Make adoption a priority. At the shelter where Blue was found, unless a rescue group intervenes, the annual kill rate is about 95 percent. It is accepted as policy that the majority of dogs will die. Shelter managers need to make it a policy that rescue and adoption are a big part of the job. Nationwide, this attitude is the first thing to change in shelters that improve their adoption rates.
Hire people who embody the philosophy of rescue. Sometimes personnel changes are necessary, but sometimes people can grow through education. Either way, you need people on-site every day who care about adoption, and you need to give them the resources and job flexibility they need to succeed.
Give the dogs names. At the shelter where Blue was found in Person County, N.C., the dogs don’t have names; they are given numbers and expiration dates. The adoption coordinator at Robeson County Shelter in Saint Pauls, N.C., told me that when she began working to turn their program around, the first thing she did was name the dogs, because a name shows that someone cares about them as individuals. It affects the entire staff’s attitude toward what happens there day in and day out. It is harder to kill a dog who has a name. It makes people want to do more to help the dogs.
Tap into the nationwide rescue community via sites like Petfinder.com (full disclosure: Barron’s is donating a portion of the proceeds from Little Boy Blue to the Petfinder Foundation). Even if you’re in an economically depressed area and can’t find local adopters, you can find responsible rescue groups in other areas—even in other states—that are willing to transport and foster the dogs while marketing them for adoption. The pipeline exists. Use it.
Take photos of the dogs outside of the shelter environment. With my own foster dogs, the photos I take of them just a few hours after they’ve had a chance to calm down and play in my back yard are far superior to those I get at the shelter. Anything you can do to help them relax will make them look happier and healthier in their adoption photos, and thus increase their chances of finding a home.
B: How does a dog benefit by being fostered?
KK: When I wrote Little Boy Blue, I’d had just two foster dogs, Izzy and Summer. I now have fosters number 16 and 17, Ginger and Sally, staying here at the house with Blue and me. So I’ve gained a good deal of experience in this area.
The shelter environment itself is stressful for dogs. On top of that, they’ve been abandoned by the only humans they’ve ever known, or perhaps they’ve been starved or intentionally harmed. Then they come to my home, and while they’re friendly and curious, they’re still stressed.
When they see how calm Blue is, they begin to understand that they are somewhere happy and good. In a very short time, each one turns into a completely different dog. Sometimes it takes a few days, or a week with the shy puppies or those who need medical care, but it happens every time. They know they will get their own bowl of food at mealtimes. They have a sunny, grassy back yard to run and play in. They have me hugging them and giving them toys. They have a big, clean crate where they feel safe and can take a nap in peace and quiet. They ride in the car, they go with us for walks at the park. They learn basic commands like “sit” and realize they can do things to earn treats.
That’s when their real personalities come out—the personalities that we can tell potential adopters about. We have a much better chance of matching people with the right dogs if the dogs come out of foster care, because we have a better sense of who the dogs actually are compared with what they were like in the shelter.