How shelters and rescues failed when I adopted my first dog

The story of how I adopted my first dog exposes a common flaw in the U.S. shelter/rescue system – a lack of communication.

To get more dogs adopted, one of the most important factors is to quickly and politely respond to adopters’ questions. Too often, those questions are ignored.

So here’s my story:

I adopted my dog Ace in 2007.

I was open to the breed of dog I would get, but I knew I wanted to adopt a dog vs. go to a breeder. It was important to me to help a dog in need.

At that time, I had no idea that some shelters will reject adopters who don’t have a fenced yard. I also didn’t know working full time is sometimes a red flag.

Still, the process of trying to adopt a dog was not a negative experience for me. I remember thinking the whole process seemed odd, but I gave the adoption organizations the benefit of the doubt.

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I was your average 20-something who worked full time, rented an apartment, had grown up with dogs and was finally ready to adopt.

I didn’t have an “in” with any of the adoption groups like I do today. I was not a volunteer, and I was not involved in the local dog community yet because I didn’t have a dog.

Looking for the right dog

I was very responsible about choosing the right dog. I knew exactly what I could and could not handle.

I didn’t care about breed, size or gender, but my future dog had to be cat friendly, potty trained, kennel trained, quiet, low to medium energy and still able to go running.

In order to find the right dog for my lifestyle, I started out by visiting the dogs at my local humane society (after I had stalked them online for months). This was a small shelter that could hold up to about 15 dogs.

The worker there allowed me to take a couple of the dogs out of their cages and into an outdoor play area. This was nice, however she seemed busy and irritated that I was asking questions, and she did not know if the dogs were potty trained or cat friendly.

I was especially interested in two six-month-old black Lab mixes and was told they were probably not potty trained.

I then asked about a quiet husky mix but was told huskies can’t go to homes with cats.

OK, no big deal.

I decided none of the dogs at that shelter were a good match. This didn’t bother me, because I knew there were literally thousands of others out there.

Waiting to hear back

So the next thing I did was call a local rescue group, which seemed to be the only rescue in my area at that time.

Since the rescue did not have an actual shelter (the dogs were in foster homes), I couldn’t go to a facility to meet them. I called the number on the web site because there was no email address listed.

I never got a call back.

OK. Moving on.

Next, I emailed a couple of humane societies from nearby towns. By “nearby,” I mean one was 100 miles away and the other was 200 miles away, but it wouldn’t be a big deal to drive out to them for the right dog. I lived in North Dakota.

The first shelter never responded.

Thanks to gmail’s archives, I am able to look up the message I sent back in 2007.

In it, I innocently explain that I live 200 miles away and would like to get some information about the dogs before making the drive. I told them I lived in an apartment and had a cat. I also said I planned to take the dog running for an hour every day.

No response.

OK. Onto the next.

This humane society did email me back, and when I asked about a certain husky mix, they actually gave me the phone number to the dog’s previous owner and told me to talk to her if I wanted information.

I was uncomfortable calling this person, but since the shelter encouraged me to do so, I did. I wanted to get as much info about the dog before driving 100 miles to the shelter.

I will never forget that heartbreaking experience of this dog’s former owner – a complete stranger to me – crying on the phone about how her landlord only allowed two dogs and she had been forced to choose which of her three to give up.

“If you could please find it in your heart to adopt Hallie …” she said, crying.

The next day, I got a nasty email from the shelter director asking how dare I call the dog’s previous owner?

This surprised me, obviously, but I still didn’t hold it against anyone. I just figured it was a miscommunication, and I actually even apologized.

Since “Hallie” did not sound like a good fit for me, I asked the shelter if they could please email me if they happened to come across a dog that might be a better fit.

Again, I never heard anything back.

And I still did not place judgment on any of these groups! This goes to show that adopters are generally pretty forgiving and understanding, but come on!

