When a rescue group reclaimed a dog that had been adopted by talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, it set off anew a long-standing debate among American pet owners: Are adoption requirements too strict?
It’s not unusual for shelters, rescue groups and breeders to require that potential adopters or purchasers have a fenced yard, keep the dog indoors unless supervised, attend training classes, and even feed a particular type of diet. They often require that the animal be returned to them if the adoption or purchase isn’t successful.
In the DeGeneres case, Iggy, a small terrier mix, was adopted from a rescue group called Mutts and Moms, which prohibited placing the animal in any other situation if he didn’t work out in their home. When Iggy and the family cats clashed, DeGeneres found the little dog a home with her hairstylist, who had two daughters, ages 11 and 12. That violated the adoption agreement, and Mutts and Moms took the dog back.
Although it’s not stated in the adoption contract, Mutts and Moms says it’s not their policy to adopt small dogs to families with children younger than 14 years of age.
Many rescue groups have age restrictions, especially for the adoption of small dogs or puppies, but 14 is the outer limit. RescueMe Yorkie Rescue, which operates in the northeastern United States, doesn’t adopt to homes with children under the age of 8, although with larger Yorkshire Terriers they’ll consider making exceptions for homes with mature 6- or 7-year-old children. Midwest Labrador Retriever Rescue, in the Chicago area, doesn’t adopt to households with children younger than 4.
With small dogs, the concern is that very young children don't really have the motor control to pet animals softly, or they might drop or step on the dog. Bigger dogs are tougher, of course, and can stand up better to a kid's manhandling, but if they're rambunctious they might hurt the child by jumping up on them or knock them over with a swipe of their tail. Lots of dogs are very tolerant of young kids, but some aren't and will growl or snap if a kid pulls their ears, for instance.
Best for the animal? Rescue groups argue that they have the best interests of the animal at heart. They’ve put time, money and effort into foster care, training and veterinary treatment before finding the right home, and they want to protect their investment in the animal’s welfare.
“We go to such trouble to screen our adopters and find that perfect match for a dog and when somebody just gives one of our dogs to somebody else, it totally negates that process,” says Kate Kyer, an adoption coordinator for English Springer Rescue America in Frisco, Texas. “Rescuing animals requires us to be very flexible in so many ways, but one area where we are required to be sticklers is in a situation like this. The reasons are entirely for the dog’s welfare and to ensure they are in not only a good home but an appropriate home.”
But some believe there’s more room for flexibility in adoption requirements. Take the fence issue, says Jan McHugh-Smith, president of the San Francisco SPCA.
“We always talk about dogs being companion animals and allowing that dog to be in your home and spending quality time in the home," McHugh-Smith says, "yet [some organizations] have this mandatory fence policy when really what’s the best quality time you can spend with your dog? On a leash, walking your dog, giving your dog exercise and you getting exercise and training your dog. So I always worry that by having policies like requiring a fenced yard, are we sending that wrong message of having your dog live in the backyard? That’s not animal companionship.”
Gail DeYoung, animal services manager at Mission Viejo Animal Services Center in California, says the goal is to make sure animals go to homes where they’re going to be taken care of for the rest of their life. Those homes come in all different types, with more emphasis on quality of life and the dog’s personality than cookie-cutter rules.
“We adopt to people without yards, if they’re going to take their dogs out for walks so they get exercise,” she says. “We just want them to spend time with the animal. We don’t agree with people leaving their dogs outside all the time; we wouldn’t adopt to someone who left the dog outside all the time. We want the animal to be part of the family."
When puppies and kids mix
DeYoung also adopts out some puppies to families with children. "I think it’s nice that children can grow up with their pets," she says. "Now, say we have a little puppy like a Chihuahua that obviously gets real scared around small children, we’re not going to adopt that dog to somebody with small children. We go by the personality of the animal.”
Will the publicity surrounding the DeGeneres case deter people from adopting? McHugh-Smith worries that the answer is "yes."
“People who come to animal shelters are trying to do the right thing by adopting homeless pets,” she says. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and I think that then the adopter should have the opportunity to either bring the animal back to the shelter if that’s what they want to do or to re-home that animal if they have somebody else that would make an appropriate home and use their best judgment. I don’t want people to be discouraged from adopting animals from shelters or rescue groups. Animals’ lives are saved, they go into a loving home, and they have a great life. Everybody benefits.”
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.