(Previously, on Team Unruly…)
In today’s installment of How to Hock Your Homeless Dog, I want to talk about what you can do when you have a slightly less adoptable dog.
Underline that “slightly.” I am not talking about truly dangerous or difficult-to-place dogs — serious aggression cases, severely fearful dogs, dogs with chronic lifelong medical needs, etc. This post is geared toward dogs who are likely to be successful in most novice-to-moderately experienced pet homes, and who are likely to make their owners very happy once adopted, but who might need a little extra boost to find those homes and persuade people to overcome some age/breed/cosmetic bias to give these guys a chance.
In other words:
– senior dogs;
– dogs with manageable medical needs and/or cosmetic issues (tripods, one-eyed dogs, scarred dogs, dogs with mild to moderate hip dysplasia that are not badly affected, etc.);
– dogs with non-dangerous behavioral issues that a dedicated amateur owner should be able to rehabilitate or manage successfully (minor to moderate reactivity, shyness, separation distress);
– unruly teenagers (i.e., the classic big, boisterous 8- to 18-month-old rowdy, mouthy, jumpy dudebro of a dog whose bad manners are probably a big part of why he wound up homeless);
– dogs of less in-demand breeds.
My most recent foster dog, Queenie, fits into this category. Queenie is a nice dog: she is a playful, mischievous, clever little sprite who would be perfectly cast as some intrepid kid’s companion in a Disney movie harkening back to an imaginary yesteryear of treehouses and playing with slingshots in the woods. She is highly trainable, highly athletic, and just a really fun dog. There is no doubt in my mind that she would make someone a wonderful family pet and very possibly a nice little sport dog.
She is also a mix of breeds that are harder to adopt out (pit bull, Akita, and Jack Russell Terrier). Upon arrival, she was suffering from some minor skin irritation that has left her with hairloss and unsightly pink patches on her hind legs, and was also prone to minor, occasional displays of snarking and growling when other dogs approach her crate or give her the stink-eye on the street. They weren’t serious displays, and they didn’t really strike me as that difficult to handle (in fact, Queenie is a very dog-social dog), but I knew that given Queenie’s breed mix, it wouldn’t take much to turn adopters off. Any sign of aggression would do it.
In my opinion, none of these are or were issues that a committed novice adopter would be unable to handle. Queenie is not actually dog aggressive or even anything close to what I’d label a “reactive dog”; her snark episodes were brief, shortlived, highly predictable, and easy to extinguish. After three days of living in my house, her snark attacks in the crate vanished altogether, because she was familiar with my dogs and no longer worried about them. After about a month, she wasn’t snarking at dogs on the street anymore, either. Her hairloss and skin irritation was diagnosed as demodex (non-contagious) mange by the vet in North Carolina, and my vet here in Philly concurred with that opinion, adding a diagnosis of secondary bacterial infection.
And, of course, breed bias is just that: bias.
All of those things, however, made Queenie a pretty good poster child for today’s topic. She is a good dog. Her issues were well within the spectrum of normal dog behavior; as far as I ever saw, she was not a Dog With Issues. But she was a dog who needed a marketing boost. Unlike some of my other fosters, who had dozens of prospective adopters lined up before they even arrived in PA, I knew going in that Queenie might take a while to find the right home.
Here’s how we did it:
1. Put On Some Polish
The first and biggest piece of the puzzle was ensuring that Queenie was a well-behaved, well-mannered dog with a headstart on the basic things that most pet homes would expect their dog to know. On top of that, for as long as I had her, I was constantly adding new tricks and behaviors to her repertoire. By the time she found an adopter, six weeks after she came here, Queenie had her Novice Trick Dog title and knew 18 different tricks, with a framed title certificate to prove it and a cute little video to show off her skills.
A well-trained foster dog!
You don’t have to go that extreme with it, but training makes a huge difference in a foster dog’s adoptability. From the instant I pick up a new foster dog in the parking lot, we are working on training. Loose-leash walking, housebreaking, crate training, and not mouthing, jumping, or indiscriminately destroying household furnishings are pretty much the universal basics for any foster dog I get.
Most adopters expect to have to do a decent amount of training on their own, and most aren’t averse to teaching a dog to Sit or Down on cue (although, of course, if the dog arrives already knowing how to do that, most adopters are pretty pleased), so teaching specific behaviors is not my first order of business. It’s nice if I have time to get to it, but it’s not crucial.
