Adoption Events: Skills, Ethics, and Best Practices
Summary: Getting cats and dogs through the shelter and onto the next stage of their lives is understandably the main thing shelter staff and volunteers are focused on, and adoption events are one way to make this happen. However, adoption events are complex and can be challenging, This article introduces ways to solve common problems using interviews with people who have, and who have chosen not to, run adoption events with their shelter or rescue group.
An adoption event is a scheduled, time-bound, and planned event where animals from foster care are brought together at a location like a parking lot, storefront, community center, or shelter. Potential adopters can then meet the animals and either fill out an application to adopt, or in some cases even complete the adoption process and go home with their new companion.
For dogs and cats in foster care, adoption events are sometimes the only way they can meet potential adopters. The goal is to make sure the animals at the event aren’t experiencing distress or in any physical danger, while curating a fun, upbeat experience for potential adopters and volunteers alike.
However, the idea of bringing together a group of animals who are strangers to each other, and then expecting them to be their “most adoptable selves” might well sound like an impossible ask. Not to mention managing the volunteers and foster parents, who might not be on the same page about their animals’ experiences and needs.
In this article, I’ve interviewed people who have been working in dog and cat foster and rescue, sometimes for decades. Using interviewees’ own words as much as possible, I’ll be sharing their wisdom about what does and doesn’t work with adoption events for dogs and cats in foster care, as well as what kinds of additional ethical considerations might come into play when thinking about them. But first, some more information about the organizations that contributed to this piece.
The Rescue Organizations
I interviewed past or present workers for seven rescue organizations, working with cats, dogs, or both:
- Muttville, a private no-kill dog shelter and foster network in San Francisco, California
- Greyhound Adoption Program (GAP) based in Victoria, Australia
- Lifeline Animal Project in Atlanta, Georgia
- Rise Above Animal Rescue in Pasadena, Maryland
- The Animal Rescue of Carroll, Inc. in Carroll, Iowa
- Pugalug Pug Rescue, a foster network based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- Refuge de l’Angoumois in Charente, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, France
“Muttville Senior Dog Rescue is an active nonprofit organization based in San Francisco. We operate a cage-free shelter, along with a robust foster program, and pride ourselves on redefining the standards of humane shelter care. It is our goal to save over 1,100 dogs each year, and beyond that, our mission to change the public’s perception of who senior dogs are and what their unique role in our lives can be. We are a team-oriented organization with a positive attitude when it comes to helping animals and working with our community. We work in an energetic and upbeat atmosphere that embraces diversity, teamwork, and self-development all while providing lifesaving and matchmaking services to senior dogs and humans alike.”
Greyhound Adoption Program
“Greyhound Adoption Program Victoria is a medium-sized, restricted-intake shelter specifically for greyhounds exiting the racing industry. The GAP team consists of the shelter staff, vet staff, and a huge team of dedicated foster carers and volunteers. It’s a little different to a typical shelter as most staff and volunteers are breed enthusiasts so are very knowledgeable and passionate about greyhounds. Potential adopters were also typically looking specifically for greyhounds, so generally we were working with a comparatively well-educated cohort of people.”
Lifeline Animal Project
“Lifeline Animal Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending the shelter euthanasia of healthy and treatable animals, has been managing the Fulton County Animal Services (FCAS) shelter since 2013. Fulton County is the largest county in the state of Georgia, and our municipal shelter has an average annual intake of around 7,000 animals. FCAS provides humane care for the animals at the shelter, veterinary care (including spay/neuter), animal reclaims, volunteer and foster opportunities, rescue group coordination, and of course, pet adoptions. FCAS also provides field enforcement services through our animal services officers.”
Rise Above Animal Rescue
“Rise Above Animal Rescue… primarily focuses on cats, though they do take dogs from time to time. They try to take in the neediest cats and kittens, typically those with major health issues, seniors, ferals, etc. Currently I’m fostering two kittens who had ruptured eyeballs and needed double enucleations. The culture is very casual. The founder does the rescue thing full time (she’s a stay-at-home mom) and many of the volunteers are good friends.”
The Animal Rescue of Carroll, Inc.
“The Animal Rescue of Carroll, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2006. The organization runs a dog and cat shelter that serves and cares for lost, unwanted or homeless dogs and cats, with a focus on adoption, education, cruelty prevention, spay and neuter programs, and reuniting lost dogs and cats with their owners.”