How I finally found my dog

The last thing I did was go back to the local rescue group’s site (the one that never called me back). I browsed through its dogs again. This time, they had what was called a “curtesy” listing.

A black Lab mix named Junior was listed as a “curtesy” which meant his current owner still had him but was trying to re-home him. The rescue was allowing her to advertise the dog on its site, and her personal phone number was listed as a contact.

“Junior’s” description said he was cat friendly, dog friendly, very mellow, potty trained, kennel trained, 1 year old and neutered.

Perfect!

I actually was not too interested in a “boring” black Lab mix, but whatever. He sounded like a good match.

Thank God I made that call because I ended up with the world’s best dog.

“Junior’s” owner at the time answered all of my questions patiently and in great detail. She was the first person to really do so.

I remember I asked if “Junior” would like to go running, and she said, “He would love that!”

I asked about everything, whether he was quiet in his kennel, how he was with other dogs, how much energy he had.

When I jokingly said all Labs are high energy (just to test her response), she told me, “No, he’s not like that at all.”

So, about two weeks later I made the 60-mile drive to the small farming town of Ada, Minn., and met my future dog, now known as Ace.

A failure to communicate

Looking back, I now realize all those adoption groups missed the mark.

I did find the perfect dog, but my “perfect” dog happened to be from the only person who took the time to answer my questions.

Had any of the adoption organizations taken the same amount of time to help me, I guarantee you I would’ve found my “perfect” dog from them as I was plenty eager to get a dog.

I don’t know what the problem was. Maybe they didn’t like that I lived in an apartment. Maybe all the volunteers were too busy to get back to me. Maybe I needed to be more patient, to call five or six times instead of one or two.

In my case, it worked out fine and I was still able to help a dog in need. But how many others would end up going to a breeder, a classified ad or the local pet shop?

I believe most people truly want to adopt a dog, but it needs to be easier for them to do so.

What do you guys think?

If you adopted your dog, did you have a positive experience getting through the adoption process?

28 thoughts on “How shelters and rescues failed when I adopted my first dog”

  1. Mom adopted her first dog, a 15 month old 100 lb black newf/lab mix. All she had to do was pay and sign papers promising to get her spayed. It was super easy, but she had no clue about dogs. Luckily, other than separation anxiety, Trine was a model dog and it all worked out.

  2. I adopted my dog about a yr & a half ago and had a great experience! I actually found Willow on Petfinder.com, but she was with a local rescue. She was at a foster home in another state and the foster mom was wonderful. I had lots of questions and she was happy to answer them all during the entire process. She sent me pictures & videos upon request and voluntarily. I still keep in touch with her every now and then- sending pictures and giving her updates on my sweet girl. Everyone involved with the shelter was wonderful through the whole process. I would definitely recommend or adopt another dog from Friends of Homeless Animals RI.

  3. Wow, what horrible experiences! It does make you wonder how badly these places really want to find homes for their dogs. Also, I had no idea Ace’s original name was Junior, Ace suits him much better!

    Luckily I’ve had pretty good experiences with rescue groups and shelters. Though I was turned down by a rescue for ticking indoor/outdoor on an adoption form. I wonder why even ask. Soon after, I realized this was a rule for all cat rescues groups in the area. I ended up getting Gina for free on Craigslist because I did not feel like lying on an adoption form.

    Years ago I adopted my brother’s pit mix for him because the shelter turned him down. For one reason, they said they wanted to see his other dog correct her for her puppy behavior and his dog did not. The other reason, his apartment did not allow pit bulls though all they had to say was that she was a mix and it would have been fine. I understand the shelter’s concern on that but in his case, it would have been easy to make it work. They also said they do not let people fill out adoption papers less than an hour before closing and it was 55 minutes til so they sent him away. They gave me the same song and dance when I went in to adopt her. They really didn’t seem to want to let her go. Yet they were overjoyed when Norman let her throw all her puppy antics at him and he did not care. They thought it was so cute, they adopted her to me right away, even though it was 30 min after closing by then. My brother has since moved 3 times, bought a home and adopted another pit mix!

