specific animal. If you titer your dog, make sure to say so. Ask your vet to verify you are a responsible owner.

Most shelters will call your vet, which is another invasion of privacy but it is what it is.

Some rescues will go so far as to require you to show proof you have purchased a full year’s supply of heartworm prevention and flea prevention. Avoid those rescues. Dealing with them is not worth the trouble!

10. Agree to a home visit.

A “home visit” means a rescue volunteer will visit your home to make sure it is “appropriate” for a pet. It is also a time to shoot questions back and forth about the animal you are interested in.

If a volunteer asks if it’s OK to do a home visit, there is only one correct answer if you want to adopt from that organization – “yes.”

There is a chance the rescue won’t actually follow through with a home visit due to a volunteer shortage. And some do these visits for every single adopter.

Others only do them if there are any “red flags” such as owning an indoor/outdoor dog kennel or living on a farm. If you are not comfortable with a home visit (understandable!), keep looking until you find a shelter that does not do them. Many do not.

For the most part, the home visits are not too bad. I volunteered to do home visits for a rescue for several years and all I basically did was meet the person and see that they seemed reasonable. I had them show me their main living areas and yard and called it a day.

11. Stay calm and reasonable.

It’s easy for rescue volunteers to label you as the “crazy hoarder” or the “irresponsible owner,” especially if they don’t really know you. Be polite and respectful no matter what happens.

Also remember the volunteers don’t necessarily set the adoption requirements. They may not agree with all of the rescue’s policies. They are just doing their jobs.

12. Don’t give up.

If you truly want to adopt or rescue an animal, keep trying. There are always other shelters, other pounds, other rescue groups. Just because you have been rejected by one or two or 12 different rescues doesn’t mean you will be rejected by all rescues.

You can also try to adopt a dog directly from the previous owner. These dogs are often listed on Craigslist or you might find out about a dog in need through a Facebook group or through friends or co-workers.

13. Look for a dog on Craigslist.

There are thousands of dogs listed on Craigslist in need of new homes. Many will end up in the shelter system if their owners can’t re-home them. By adopting one of these dogs, you could be saving a life.

I adopted my dog Ace through an individual (not a rescue or shelter) and it was a very easy process. I would definitely do it again.

Note that there are also a lot of scams on Craigslist and people trying to sell or “flip” trendy breeds like French bulldogs or mini goldendoodles.

14. Don’t feel guilty if you end up going to a breeder.

“Rescuing” is not the only ethical way to obtain a dog. There are responsible breeders out there who will be happy to help you choose the right dog or puppy.

Some people will be shocked if you buy a puppy. They will say things like “If you buy a puppy, you are killing shelter dogs.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Dogs die in shelters because people who work in shelters are killing them. This happens even when plenty of good homes are available. The shelters are killing the dogs, not you.

Thank you for considering adopting a homeless animal, but you should be proud of your pet no matter how you obtain it.

Now I’d like to hear from you!

Do you think it’s too difficult to adopt a dog? Or do you think shelters are reasonable?

Let me know in the comments.

A Sanavongsay

Thursday 24th of February 2022

We were recently rejected at the local care and control shelter because something on my husband's background check got flagged. The shelter goes back for life. I thought about lying if I ever wanted to try again, but I'm not 100% sure if it would still work or if they would see he lives there and reject me for not including him on the form. Kind of at a loss :/

Lindsay Stordahl

Thursday 24th of February 2022

It's not typical for shelters & rescues to do background checks so I hope you can find another place to adopt a dog from. Best of luck.

Telly

Tuesday 15th of February 2022

My frustration with the adoption process is exactly how i found your article. I am a responsible pet owner and working adult, but because my mother ISN'T (her dog isn't fixed or vaccinated and she refuses to fence her yard) and i live with her, nobody will consider me! Her dog stays in her bedroom and doesn't really interact with the cat and tot in the house.

My dog would be walked twice daily, have supervised outdoor time with me as i love nature, and of course be fixed and vaccinated and healthy dog food. But with the price of breeders,obstacles with shelters, general lack of small non-yapoy dogs, and shadiness of 90% of craigslist posts, i am starting to feel i will have no choice but to get a dog from a pet shop instead.

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 15th of February 2022

It is hard to get a dog right now, I hear ya! Good luck with your search.

Telly

Tuesday 15th of February 2022

Excuse the spelling/grammar errors, i am on mobile.

Victor

Tuesday 12th of October 2021

Happiness is… We were looking for a dog to be a member of our family. The rescue dog we saw online looked like a good candidate. I called, and the less than pleasant woman at the rescue explained that my pre-application would have to be approved in order to see the dog. Then, if my full application was approved, I would have the privilege of paying $600 to take the dog home.

Instead, we found a new puppy on Craigslist, went to the home breeder’s house, handed over the cash and drove home with a puppy with no emotional baggage on my lap.

Everyone was happy. The rescue got to keep their precious dog to justify asking for more donations. We had an 8 week old puppy that has brought us much happiness. The breeder had cash in hand and could produce another puppy to replace that one. Everybody wins! Ok, maybe with the exception of the rescue dog.

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 12th of October 2021

Congrats on your new puppy.

Laura

Sunday 26th of September 2021

Rescue groups and shelters do the best they can under their circumstances. They are not intentional villains

Dave

Friday 11th of January 2019

I was recently hired as a kennel attendant at the local shelter, which was a dream come true. Part of the hiring process included checking my volunteer references, a background check, a drug test, and I provided a written reference from my veterinarian as well. I also used to run a non-profit animal rescue, which saved dogs from kill shelters and rabbits from laboratories. Lastly, I'm an Eagle Scout and seasonal firefighter. That being said...

While working, I had the opportunity to meet a dog who I thought would be a great match for our pack at home. Both of the dogs I've adopted in the past were smooth coated tan chihuahuas, the type that, statistically, have difficulty being adopted. I lost one of them to cancer last year and my remaining pup has been so lonely since. The dog in question wasn't available for adoption yet, but I inquired about adopting her once she was released from stray hold. I thought the shelter manager, my boss, would be happy, but I was reprimanded instead. Apparently, dogs are not to be adopted by staff unless they've been at the shelter for some unspecified length of time.

Confused, I gathered my thoughts and politely emailed the shelter manager for clarification of this "policy." It seemed strange to me that a fully vetted staff member who was responsible and trusted for taking care of dogs at the shelter would be denied the opportunity to provide a great home for one of these dogs. No response to my email.

I found being reprimanded for trying to do a good deed, ignored when asking for clarification, and the policy in general to be quite disturbing - to the point where I felt the need to resign from the job. But, guess what? Now I can adopt again!

Please, don't be turned off by shelters that employee difficult people. You're right, those people shouldn't be working with the public. They shouldn't be in leadership roles. But, try to look past that because the dogs there need your help.