“Pugalug Pug Rescue is a Toronto- based rescue that acts as a bridge between a pug’s past life and its future forever home. We are a group of volunteers who are committed to helping rescued pugs by providing medical care, loving attention, comfort, food, companionship, and a forever home. It is a process whereby the pug’s needs are paramount both during its time in the rescue process and when its ideal adoptive home is being determined”.
Refuge de l’Angoumois
“The refuge de l’Angoumois is situated on the edge of the Braconne forest in Charente, France. For the past three years, the refuge has accepted and rehomed more than 500 dogs a year: 80% of dogs arrive from the pound, 10% are animals that have been seized by the authorities, and the final 10% are dogs who have been abandoned at the refuge. The Refuge de l’Angoumois is a no-kill refuge. No healthy dog is euthanised. The old and infirm are given medical care and, even if they are very near the end of their life, all efforts are made to ensure they spend their last few weeks in comfort. Very occasionally, the refuge will be asked to assess the behaviour of dogs who have been seized for aggressive behaviour, attacks on other animals, or serious bites. Of these, the majority are rehabilitated. The refuge also works as a point of reference for other local agencies including town councils and the police when investigating claims of animal neglect or abuse.”
How Do You Prepare for an Adoption Day?
The basics of preparing for an adoption day are:
- Locating a suitable place to hold the event and getting any necessary permissions or permits so that you can do it. Local pet stores, dog training centers, boarding kennels, even public parks (if the weather is favorable) can be good places to host adoption events. Ideally, the space will have some visibility to the public, but will also allow you to control the number of people interacting with the animals and supervise every interaction.
“We typically do events at pet stores, for three to four hours at a time. We set up crates on tables with blankets between each crate to block visual access between cats. We have two or three volunteers typically. Some fosters will just drop off their cats and come back at the end if they don’t get adopted. We do same day-adoptions, so it’s convenient that they’re in pet stores because adopters can grab carriers and essentials while they’re there. At the end, we pack up all the cats who weren’t adopted and break down the tables/crates.” – Laura Cassiday, Rise Above Animal Rescue
- Recruiting people to staff the event and deciding how they will be trained. Most of the people I interviewed used words like “informal” and “quick” to describe their training process for adoption days. No interviewee mentioned a specific training program for adoption day volunteers. All interviewees mentioned needing at least three people at the event.
- Communicating about the event, so people know it’s happening! This can be done through your social media, website, email list, etc., and also locally. If you’re being hosted by a pet store or other company, do they have channels to publicize the event? Can you put up posters or notices on community boards? Providing potential adopters with some information about the animals before they get to the event can be useful.
“We set the date for the event at least four weeks in advance. Our local partner is BlackCat Ice Cream in Des Moines, Iowa. The shelter director sends me pictures of the cats and kittens, and I create a Facebook and Instagram post. BlackCat Ice cream starts advertising the event one week ahead of the event.” – Sandra Grossman, Animal Rescue Center of Carroll, Iowa.
The team at Muttville creates profile videos for the senior dogs at their shelter, like this one for a dog called Spoons:
At the Greyhound Adoption Program, attendees are provided with a Dogalogue (not a Catalogue!), which is available online and at the event. Here’s an example from their Facebook page: http://gap.grv.org.au/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2020/01/PURPLE-GROUP-17.01.2020.pdf
- Logistical planning. Making sure you have the transportation for animals to and from the event, and that your fosters know when it’s happening and what is expected of them. Also make sure there’s room in your van for all the materials listed in the next item.
- Material gathering. Crates, ex-pens, treats, blankets, towels, pet stain remover spray, more towels, leashes, toys, litter and litter trays, towels…
Selection and Training
Choosing animals who are not likely to become stressed by the disruption and the interaction of an adoption event is vital to its success. Make sure your foster carers feel comfortable talking about potential setbacks their foster animal might have had, so that you can protect them from potentially exacerbating their issues by including them in the adoption event.
Animals in a shelter environment, and in foster care, can benefit from training and behavior modification no matter their age or temperament. Even extremely fearful dogs can make progress in a shelter1 — although these are not the dogs you should be bringing to an adoption event!
Making a list of stimuli that might be new or stressful to an animal at an adoption event can help you make sure you integrate work on them into any general training plan your rescue group has.
Kittens and Cats: Zoie Konneker, Lifeline Animal Rescue
Before the event, at the very least I recommend desensitization with sound. At our home, we have an Alexa that acts as a speaker. We select a puppy or kitten ‘desensitization’ or ‘socialization’ playlist and start playing the sounds during the day at a low volume. Over time, we increase the volume, and we play different music and sounds during playtime and feeding time to positively reinforce new experiences.