  4. I tried to adopt a dog from my local shelter a few years ago. I went to the shelter every weekend for a few months until I found I dog I liked, called Holly. Holly was a lurcher cross and was very well tempered. At the time, I lived with my boyfriend, his brother, his brothers girlfriend and their westie. When I tried to go through the process of adopting, they had an issue that I worked 9-5 everyday but I assured them with 3 other people living in the house, someone was always at home. Then I had to introduce everyone in the family to the dog – bit odd considering she was going to be my dog but ok! So over two weekends, I managed to get all my housemates and the westie to meet Holly! Everything went great (or so I thought). I got a voicemail from the shelter one day saying they were having reservations about giving me the dog as 1. I worked all day (despite the fact I told them that someone would be home all day) and 2. (this one is the one that pushed me over the edge) that my boyfriend was not ‘enthusiastic enough’…..I was shocked. What did they expect? A 20 something year old man to go all excited when he saw the dog. I rang them back and said if they were not willing to help me rescue this dog then I wasn’t going to try force them. It was a pity, I think Holly could have been a great dog! I decided to go to a breeder after this and got my lovely Chip who I do not regret at all!

    From the other side of things (i.e. trying to put a dog into a shelter) proves just as hard. My best friend had to get rid of her 6 year old Border Collie as she just had her second baby and could not walk Phoebe as much as she needed. Myself and my friend rang nearly every shelter in Ireland and no-one would accept her. Some places were too full, some places only took dogs if they really needed to be put in the shelter, some said come back in a couple of months and some even told her that they do not accept collies as they are quite hard to get adopted! It seemed the only way for a shelter to take her was to leave her abandoned outside the shelter (which of course we were not going to do). At the time, I was fostering her and we fell in love with her so decided to take her herself. So thankfully there was a happy ending for Phoebe.

    I understand the shelters are under pressure and no doubt a lot are over-crowded but I had bad experiences both trying to adopt and trying to put a dog into adoption. I would always prefer to adopt a dog but sometimes they just make it to difficult.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      You know, that story about your boyfriend is interesting. Isn’t it usually better to meetvnew dogs calmly and without too much fuss and emotion? Its what I try to do. Plus, I’m just naturally very quiet and introverted. I never make a fuss over anything in public. Maybe that means I would get rejected from that group as well.

  5. We’ve adopted our last three dogs and have had some similar experiences. Some of the rescue groups are great, some not so much. My only thought was most of them do it on a volunteer basis and are sometimes just too busy…maybe just rationalizing it for them. We’re lucky enough to have tons of shelters and rescues, and no shortage of dogs downs here in SoCal.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Yes, the good news is there are lots of really great groups out there. I also think you’re right about volunteers being busy. It doesn’t hurt to keep calling and emailing multiple times.

  6. Wow Lindsay, what a nightmare! I’m so glad you ended up with Ace, but I can’t believe everything you had to go through!

    I don’t understand how shelters can act as if they want dogs to be adopted but then make things so difficult. Especially when it comes to the questions – they should be thrilled you are asking questions and taking the process seriously. Hopefully they understand that by now!

  7. When we decided to get a third dog I wanted to check out 3 of our local organizations. Theo was at the first rescue and was the only dog my kids were interested in. We took him for a short walk and the volunteer told us he chased cats. (We have a cat.) But he wasn’t interested in the cats in their cages when he walked by them. Do to his small size, I thought my cat wasn’t at high risk. I made my kids go to another great shelter where I have volunteered in the past, just to be sure Theo was “the one.” They had no interest in any of the dogs, even the 4 month old puppies. The next day we went to fill out the paper work and thought we would have to wait a few days to be approved. Instead, Theo came home with us that day and his adoption price was only $45 when it was supposed to be $90. It was better than Christmas for all of us! Theo and our cat pretty much ignore each other, but it is an amiable relationship.
    In the past I have emailed about certain dogs (including wanting to sponsor one in California) and never heard back. It was frustrating because he stayed on Petfinder for about 6 weeks, but I didn’t email them again. Perhaps they thought it was a joke or my email even went to spam.

