(Meadow, Silvio, and Thelma)
A few years ago, before I began volunteering for an animal advocacy group in the rural south, I went out to lunch with a few friends. One of them had recently adopted a dog and complained about how much red tape was involved, saying the agency wanted a hundred bucks, three references, and a phone call from his landlord, okaying animals on the premises. At the time of the lunch, I agreed with him, wondering why agencies meant to help animals were making it so difficult to find homes.
But after fostering fourteen dogs in eight months for I Could Have Been Adopted, (ICHBA), I completely understand why animal welfare groups make people “jump through hoops” to adopt one of their animals, and not only do I agree with the demanding process I think one of the best things about volunteering for ICHBA is that we are such a small agency, we can be pickier than most.
We follow a six-step protocol for adoptions:
Step One: People find our adoptable dogs on Petfinders.com and email inquiries to Donna, ICHBA’s founder and administrator.
Step Two: Donna responds to the email, asking the interested party to call her. Donna is the kind of person that can read someone from a phone conversation, and she’s not afraid to ask personal questions either.
Step Three: If their conversation is positive, Donna sends them an application, requiring references and the name of their veterinarian, which they fill out, sign and send back, agreeing that if the adoption fails then the adopter must call us before dropping the dog off at the pound or worse.
Step Four: If the application checks out, Donna gives me their phone number, and I let the family know the good, the bad, and the ugly about the dog they are interested in adopting. Honesty about the dog’s personality is a core principle of Donna’s organization. If they bite from fear or aggression, chew socks or furniture, have accidents, cry in their crates, dig holes, excessively whine, are food obsessive, etc, Donna wants the family to know before they adopt the dog not after.
Step Five: If both parties are okay with the information, then we set up a meet and greet, and ICHBA brings the dog to the families homes to check the suitability of the living conditions for an animal. Sometimes, the family asks to be introduced to the dog before we visit their home, and in most cases, we accommodate.
Step Six: And finally, if everyone is satisfied, the dog stays with the family and ICHBA gets an eighty-dollar check, which includes the price of vaccinations plus spaying and neutering costs, and I get a happy story and a few great pictures for this blog 🙂
One of the reasons ICHBA is selective about finding the right family for the right dog is because we have a return policy for the lifetime of the dog, meaning if at any time it doesn’t work out, we’ll take the dog back as soon as there is space in our foster network.
In most instances we receive a couple inquiries per dog, but in Thelma’s case we got a whole bevy of inquiries. I’m quickly learning that lab lovers are as loyal as the dogs they adopt, and after living with Thelma, a fifty-five pound, black lab mutt with a square head, squat body, and a keen intelligence, I understand why.
Last week I wrote about meeting John at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and by all indications, when I left downtown Nashville, it seemed like he would end up adopting Thelma. He had passed step four, plus he fell madly in love with our big galoot on first sight, wanting to set up a meet and greet as soon as possible. The one problem was he didn’t know his work schedule, and the day before he had had to cancel his introduction because he needed to stay late at the Hall of Fame.
The only reason why I wasn’t overjoyed about matching Thelma with John was his work schedule, which seemed to demand long hours and a flexible schedule, and I was afraid Thelma, an energetic six-month-old black Labrador, would end up in a crate for hours everyday. Not because John intended or wanted it that way, but he’s young, early-twenties, so he’s just starting out and can’t be choosy about his hours.
And Thelma has such potential. I mean she has flaws, besides her crude manners, including drooling, snoring, and farting, she leaps with her tank-like body at people she cares about, like everybody is Silvio and Meadow and wants to smack down in the backyard. No matter how many times we correct this behavior, she continues doing it. Plus, when we pass small, fluffy dogs on the greenway, the slack on the leash tightens and she makes an excited yipping sound, which in turn causes the innocent offender to yap back, and it always takes me a minute or two of incredibly hard-to-maintain-patience to calm her down, but she will calm down, which is the important part. She isn’t obsessed, just curious, and inordinately fond of little dogs.
I expressed my concerns about John’s work schedule to Donna, and she agreed that perhaps Thelma needed someone with more time on their hands, but she said calling John was going to be the hardest rejection she ever had to give someone.
I don’t envy Donna, a seventy-year-old do-gooder with a relentless dedication to her cause, the job of telling people no, and when I had asked her how she does it, she answered, “The dogs come first.”
It was that simple. And it had hit me how much easier it is to say no when asking myself what Thelma would want. Thelma couldn’t express her feelings, but I innately knew that being in a crate for nine hours a day wouldn’t make her happy. End of story. When I thought about homing these homeless animals by putting myself in the dog’s “shoes,” it almost seemed too good to be true, like a luxury I shouldn’t be able to enjoy. What would THE DOG want?
Donna said John was disappointed but understanding, claiming he had the same concerns about his job. I’ve never been around when Donna told a family no at the fifth step, the face-to-face meet and greet, but I know she’s had to do it in the past.
Anyway, a middle-aged couple, Dana and her husband, a farmer also named John (different than Hall of Fame John) were next in the long list of Thelma’s inquiries. They lived in Greenbrier, a town ten minutes away from ICHBA’s headquarters. My partner-in-crime Charlotte and I took Thelma to visit over the weekend, and they were wonderful! Dana is from Virginia and has rescued horses, training them with Parelli’s Natural Horsemanship. Have you ever read about it? If not, click here. It’s like Cesar Millan’s pack techniques applied to horses and herds.
Without any prodding whatsoever, Dana, who works from home, talked about the importance of earning an animal’s respect, which made my heart sing. And we even shared a bonding moment when we both expressed our shock and concern about the mistreatment of animals in rural Tennessee, which was so different than the agrarian but more northern towns where we had both grown up. She comes from Stratton, Virginia, and I grew up in Shickshinny, Pennsylvania.
I hate that Donna had to tell John no, but discovering Dana and her jovial husband was worth every ounce of guilt. In the end, it confirmed that we had made the right decision for Thelma. It also confirmed that making animal adoption “difficult” is worth it in the long run, simply because the dogs come first.