Lack of life skills and house manners, on the other hand, can get a dog booted right back to the rescue, because a not-insignificant number of people are, for whatever reason, unwilling to deal with that. It is sometimes the very reason that the dog landed in the shelter to begin with.
So we hit those things first and hardest. Then we move on to the basic commands: Sit, Down (sometimes; I tend to prioritize that one last), beginning Stay, and beginning recall. (I never tell adopters that the dog has more than an unfinished foundation on those last two, because (a) it’s easy for people to misinterpret what exactly that means and demand more than the dog can give; and (b) if the dog doesn’t have a Stay that would pass AKC Open, then I don’t consider the dog to “know Stay.” And since Pongu can’t even do the AKC Open Stays, I’m certainly never going to make that claim for a foster dog!)
If you’re reading this blog, it is very probable that you can teach those basics to a foster dog without a whole lot of trouble. Do it. There are many, many benefits to giving your foster dog a little foundational training — it attracts adopters, gives the foster dog some mental and physical stimulation, helps the foster learn to bond with humans (something many of them have been sadly deprived of in their previous lives), and can carry lasting benefits in setting your foster dog on the road to lifelong positive reinforcement training. If the foster is already familiar with clicker training, then most adopters will be quite happy to continue with what the dog already knows — and since the dog has a foundation, results should come along faster, which further encourages the adopters to keep going with it.
For longer-term fosters, it can really help to get demonstrable results of your training. If you’ve got the dog for a few months, why not get a CGC? It costs $10 to $20 to do the test, and that small investment immediately distinguishes your foster from almost every other dog on the market. Finishing manners classes and getting a diploma or certificate of completion is another way to set your dog apart from the crowd. The Novice Trick Dog title costs about $20 and only requires that the dog know 15 beginner-level tricks, which is another easy and fun way to shine a spotlight on a dog who’s particularly talented and driven.
Four weeks after she came here, Queenie finished her Novice Trick Dog title. I put together a video to showcase her skills, focusing on a mix of cute tricks, basic manners “tricks,” and sport foundation behaviors that I hoped might catch the eye of an adopter looking for a performance dog.
Even if you don’t get all the way to finishing a NTD or CGC, you can take videos of your foster dog practicing basic stuff and upload them to Youtube or Vimeo for posting on Petfinder or your blog. Visual proof that your foster dog is well trained is much more effective than just talking about it.
2. Identify and Counteract Negative Images
Whatever makes your foster dog “less adoptable,” there is something you can do to change it. Really. There is always something.
The trick here is to reframe the issue so that you are not trying to change whatever the dog’s underlying trait actually is, but the prospective adopter’s perception of that issue. Ultimately, what we’re trying to get at is why somebody might not want a dog who has that trait, and then work to fix that misperception and show that this dog can be a great companion despite the handicap.
Queenie plays nicely with other dogs and is happy to share toys!
With behavioral issues, this is pretty straightforward. There are plenty of wonderful behavioral protocols out there to address shyness, reactivity, separation anxiety, and so forth. The key thing to remember here is that except in the very easiest and most minor cases, you probably will not have enough time to completely fix whatever the problem is, especially if it’s an issue like separation anxiety that is very likely to recur when the dog transitions to a new home.
What you can do, however, is get the dog started with a strong foundation, and keep good notes so that the adopters have a clear idea of what worked, what didn’t work, and where they should take it from there. Good adopters are often quite willing to address these issues if they have a roadmap, clear direction, and a sense that these problems can be fixed. Adopters who aren’t willing to put in the work are not ones you want for your foster dog anyway.
With physical issues like age, breed, and handicaps, you may have to take a more inventive approach.
No, you can’t turn back the hands of time. An older dog is going to be an older dog no matter what. But dietary supplements and physical therapy exercises can help that old dog look and feel younger and spryer. Figuring out what type of home would be best suited for that dog, and marketing it specifically to those homes, can also help a lot. There are plenty of retired people who would love a calm, low-key companion. There are plenty of families with young children who are in a position to appreciate the benefits of a patient, tolerant, even-keeled mature dog who won’t jump on the toddlers or scare their friends with puppy mouthing. Spell out all the reasons that your foster dog would be awesome in those homes, and take pictures that make those mental images concrete.