  8. Wow! I can’t believe the experiences that you and some of your readers have had adopting a dog from a shelter. It makes you wonder if the people at those shelters really care about dogs.
    My experience with our local shelter has been great. We adopted our first dog in nine years from there in January and it was a pretty easy process. We foster through them as well and the two foster experiences we had were pretty smooth as well. The people at that shelter really love and care for the dogs there and it shows.

  9. I’ve always been torn about rescuing dogs or getting them from a reputable breeder, so my crew has always been a combination of rescue dogs, Craigslist dogs, dogs that friends have given us, and dogs from breeders. My husband and I adopted a Pit Mix puppy yesterday. We got a bit of a run-around because the shelter didn’t have it in their system that the puppy was at a adoption event. However, when we called the rescue volunteers at the event, they held him until we got there. It was an easy adoption and within twenty minutes we were the proud parents of a puppy. I’ve adopted from this shelter before and I trust them because adopting is a stress-free event. On the other hand, I too have emailed shelters and not gotten replies. Or I go through the whole process of answering questions only to be told that the dog was no longer available. I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve had positive and negative adoption stories. I revel in the positive and learn from the negative. I figure that’s all I can do.

  10. I got Maya through someone on Craig’s List because I was worried that I would not be allowed to adopt a large dog breed because I already had one large dog, Sephi, and I lived in a one bedroom apartment. After Sephi passed away, my husband and I began looking for another dog. Like you, we tried several rescue groups and got no response. The few that did respond had a ton of paperwork to fill out. Only one responded to the paperwork and they gave me a hard time about not keeping my dogs on HeartGard year around. Luckily, I heard from a friend about a stray dog living in a park and went to rescued him. Pierson is a great addition to our family and I’m kinda glad the rescue groups failed in his case. It’s too bad that some do fail, however.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      I’m so glad things worked out the way they did with Pierson, but that is so frustrating that so many groups didn’t even get back to you!

  11. Me and my roommate recently adopted a small dog and it was almost scary how easy it was to get him. They had about 3 blocks dedicated to a showing of adoptable dogs (mostly puppies) and kittens looking for homes, you could pick whichever dog you wanted, filled out a form that was easy to lie on and took the dog home that day. It was basically a foster for 2 weeks then decided if you wanted to adopt or not deal. There wasn’t any follow-up and it would have been very easy to disappear with a dog. They didn’t know his previous name, what kind of mix he was or even how old he was! Our dog Rizzo, previously named Szanter (some name they gave him that he didn’t even respond to) had been neutered 3 days previous to this event, had kennel cough, and had badly matted and knotted fur. He was only at the adoption place for about a week since they had picked him up from a high-kill shelter but while how the whole thing was conducted was in good spirits the dog we picked up that day and the dog we have now are two very different dogs. They kept reassuring me how little he barked and how quiet and good he was but this was only due to how utterly sick he was. He’s active and very barky at other dogs, I’m not sure how they even got him calm around the other dogs on the street. It took a long time to fix his fur, I had to cut out a decent amount of knots that were too intense to brush out and he had bad dandruff. However we love him very much and hes really the perfect dog! The two-week foster to adopt process was really smart, but he was so sick and fragile looking that you’d never know what kind of dog you were getting.

  12. Your experience definitely sounds frustrating. It seems like shelter/rescue culture is so variable – some are great, some are very vigilant, some are laissez-faire, etc. I’ve had two good experiences with rescues (good communication, no home visit, reasonable fees), but one rescue I contacted told me I could not adopt because I didn’t have a fenced yard. I have friends who were also given the runaround. I’ve heard it’s the same with cat rescues too. Its fine to tell a potential adopter why a certain dog won’t be a good fit, but it should be done constructively, and they should recommend another dog or a different rescue. You have a very rational and practical approach to rescue/adoption – you should be a consultant!

