Slumber Parties Help Adopters Get to Know Their Potential Shelter Pets

Pet Adoption

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many playful, affectionate dogs and cats appear timid and fearful in the stressful shelter environment
  • One of the best ways to really get to know if a dog or cat is a good fit for you is to spend a few days with the animal in your home
  • The Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA in Phoenix, Arizona allows potential adopters to take pets home for a three-day “sleepover”
  • To date, 73 percent of the pets taking part in this program have been adopted

By Dr. Becker

Adopting a new family pet is an exciting time, but one that can be nerve-wracking as well. Will the new addition get along with your children and other pets? Will he be a good match for your lifestyle?

For most adopters, the first meeting with a pet they are interested in takes place in a shelter – a loud, intimidating environment for many animals. In this environment, a pet’s true personality is unlikely to shine. Instead, a playful, loving dog or cat may appear timid, uninterested, or even fearful.

But take the animal out of this stressful environment and his true colors are likely to shine. Unfortunately, many pets never get this chance…

The Average Adopter Spends Just 70 Seconds Evaluating Each Dog

About 60 percent of dogs that enter a shelter are euthanized, according to data from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA),1 and there are some surprising factors that influence which dogs find homes and which do not.

For starters, simply being placed in a cage closer to the shelter entrance tends to attract more attention, and research shows visitors stop to look at only 29 percent of the dogs a shelter is housing.2 Those near the front are more likely to be seen.

When a person does stop to view a dog, the average visitor spends just 70 seconds in front of the animal’s cage, which is hardly enough time to really gauge his personality. Some visitors will interact with the dog during that time, and interactions typically average about 20 seconds.3

Not surprisingly, the people who ended up adopting a dog tended to spend more time standing in front of their future pet’s cage as well as interacting with the animal. Those who toured the shelter alone also viewed more dogs, interacted with more animals, and were more likely to adopt a dog than those who visited in groups.

It’s also been shown that, once a dog is chosen as a potential candidate, the area where the next interaction occurs can make a difference in the dog’s likelihood of being adopted. As reported by Smart Animal Training:4,5

Dogs that were adopted responded twice as much to invitations to play and lay down close to the potential adopters twice as much as the dogs that were not adopted. What’s interesting here is that both of these behaviors can be highly influenced by the type and size of the meeting area.

In a large and grassy enclosure, the dogs are likely to run around and explore, therefore decreasing their potential of interacting with the people or lying nearby. In a small room, the dog is more likely to connect and because there is no other option, when it’s time to lie down, the dog will automatically be closer.”

Bringing a Dog or Cat Home for a Sleepover May Be the Best Route of All

If you’ve ever adopted a pet, you know the animal you meet at the shelter is often very different from the one who ultimately ends up being your pet. In other words, the once shy or timid dog that cowered in the corner may turn out to be the most affectionate lap dog you’ve ever owned.

One of the best ways to really get to know if a dog or cat is a good fit for you is to spend a few days with the animal in your home, but many shelters don’t offer this option. Not so at the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA in Phoenix, Arizona, where pet “sleepovers” have become a matter of course.

Since 2013, more than 1,000 dogs and cats have taken part in the program, which involves spending three days at home with potential adopters. The adopters fill out some paperwork and are provided with food and other necessities to care for the animal. During the sleepover, the shelter calls the potential adopters to answer any questions.

After the three days are up, the adopter can decide to keep the animal or bring him or her back to the shelter. To date, 73 percent of the pets taking part in this program have been adopted. Judith Gardner, president and CEO of the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA wrote in The Bark:6

Saffire was one of our success stories. She was a terribly shy, black-and-white Lab mix. Adopted as a puppy, she was surrendered to AAWL months later, having had literally no socialization. She would hide in her kennel and shake when new people came to visit her.

She spent days sleeping under staff members’ desks as they tried to help her overcome her fears and, eventually, she came out of her shell with those who spent time with her. Time and again, however, when adopters came to look at her, she would run around the play yard; her anxiety and shyness would scare away potential families.

Finally, a gentleman came and spent some time with her in the yard. Even though she exhibited her shy behavior, the adoption counselor told him about her playful puppy nature, her goofy personality, and her belief that she was a 40-pound lap dog.

We invited him to take her on a slumber party so he could see the ‘real’ Saffire. He agreed, and the rest is history: the two of them fell madly in love, and Saffire is happily in her forever home.

Our feeling is that it’s better for an animal to have a trial run with interested and qualified adopters than to miss an opportunity to find a home. Even if the dog or cat isn’t adopted, we learn more about their behavior and personality, which helps us find an appropriate placement for that animal the next time. We consider it a win/win practice.”

Which Dogs Are Least Likely to be Adopted?

If you’re looking to adopt the “underdog” at the shelter, chose one that’s large, as small dogs are more likely to be adopted. Dogs picked up as strays are also less likely to be adopted than owner surrenders, and members of the “fighting group” of dogs, like pit bulls, are also less likely to be adopted than other breeds, despite their often sweet and loving personalities.

People also tend to shy away from black dog, dogs that lick their bodies, rub against the walls, bark, or stay in the back of the kennel, while playful, active, and friendly dogs were more likely to be adopted. Ultimately, of course, the best dog for you is the one that fits in with your personality, lifestyle, and daily routine.

You might fall in love with a certain dog based on looks alone, but it's a good idea to look into the personality traits and unique needs of the breed (or mix of breeds) before deciding on a dog for your family. If you’re not sure where to start, you can find examples of the best types of dogs for families with kids, active owners, first-time owners, seniors, apartment dwellers, and more here.

Keep in mind that you might not know the exact breeds that make up your shelter dog or cat, and, in fact, research shows that many shelter professionals don’t accurately identify dog breeds.7

So rather than making breed type your deciding factor, rely heavily on descriptions of the animal’s personality and activity level from shelter workers and foster families. Ideally, if the shelter will allow it, a sleepover will also give you a chance to get to know your potential new family member’s personality firsthand.

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