If your foster dog is disabled, show pictures and post anecdotes about how that dog can do lots of things that people might not imagine a handicapped dog can manage. Tripod dogs are often every bit as strong and athletic as their four-legged comrades. If you have the opportunity, take pictures of those dogs running, playing, jumping through hula hoops, dashing up stairs, and otherwise living life at full speed.
If you have a one-eyed dog, show her chasing down balls, playing with a flirt pole, gazing adoringly at a person, and otherwise engaging with visual targets.
If you have a pittie, and it’s appropriate for your foster dog, show that foster playing nicely with other dogs, being calm and cuddly with small pets, behaving politely with children, and so forth. When I was filming the “Stay” segment for Queenie’s NTD, I used a group Stay rather than a solo Stay for exactly this reason (and to help me out even more, Queenie did a cute little butt scooch to get closer to Pongu as I was taping). Pictures and stories are incredibly powerful — use them to undercut whatever negative stereotypes are appropriate for your foster dog and situation.
Never be dishonest, even by suggestion, and always strive for accuracy in your portrayals. It does neither dog nor people any favors to encourage a mismatch. If your foster dog really isn’t good with most other dogs, don’t show him playing at the dog park. But do try to combat whatever negative stereotypes and misperceptions might underlie an adopter’s reluctance to consider a pet that could be the perfect fit for their home.
3. Maximize Exposure
In order for your foster dog to find a good home, those good homes have to know she’s out there. Exposure is key to success. Get the word out in as many different ways and across as many different social networks as you can.
Petfinder, Petango, and similar Internet listing services are a great way to begin. Showcase your foster dog with at least three good-quality pictures (and, again, my advice is to go with three different shots: an indoor shot, an outdoor shot, and one with a person or another pet in frame to highlight your foster’s social skills), spend some time putting together a nice writeup, and be sure to include your contact information if you’re comfortable with talking to prospective adopters directly.
Adoption events are also a tremendous help if you’re lucky enough to be part of a group that hosts them regularly. If you’re doing this solo, it doesn’t hurt to ask around to find out whether you can tag along at a local group’s event — many rescues welcome visitors, provided that your request is courteous and respectful, and your dog is well behaved and not likely to reflect poorly on them by association.
But think beyond that, too. Flyers in coffeeshops, supermarkets, and pet-supply stores might be a little old-fashioned, but they work. Online posts in social groups for local dog-related community groups and businesses can serve the same function in a more 21st-century style.
The Homeless Dog Vest of Shame. Hey, it works.
You can buy “Adopt Me” vests and bandannas at a number of online retailers, and those help too. Whenever I felt even remotely capable of carrying on a non-abusive conversation with strangers, I plopped Queenie’s vest on and turned her into a walking billboard for herself. It worked; we got several inquiries that way. To help people follow up from those street contacts, you can get cheap business cards made at Vistaprint and other services. Mine has the URL for my dog blog, my foster-specific email address, and a blank space in the middle where I can write each foster dog’s name in Sharpie, so that the adopters know who to look for and I don’t have to print up new cards for each dog.
There’s always word of mouth, too. Every foster dog you place is an advertisement (hopefully a good one!) for the next. Every adopter you have a positive experience with is more likely to recommend you to their friends and family when the next person is looking for a dog. That tends to be highly successful for both sides — the homes I’ve gotten by referral have been among the best homes for some lucky dogs. It takes time to build up that network, but it’s a good thing to be mindful of right from the beginning.
And that is pretty much my approach to marketing “less adoptable” fosters: a three-step process of actually teaching her to be a great companion, portraying her in a way that is conscious of and targeted toward dispelling whatever inaccurate stereotypes might cause an adopter to unfairly dismiss her, and getting the word out to as many different audiences as possible.
It worked. Six weeks after Queenie arrived in PA, we sent her off to a wonderful adoptive home in New Jersey. Not only did her training foundations help her secure a great home, but seeing how successful this little dog had been with her trick training encouraged her adopters to follow up by enrolling in training classes not just for Queenie, but for the resident dog already in the home.
Win-win all around. And that is exactly what we strive for.