What's So Special About Special Adoptions?

How do dogs become part of our Special Adoption program at the Animal Rescue League of Boston? Let me share an example. Spike was a 2 year, old, 18-pound terrier-type mixed breed dog. He came to the Animal Rescue League’s Boston shelter from an urban shelter. The staff at that shelter had seen Spike growl at people when he was bothered while eating, and “head whip ” – a quick turning of the head toward provocation without a snap or bite – during his veterinary exam. Other than those two potentially problematic behaviors, he was pretty perfect: he interacted with people, was very friendly, and playful to boot!

The shelter staff transferred him to the Animal Rescue League of Boston where he went through the usual evaluation process. When Spike came to us, we all noticed what a cutie he was, but the head whip behavior that had been observed at his previous shelter was confirmed, both during the veterinary exam and on the Handling subtest of the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation. Although he did not show any aggressive behavior on the food subtests of the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation, he did eat very quickly and was reluctant to trade the pig’s ear for a food treat. Mild food aggression and resistance to handling made Spike a candidate for our Special Adoptions Program.

The Special Adoptions Program, created by the Center for Shelter Dogs and implemented at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, is designed to facilitate the placement of dogs with manageable problem behaviors, like those Spike exhibited. In this program, special attention is given to find suitable adopters, and special counseling and follow-up are provided to the adopters so they can safely integrate the dog into the new home. This special counseling also maximizes the likelihood of the dog having a long-lasting relationship with the adopter. The problem behaviors Spike exhibited could be easily managed by an experienced owner willing to work to manage these behaviors. Through the Special Adoptions Program, the adoption staff at the Animal Rescue League of Boston set out to look for that special person who would be the right fit for Spike.

When a suitable adopter is identified for a dog in the Special Adoptions Program, the shelter staff would teach this potential owner about the dog’s specific problem behavior(s), including triggers and likely causes, and effective management and training techniques. If possible, they also would demonstrate the behavior so the adopter has a very good sense of the behavior and severity. In Spike’s case, shelter staff would caution his potential adopter to stay away from him while he eats . One of CSD’s recent research projects revealed that food aggression decreases in many dogs after adoption, so the issue may resolve in the right environment. In the meantime, the adopter would be taught how to trade delicious treats with Spike, if he stole an object that he really liked. In addition, as many food aggressive dogs also guard their resting areas, the adopter would be advised not to touch Spike while he was sleeping or resting. For Spike’s handling issues, it would be best if the adopter fed him treats when doing things that require restraint, like wiping his feet or grooming. A family with young children would find difficulty with Spike, as many children cannot foresee and avoid potentially dangerous situations. Also adopters with little experience in dog behavior – especially those who are of the “all dogs love me!” mentality – would not be a good match for Spike. Adopting this special dog would be a challenge, and we needed to find just the right match.

We are pleased to say that after a bit of searching, the Adoption Counselors found the perfect person. They called her on the phone to explain his issues and what she could expect. As a single woman who was experienced with dogs, she was very comfortable with Spike’s potential problem behaviors. The special adoption counselor then met privately with the adopter and further explained and demonstrated Spike’s issues. Our counselor explained that we had no information about Spike in a previous home and that the only history we had came from reports from the urban shelter. Of course, Spike had been through our evaluation process, so we had incorporated what we knew about his history, as well as what we saw of his behavior in our shelter and the results of the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation. She was given handouts on how to manage the food aggression and handling issues and preventative techniques were fully explained and demonstrated. While we made sure not to make any guarantees about Spike’s future behavior, the counselors were very careful in explaining what the adopter could expect from him and how to manage issues that may arise. The adopter was then asked to sign a release, agreeing that all this information was relayed to her and that she understood her rights.

Follow-up is a critical part of the Special Adoptions Program, proactively identifying any behavior issues and helping to support the adopter and dog during the transition to the new home. Follow- up is done by our special adoption counselors at one week, one month and two months. At one week, Spike’s adopter happily reported, “He just loves to be around people!” In fact, she said that many people asked where she got such a great dog! She had not seen any aggression over food, resting areas or toys. At the one month follow-up, the owner said, “Spike is doing great and I love him to pieces!” People were still asking Spike’s adopter where she got this handsome little guy!

The Special Adoptions Program that we have implemented here at the Animal Rescue League of Boston has been a great help for many of our dogs. Dogs who otherwise may have been difficult to place were able to find new homes with our Special Adoptions Program. The program requires resources and extra effort, but it is worth it when you look at a dog like Spike, a dog who may not have made it out of that urban shelter. If you would like to know more about our successes, and even how to get started on your own, please attend our Special Adoptions webinar on May 28th at 2pm.