How to Adopt a Rescue Dog: Expert Tips from The Petfinder Foundation


Emily Fromm, CDO of the Petfinder Foundation, shares a moment with a canine friend.
Photo courtesy Emily Fromm

We sat down with Emily Fromm, Chief Development Officer of The Petfinder Foundation, to ask her a question that’s simple enough at first glance but more complex once prospective owners really think about it: how do you adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue? With the growing number of pet adoption organizations, the many differences between rescues and shelters, and ever-evolving adoption procedures that seem more complicated by the day, this process may feel overwhelming for those unfamiliar with it.

The Petfinder Foundation is one of several public charities with whom Orvis partners as part of The Orvis Commitment, our initiative to protect and sustain the natural world. The Petfinder Foundation “…works to end the euthanasia of adoptable pets by assisting animal shelters and rescue groups…. [Its] programs are designed to make homeless pets more adoptable by keeping them happy and healthy, to make shelter operations more sustainable, and to aid adoption groups during times of natural or man-made disaster.” This remarkable charity has served over 13,000 organizations, caring for more than 300,000 homeless pets at any given moment across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Emily’s extensive experience working with shelters and rescues makes her the perfect resource to share tips on how to adopt a dog from one of these organizations.

Sarah Hall Weaver: Can you explain the differences between shelters and rescues for our readers?

Emily Fromm: Shelters have a physical facility with animals on-site, housed in cages or kennels. Rescues on the other hand are typically operated by volunteers out of private houses which serve as foster homes.

SHW: What are the advantages of adopting from a rescue? What are the advantages of adopting from a shelter?

EF: The biggest advantage of adopting from a rescue is that you’ll know much more about an individual pet before you bring the dog home with you. The foster parent will have spent a significant amount of time with this animal: learning his general temperament, how he behaves in certain situations, whether the dog’s personality and yours will be a positive match, etc. Rescue dogs coming from foster homes are also less likely to have the minor, temporary ailments that dogs in shelters are exposed to. The advantages of adopting from a shelter include a much faster adoption process—you could potentially bring your new dog home in the same day if she or he has already been spayed or neutered. You can also visit the dogs in person without setting up a meeting, and you will find a greater variety of dogs to choose from at shelters.

SHW: As a grantmaking organization, do you take different guidelines into consideration when working with shelters versus rescues?

EF: Not across the board. We do offer some grants specific to each type of organization but in general we examine each shelter or rescue individually to make sure they are maintaining best practices.

SHW: Given the growing number of options out there, what advice would you give a prospective owner for how to choose the right shelter or rescue?

EF: People who are worried about making the “right” choice or a positive impact can feel confident that wherever they adopt from, they are saving a life. Many dogs arrive at shelters first, then rescue groups pull them, so even if the pet you adopt was not at immediate risk, you’re freeing up a spot for one who might be.

If you’re looking at shelters in particular, people sometimes battle with choosing between an open-admission shelter or a private, limited-admission shelter. Open-admission shelters often have contracts with a municipality and cannot turn animals away. The limited-admission shelters people often refer to as “no-kill” shelters can turn pets away. Ultimately, though, adopting from either type of shelter saves a life.

One of the most important things to ask yourself is, what’s your timeline? Are you willing to wait? If you know you are looking for a purebred dog, a puppy, or a specific behavior or personality, research rescue groups that cater to those interests and make contact with several of them. Apply, welcome them for home visits, get pre-approved by several of these rescues so that you’ll be at the head of the line when the kind of dog you want comes in. You want to develop a relationship with these groups before you get your heart set on one animal that may get a lot of applications.

With shelters, even though being able to adopt quickly may be part of the draw, if you don’t find the right pet on your first visit, go to the next shelter or try that same shelter the following weekend—there are new dogs arriving every day.

Whether you plan to adopt from a shelter or rescue group, you may very well end up looking at several such organizations so don’t stress about picking the “right” one.

SHW: Petfinder Foundation’s partnership with Orvis includes Orvis Animal Care Grants, which are used to keep adoptable dogs “happy and healthy while they are waiting to be adopted.” Can you elaborate on the sort of expenses these grants cover for shelters and rescues

EF: These are open ended and to be used for general purposes depending on the rescue or shelter. This could mean covering a single dog’s medical expenses, or capital improvements to the organization’s facility. For example some shelters use their grants to establish play yards, which over time will provide valuable enrichment to thousands of dogs—making them healthier, happier, and even more adoptable to prospective owners.

SHW: While there is still a long way to go, it seems that there’s a flourishing support network for historically hard-to-place pets like elderly dogs, mixed-breed dogs, stigmatized breeds like pit bulls, etc. With that said, do you see any current trends for those populations or in the applications from rescues and shelters that support them?

EF: Yes! Absolutely. Many of these profiles are on the rise. There are more and more advocacy groups for populations of specific interest. Many rescue organizations devoted to these sorts of dogs pull animals directly from shelters to better connect them with owners that are looking to adopt that sort of dog. Pit bulls’ reputations have certainly come a long way. They still have further to go but they’re gaining popularity because people are realizing they have such wonderful, family-oriented personalities. Dogs with special needs are seeing more support and more interest from foster parents and prospective owners too. There are several organizations devoted entirely to senior dogs. There are also many groups that assist in transporting dogs to their new owners from far distances or transport pets from areas with severe overpopulation issues to regions with facilities that are better equipped to handle them. We see many organizations transporting small breeds and puppies from the Southeast to the Northeast.

SHW: Many rescues have much more complicated adoption processes than long-time pet owners are used to. Do you have any tips or words of encouragement for owners that aren’t accustomed to the new lengths or depths of these processes—or for first-time owners who are unfamiliar with this altogether?

EF: Especially with rescues, people can be surprised by what they perceive as a lack of customer service. When you contact a rescue group be very polite, give them your information, fill out an application, but remember this is not online shopping. These volunteers are personally invested in this animal. They have spent a lot of time with these dogs and have developed close, caring relationships—they are scrutinizing and vetting you out of the best interest of the pet, not as a discourtesy to you. Also understand that if you are looking at breed-specific rescues you will be facing a much more competitive process and longer waiting lists. French bulldogs for example! Everyone wants a French bulldog. People can wait for months for a breed like that. Do not be surprised or offended if things do not work out right away. Be patient and cast a wide net. Don’t decide that one dog is the only dog. Look at a number of different dogs and pursue several avenues so if one doesn’t work out for any reason you will have already set up opportunities for others.

SHW: If there was one piece of advice that you could give prospective owners…

EF: I think to just pull it all together again: if you are ready for a dog, build relationships with rescues and get preapproved before you get your heart set on one particular pet. This will make the process much less painful for you and will make you look like a better candidate when you do find the dog you hope to welcome into your family.

Emily’s interview proves that one thing is key: patience. Luckily the benefits of having a dog are well worth the patience it requires to adopt one—a new dog makes a special addition to your family and an exceptional friend for life.

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