Have you ever seen a soulful pair of puppy dog eyes looking out from your Facebook feed? “This sweet girl needs a home,” the post, a share from a local rescue organization, may read. You begin to daydream about walks at the park, games of fetch, a dog curled up at your feet. So you go on to the rescue's website and download and complete an adoption application — only to be rejected. What?
Katie (first name only used at her request), a longtime dog parent in Indiana, wanted to adopt a dog after her family's passed away. She went to a local rescue specializing in Labs and Golden Retrievers, the breeds her husband had while growing up.
“The application itself was eight pages long,” she told NBC. “It asked some normal questions, like my background owning a pet. It also asked about any medical conditions we had, whether we were planning on having children, what our jobs were, and what our schedules were like. I thought those were a bit much, but I answered them.”
Their application was rejected. Why? “The staff member told me it was because I was not 'a stay-at-home puppy parent,'” Katie said. “If we wanted to adopt a dog from this organization, I had to quit my job. That seems rather impractical, especially if we're going to be paying for dog food and vet bills.”
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Katie's is not an isolated incident. Scroll through online reviews of many pet shelters, and stories like this show up. It's a problem the ASPCA wants to address, the organization's vice president of Research and Development Dr. Emily Weiss told NBC.
“I'm a perfect example of why this is so important,” she said. “I was denied adoption.” Living in a rental home and working on her PhD at the time, Weiss wasn't considered an appropriate dog parent. “I don't suggest folks do this, but I ended up obtaining my pet by learning how to get around the application process,” she said. The downfall? When she could have used help, “the shelter was no longer a resource for me.”
The ASPCA encourages shelters to remove black and white policies in favor of a conversation based application, Weiss said. Rather than rejecting applicants because they don't have a fenced-in yard, for instance, they suggest shelters talk to the family. “That's a myth we can bust. Chances are, that dog will get a lot more socialization because they'll be going on walks.”
“People who end up being fantastic adopters often don't meet the arduous requirements of a shelter,” Weiss said. Reasons for rejection may include having lost a pet. But, “people don't always lose pets in ways they expect,” Weiss said. “Things happen. When we say no to that person we've stopped a relationship from happening. If we send them home with a pet we have the door open.”
“We know that folks are going to obtain their pets from someplace else,” Dr. Weiss went on. “If you don't get a pet from an animal welfare organization, that dog or cat is probably a lot less likely to be vaccinated or spayed or neutered.”
For prospective adopters, “the first tip I would give is to look for organizations — and there are plenty — that focus on conversation-based applications,” Weiss said. “Shelters that use our "Meet Your Match" program tend to be more open to that approach.”
“There are millions of animals entering shelters each year and not all are going out alive," said Weiss. "But more and more animals are finding homes because of people choosing to adopt. There are plenty of organizations that are more than happy to help you find the right match.”
Or, sometimes fate intervenes. After Katie's application was rejected, a former neighbor with a Golden Retriever gave them a puppy from an accidental litter. “Our dog is now seven, and doing great,” she said. “He's loved, spoiled, walked, and we even managed to move closer to my work, so I come home and have lunch with him. We won't be trying to adopt with that particular rescue organization again.”
Dana McMahan is a contributing writer to NBC News.