We also bring our fosters into a new room of the house where they haven’t been before for a meal or two to see how quickly they adjust to new scenery, and if they are hesitant to acclimate, we start to desensitize all elements of the process: being near the carrier, in the carrier, traveling in the carrier, being in the new room, being out in the open in the new room, etc.
As for other basic preparations for an adoption event (and kitten socialization protocols in general), we like to positively reinforce receiving petting on different parts of the body, rewarding them for being calm while being held, and introducing them to other pets in the household. Most of the time a squeeze treat or liquid treat is best for this, as most kittens and cats find them to be very enticing and high value, though we have had cats turn their noses up at food rewards and opt for pets and scratches instead.
For kitten fosters, most of these practices can be implemented as early as 2 or 3 weeks old. For cat fosters, it depends on how quickly the cat acclimates to the foster home and how laid back their personality is.
Sometimes it might be appropriate to bring animals that are not yet ready for adoption. Sandra Grossman of Animal Rescue of Carroll recalls: “Last time one foster had to bring her bottle babies to the event. They were just a couple of days old and needed to be fed every 2 hours. So she could not leave them alone. I believe this was the attraction of the event. One lady asked if she could bottle feed them. Our foster showed her how to hold the kittens and the bottle. Very emotional. I believe these events bring awareness to the cat overpopulation and the suffering that comes with it.”
After the Event
Cleaning up, transporting animals and materials, and debriefing the volunteers were mentioned by all interviewees.
Dr. Diana Rayment from GAP points out that the event doesn’t have to be seen as a failure for those dogs who didn’t find an adopter: “We usually did several social media live videos and posts throughout the day and then did a follow up one at the end of the day, highlighting any dogs who were not adopted. This usually got them adopted within the following days.”
Shelters that also host adoption events, where a special price or other offer is used to attract a higher-than-normal number of potential adopters (for example, Maggie’s Day) can also make the days after the event more effective by ensuring that even animals that can’t be on the adoption floor can be part of the event. As Zoie Konneker puts it:
“For animals unable to attend the event in-shelter…we strongly recommend foster parents update their animal’s online profile with new photos, videos, and a unique and concise description. We will honor the adoption event pricing for all applications submitted during the adoption event dates, even if the animal doesn’t go home during the event timeframe. This has allowed us to get more foster animals into their forever homes and open up valuable foster home space.”
Skills for success
In the dogs and cats
Even the most adventurous dog or cat can get overwhelmed, and working with the public is very unpredictable. Managing stress is important not only from a welfare perspective, but also because stress could lead to behaviors that make an animal seem less adoptable.
Different individual animals will show different patterns of behavior when they are experiencing excessive stress.2
“In greyhounds, overwhelm presents as the dog becoming less and less engaged with the surroundings and displaying avoidant behaviour, or just trying to move away and hide…[D]og selection pays a big part in making sure that the dogs attending can cope in that environment. We also trained up dog handlers to recognise behaviours that they needed to flag with behaviour staff, and roaming staff made sure to monitor any dog we had concerns may not cope well.
When a dog did not cope well, they were typically taken away to a quiet place to see if they could recover, and returned to the trailer if required.” – Dr. Diana Rayment, GAP
“Kittens that hide, press their faces into the floor or wall, kittens that hiss or growl, freeze, flee, destroy their kennel, bounce off the walls, claw or scratch at the kennel door, or yowl are kittens that don’t want to be at the event. Other signs that the cat is stressed might include piloerection, tails lashing, increased vocalization, ears flattening, and squirming or clawing when held. Obviously scratching and biting are signs that a cat has pushed past its stress threshold and should be removed from the event.” – Zoie Konneker
Setting up the event so that stress is taken into account involves both arranging the space to minimize stressful stimuli and creating opportunities for the animals to de-stress when they need to.
“If a cat is exhibiting signs of stress, we often place a towel or newspaper over their kennel door and obscure their view of the visitors. We also make a point to ask visitors to be calm and quiet in the cat area, and we allow the cat to ‘cool off’ before becoming available again, or we place a sign on their kennel that they are not available at that time.” – Zoie Konneker
“We prevent stress in our mutts by providing them multiple places to calm down. We have small nooks for mutts to tuck away if they’re feeling overwhelmed or we can find them a calm room on their own where they can decompress by themselves for a bit… When dogs are feeling overwhelmed, we may play music or white noise for the mutt, have a volunteer sit with them to help them decompress, or find them a space where they can work on a puzzle toy on their own.” – Gabriella Jew, Muttville.