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thanks KA! Unfortunately I get the feeling most rescue groups do not want to hear what I have to say. I’m so glad you had positive experiences for the most part.

  13. I’m a dog trainer, work from home, hike 6+ miles a day, have been a volunteer I. Dog and cat rescue for over 20 years and Border Collie rescue refused to adopt to me because I didn’t have a fenced yard! NEver mind my explanation the because of coyotes in the area, I would never leave a dog in a fenced yard anyway. And yes, I too have experienced no reply from many rescue groups.

  14. I spent years trying to go through shelters and rescues to adopt. Either I didn’t meet their lofty requirements like a fenced in yard or the fact that I work full time, or they tried to push me into a dog that just wasn’t a fit for me. My first attempt at adopting was a husky Shepard mix named Kody. He was gorgeous. Everything in his bio fit me to a tee. I thought we’d be the best of friends. Then I met him. He had no interest in me whatsoever even with me having treats and offering to play. My mother on the other hand he adored. The shelter still tried to get me to take him and said if it didn’t work I could always give him to my mom. I had similar experiences at other shelters where the dogs I was interested in had no interest in me. I went through this struggle for years wondering why dogs just didn’t want me. Then in my recent search, my friend told me about the unexpected puppies his dog just had. I claimed one and now I have my Captain Jack. I know he loves me and I love him, even with the puppy struggles. Now I can’t wait until he’s old enough for me to adopt a sibling or 2 for him. Lol

  15. I found this whole article rather whiny. You made assumptions about what people were thinking of you, because you actually thought they were thinking about you. They were most likely working their full time jobs, caring for their families and their own pets, and volunteering for nothing in their spare time.
    Your insistence that shelter volunteers should know the background and training of every dog kenneled there is not only pie in the sky, it’s impossible.
    Plus, your description of what you wanted in a dog was unrealistic and smacked of I want my cake and eat it, too.
    Yes, there is an issue with some rescues and shelters being too restrictive. Unfortunately, your article missed the mark.

  16. In fact, I had a very difficult time finding a dog to adopt. I reached out to a lot of shelters, have a house with a fenced yard, three adults who would all take care of the dog, two while I would be in the office. I researched the dogs, filled out the applications, and then crickets chirped. In the end I adopted a dog in a different country!

  17. The first dog I adopted, I lived in a small town. My husband and I went to the humane society to see what they had. The staff was very friendly. We found one dog we were interested in. He was a territory mix with airfare Meryl a regular dog. They let us take him to the play room to see what he was like. He was very friendly and goofy, we know just the way he acted he would fit in. We did adopted him and even gave him a new name before we left with him. Because of how goofy he was we called him Mutley. He was a great dog and lots of fun

  18. I tried for several months to adopt a dog and had multiple problems. I called, leaving messages, but no one called back. I filled out multiple questioners, but no one responded. My only specific request was a small or medium sized dog. I finally contacted one place that said they had a Dachshund. We drove almost 2 hours in bumper to bumper traffic on a Sunday afternoon to meet it. Unfortunately they had given us the wrong address and phone number. Somehow my wise husband found it! When we got there it was a Black Lab – Pit Bull mix. .I had specified a small to medium sized dog. I continued to contact places. They wanted the specific amount of hours I’d be home each day. I was recently put on permanent disability, so I’m home most of the time. Nothing was good enough for anyone I actually got in contact with. Finally, several months later, we went to a pet store and bought a darling puppy. She is sweet, well trained, and we love her! We have given her the best home we know how to. She gets lots of exercise, playing with other friendly dogs, cuddle time, and healthy food.

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