Minnie spent most of her time sleeping in her kennel or resting on a soft bed in the front office. Volunteers enriched her days, but visitors to High Sierra Animal Rescue were usually interested in younger dogs, and at age 10, with a limp and some other health problems, the gentle yellow lab mix would be difficult to re-home.
In fact, she’d been at HSAR off and on since 2007, having been returned to the shelter several times for behaviors stemming from separation anxiety.
But because HSAR commits to each dog it takes in for its lifetime, Minnie was again safe at the shelter, and had a warm, clean kennel, proper diet, veterinary care, attention and love. All she needed was a home.
“You never know who will walk in the door. Every day presents a new opportunity for a dog to be adopted. Every dog at our shelter has a family out there waiting for them. Our task is to bring people in and help them find their best friend,” said Heidi Rose, HSAR’s executive director.
When one of HSAR’s former adopters, Peggy, an elderly widow, lost her beloved dog Sissy to old age (adopted from HSAR in 2011), she was understandably filled with grief. Rose visited Peggy in her home that day to offer support and comfort. This began a friendship between the women, which continues today.
During another visit, Peggy asked if she could foster a dog during the day, to keep her company in her home. Rose knew instantly that Minnie was the perfect dog for the job. For a few days HSAR staff drove Minnie to Peggy’s in the morning, and picked her up in the evening.
Minnie was very happy to visit Peggy’s house. She had a large fenced yard to chase squirrels, and Peggy was home all day so Minnie wouldn’t suffer separation anxiety.
“The joy I saw growing in both of them each day was incredibly moving. To see these two ‘senior ladies’ find each other, and to be able to fulfill each other’s needs and bond as quickly as they did is so inspiring to our rescue work,” said Rose.
After less than a week of visits Peggy asked if Minnie could stay the night, and she’s spent every night there since. A volunteer adoption counselor visited Peggy’s home to make the adoption official and the two are looking forward to their first Christmas together.
“Minnie is such a great dog. She protects me and makes me laugh. She sleeps at the foot of my bed every night, and has taken over the house with her toys. We are so happy together and I am so grateful for High Sierra Animal Rescue for taking her in and saving her life,” said Peggy.
When HSAR members began the journey toward creating a no-kill community, they knew they had a formidable task in saving the estimated 500 adoptable animals that were being euthanized each year. After assembling and training a team of volunteer adoption counselors, they set out to create a thorough and effective adoption procedure which has evolved over the years to become one of the most comprehensive in the industry.
The process focuses on finding the best fit between what kind of animal the potential adopter is looking for and what kind of home environment would be best for the dog. The rescue organization always bases their decisions on the question: “What is best for the dog?”
“A good fit is key to a successful adoption, and a comprehensive screening process is the key to determining a good fit,” said Doug Rodrigues, HSAR board president and co-founder with his wife, Betty. After the potential adopter fills out an application, an adoption counselor follows up with additional questions. The adoption counselor will ask about training, whether or not there is a fenced yard, and what they and other members of the family expect from the dog. This is an opportunity to learn more about the adopter’s home life, and the counselor can also answer any questions they may have about the dog they are considering.
Said Rodrigues, “Some customers think we screen too much and that the process takes too long; our answer is that an hour or even two is not too much when you consider that this is a life-time decision for both the family and for the dog. This process gives us insight into the level of commitment of the adopter, and more information to determine if there is a good fit.”
In the early 2000s, San Francisco SPCA opted to do less screening in order to increase adoptions. Their adoptions increased, but so did their returns. After about six months, SFSPCA returned to their high level of screening, stating that their net adoptions did not actually increase, and that multiple returns and re-homing were not in the dogs’ best interest.
By studying other rescue organizations, HSAR is able to stay at the forefront of animal rescue.
If the potential adopter already has a dog, HSAR requires a dog introduction to see how the dogs get along. If there are young children in the family, they will have to meet the dog as well. Spousal/partner approval is also required by the organization, so that everybody is on board to adopt.
During these one-on-one meetings, kennel staff and the adoption counselor will also go over any behavioral or physical issues the dog might have. The organization always operates with “full disclosure,” and gives as much information to the prospective adopter as possible. This extra step helps to determine if the match is a good fit, and helps the adopter prepare for any issues that might come up during the re-homing process.
If all goes well, and the adoption is a good fit, an adoption counselor will review shot records, microchip ID information, and any other information about the dog not covered previously.
Helpful information about common behavioral issues, tips on housebreaking, and how to deal with destructive behavior such as chewing and separation anxiety, is provided to the adopter as well. The dog is then brought out, and a photo of the family and the dog is taken.
“It’s always amazing to see the dog react to being adopted. They know they are going home, and get so excited and happy. Once their photo is taken they always lead their new family to the door. It’s a scene that never gets old,” said co-founder Betty Rodrigues.
While the adoption itself is now complete, it is by no means over. HSAR aims to reduce the number of returns by providing follow-up calls at one day, one week, one month, and six months after the adoption.
Adopters are frequently reminded that they can contact HSAR any time they have concerns or questions, as HSAR believes it is easier to address a small problem before it becomes a bigger one. HSAR also has a professional trainer who can provide one-on-one support for any behavioral issues that may come up.
Even with this careful screening process and extensive follow-ups, HSAR still experiences a return rate of 8 to 12 percent. Part of the adoption agreement states that the adopter will return the dog to HSAR if they can no longer care for the animal, for any reason. This is an important aspect of HSAR’s lifelong commitment to the rescue dog. When HSAR takes in a dog, they are with that dog for life, and will care for a returned dog until it is re-homed, as was the case with Minnie, who found her way back to HSAR before going to her forever home with Peggy.
While the adoption counselor training and the adoption process have evolved over the 18 years that HSAR has been in operation, the goal of adoptions has been constant — to save as many lives as possible. To this end, two trained adoption counselors are at the shelter on any given day, and five other volunteer adoption counselors assist with adoptions at Petco in Reno on Saturdays, and for special adoption events throughout the year.
HSAR is always in need of additional volunteers, so interested persons are encouraged to contact the organization.
“At High Sierra Animal Rescue, adoptions are the ‘heart’ of our business and we strive to continually improve in our commitment to the dogs and to the families we serve in the community,” said Doug Rodrigues. The HSAR board has recently developed an adoption sub-committee, whose task is to re-examine the adoption process in order to increase the quantity and improve the quality of adoptions.
There are many ways for people to get involved at HSAR and start improving the lives of homeless pets. People can volunteer at the shelter by helping in the office, or working with the dogs directly by socializing, walking, petting or even reading to them. Volunteers can be trained to be adoption counselors or help out at special events. Foster homes are always needed for special needs and senior dogs, as are donations to cover their medical expenses.
Persons wishing to contribute to their work are encouraged to become “Guardians of High Sierra Animal Rescue” by setting up a monthly donation to HSAR. Monthly donations help the organization balance the budget and plan for the future.
For more information about HSAR, adoptable dogs, volunteering or donating, visit the shelter site at 103 Meadowridge Lane in Delleker, Monday through Saturday, or call 832-4727 or visit [email protected].