People visiting your adoption event will likely be there for a variety of reasons. If you’re being hosted by a business, they might just be running errands, or they might have been waiting for months to finally meet the animal they’ve been thinking about. They also might be looking for a cheap day out for their kids! Having the skills to manage this diverse group of people and their needs is important to create a happy and welcoming environment.
Most interviewees did not mention a specific program of training for adoption event volunteers, but they did talk about the kinds of “soft skills” that they found useful.
“Being non-judgmental is the best skill you can have. There are a million reasons to deny someone for adoption, but adoption events are a great opportunity for education and discussion/conversation-based adoption interviews.” – Laura Cassiday CCBC
“Being positive, upbeat, and non-judgmental can go a long way. Many people interested in adopting a cat simply need guidance or reassurance and would be happy to learn something new. Always approach ignorance as simply that and not a sign of their character or values.” – Zoie Konneker
“These events have become community events. People start asking the owner at BC when the next event will be. Our volunteers are all good listeners and experienced with potential adopters. Some people come every time we do an event.” – Sandra Grossman
Other Risk Factors
The longer a dog stays in a shelter, the more likely they are to suffer poor welfare.3 For that reason, doing everything you can to get dogs out of the shelter might seem like a good idea, including setting up adoption events. These events, however, may actually create more challenges for long-term shelter dogs.
Emma Jane Lee points out that in taking the “best” dogs out of the shelter for potential adopters to visit at adoption events, you are preventing these potential adopters from meeting the dogs who do need more behavioral help, or who are less gregarious and outgoing by nature. A family who might be perfect for the nervous dog you left behind could end up adopting one of the dogs who would be likely to be adopted fast anyway.
“We found that our ‘adoptable’ family dogs (okay with everything) were being adopted by people who would have been perfect for the dogs and cats who we couldn’t ‘show’ because they would have found it too stressful or they weren’t the kind of dogs who are okay with large crowds. We also felt that dogs like Eliot… [a wire haired pointing griffon] would have caused pity and revulsion, since we naturally chose animals that would ‘sell’ as big, stinky hairy gundogs like Eliot just don’t attract people to the stand.”
Special care should be taken with animals that have been through behavior modification at the shelter or in a foster family and have been determined to now be ready for adoption events.
“Cats that simply aren’t socialized enough to succeed at these events may regress if they attend. Behaviorally challenged pets that have stabilized in one environment should not be brought to a stressful event if it risks regression. There is always the risk that these types of events may cause setbacks.” – Zoie Konneker, Lifeline Animal Rescue
If you’re working with a population of dogs with health concerns, such as senior dogs, dogs with a history of chronic disease, or dogs who may be immunocompromised from stress, collecting them together and exposing them to other dogs could put them at risk. The risk is especially high, Blanche Axton of Pugalug points out, in areas where dogs are being imported from different places, including overseas. Often potential adopters want to bring their existing dogs to the adoption event; this introduces more vectors for disease and parasite transmission. At Pugalug, pugs are often rescued with at least some medical complications, so the risk of contagion is one of the reasons they have chosen not to hold adoption events.
If the adoption event is held in a private location, restricting the access of potential adopters’ dogs to the event would lower the risk of transmission. It would, however, likely make the event less desirable to potential adopters, who are likely to want to bring their existing dogs to meet the potential new addition. (Whether such a brief interaction is actually a reliable predictor of the two dogs’ compatibility is a separate question!)
Finally, for shelters, creating a space where adoptions can happen without anyone needing to enter the building could mean losing opportunities to change potential adopters’ perspectives on shelters and sheltering. Emma Jane Lee explains this idea:
“We do not believe that taking animals out of the shelter context is helping our adopters understand our problems — and making it ‘convenient’ for humans to adopt a dog without ever entering the physical structure of our building is akin to selling meat in sanitised packages — it’s supporting the alienation of humans from animal lives because some humans find it hard to enter the physical structure of the shelter… Divorcing humans from what happens in our shelter is not how we built our community. [Having people visit the shelter] helps them see the love and care as well as the shelter itself. It stops them seeing it as a death centre. It opens us up, ugly and industrial and hard as it is, and it makes humans reflect on this aspect of animal lives without sanitising it.”
Deciding whether to start, or continue, adoption events is an ethical decision as much as a practical one. If you have the time, the people, and the resources, you still must consider whether adoption events are the right thing for you and your organization.
What are the risks to the human and other-than-human participants in an adoption event? What are the risks to not holding these events? If adoption events cause dogs to be adopted faster, does saving that extra time at the shelter mean that overall the dog is better off, even if they find the adoption event stressful? Or if you’re working with a network of fosters, does moving a dog out of foster care faster, through a somewhat stressful adoption event, allow for more dogs to be rescued from potential euthanasia in the city shelter you’re working with? These calculations will be different depending on your circumstances, and also on your personal beliefs.
For some rescue organizations, the risks outweigh the benefits. Blanche Axton of Pugalug Pug Rescue shared that Pugalug stopped doing adoption events when the logistical costs and the stress to the animals became too high.
Wider ethical concerns
The second area of consideration is perhaps not something you will have thought about much in relation to adoption events, but working with a conception of animal dignity gives us a way to think more deeply about how we are treating the dogs and cats in our care.4 As Lori Gruen points out, animals do not experience embarrassment or the shame of being caught doing something “undignified.” Nevertheless, she argues, there are some ethically meaningful ways that humans violate animals’ dignity.5 Emma Jane Lee of Refuge de l’Angoumois extends this concept of dignity to her work at the shelter, and to her decision not to hold adoption events.
“We recognise the power and importance of visual images in breaking down cultural constructs and in presenting animals, and we understand as a shelter the importance of doing so in a way that affords animals dignity. We appreciate that it is a fine line between keeping animal lives hidden…and sanitising animal lives.”
Although research is limited, what potential adopters think about animals does seem to be influenced by visual elements, even what background the photographer chooses for a dog’s adoption profile.6 The environment we put animals in and how we describe them changes the way people think about them — even the perceived race of the name we give them makes a difference.7
Paying attention to the animal’s dignity and what the choice to take them out of the shelter means, as well as to our desire to get them adopted as quickly as possible, might lead us to make different decisions about the way we promote shelter animals to the public.8 How these competing concerns interact will depend on the ethics and culture of the organization and the people in it.
Conclusion: Weighing it all up
Adoption events were described as a lot of fun and very successful by some interviewees, a “necessary evil” by others, and by some as not worth the risk to welfare or to other ethical considerations. Whether your shelter or rescue group decides to start, or continue, adoption events will depend on contextual factors. There’s no answer to “are adoption events worth it?” that will be true for every circumstance.
For example, arguing that hosting an adoption event outside the shelter contributes to a “sanitization” of the realities of animal sheltering depends on what the conditions are like inside your shelter. The experience of visiting a rural French shelter like Refuge d’Angoumois is likely very different from a trip to a well-funded, selective intake, cage-free facility like Muttville in San Francisco. Having healthy kittens in cages in a dedicated room will have a different contagion risk profile compared to a group of senior dogs in the middle of a busy store.
Paying attention to the welfare of the animals and creating an environment that centers this consideration is the key to a successful and (relatively) stress-free event.
- Behavioral rehabilitation of extremely fearful dogs: Report on the efficacy of a treatment protocol. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 454
- Kartashova, I.A.,.Ganina, K.K.,.Karelina, E.A., Tarasov, S.A (2021) How to evaluate and manage stress in dogs – A guide for veterinary specialist. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 243, 105458.
- Raudies, C. Waiblinger, S. and Arhant, C. (2021) Characteristics and welfare of long-term shelter dogs. Animals 11:1.
- Kempers, E.B.(2020) Animal dignity and the law: Potential, problems and possible implications. Liverpool Law Review 41, 173-199.
- Gruen, L. (2018) Incarceration, Liberty, and Dignity. In: The Palgrave Handbook of Animal Ethics, Linzey A. and Linzey, C. (eds)
- Lamb, F. Andrukonis, A and Protopopova, A. (2021) The role of artificial photo backgrounds of shelter dogs on pet profile clicking and the perception of sociability. PLoS ONE, 16(12): e0255551
- Quadlin, N. and Montgomery, B. (2022) When a name gives you pause: Racialized names and time to adoption in a county dog shelter. Social Psychology 85:2.
- Global Research Network (2020) Animal Dignity: Resources and References. Last accessed 9/6/2022
Tiro Miller, PhD, is the managing editor of the IAABC Foundation Journal, and a long-time shelter volunteer in the Bay Area.