Wanted: the ‘right’ dog — pet adoptions set records during the pandemic

Taffy walked into her new home as though she owned the place; the Havanese-poodle mix was placed in a successful pet adoption among a record number during the pandemic. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

By Alex Meacham

— During the social distancing and isolation of this year’s pandemic, many people have sought the companionship, unconditional love and friendship that comes from adopting a dog — and now, more than ever, people are having trouble finding the “right” dog because so many others are doing the same. 

This experience has been typical during the pandemic: You have been working from home for the last nine months and found yourself with the time to devote to a new pet. You search online for “pets for adoption in Whatcom and Skagit.” A link to Petfinder is at the top of the list, full of cute dogs and adorable cats. One dog is exactly right for you: a small, house-trained, 2-year old Shih Tzu. The $300 adoption fee is a bit steep for a spur of the moment application, so you decide to look again tomorrow.

By tomorrow the listing is gone.

Some stories end differently.

Dee Simmons was able to find a pet with the help of her daughter — and a pet matchmaker. Simmons’ husband had passed away around a year before she found Taffy, a Havanese-poodle mix. She and her daughter had been searching for a companion pet — a dog, a cat, it didn’t matter — when Simmons’ daughter found Taffy online. The pet matchmaker at Happy Tails, Happy Homes told Simmons to take Taffy home for two weeks before paying, to make sure she was a good fit. But, according to Simmons, the dog “walked in the house as if it were hers.”

“She’s such a loving creature,” Simmons said of her new companion. “For the time, it’s absolutely perfect, because I’m alone, and she is always by my side.”

Record rates at the shelters

The pandemic has given people the time at home to consider what it might be like to add a pet to their family. 

So, not surprisingly, adoption organizations report that dogs and cats are being adopted at record rates from shelters and rescue operations in the region. The demand is such that dogs are being shipped in from eastern Washington and even Hawaii, according to Sara Bradshaw, the NOAH (Northwest Organization for Animal Help) Center operations director. In warmer climates, a dog can have two or three litters per year, she said.

When the phased COVID-19 restrictions first went into effect, shelters were not sure how to adapt. Over time, they found advantages in the remote application and meet-and-greet process.  “We find that adopters, they’re more prone to listening and hearing what we’re saying over the phone, because they’re not staring at an animal’s big brown eyes,” said Bradshaw. 

According to Bradshaw, it has worked well to screen people over the phone. Because of that, she said, “I would say that our success rate at placing adoptions is close to like 80, 90%,” she said. It is unclear whether that success rate will continue as the pandemic ends. 

However, Tish O’Keefe, president of the Alternative Humane Society (AHS) lamented that so much of what the AHS does in the community, like educational opportunities around town, ceased during the pandemic. “We used to see people on a weekly basis at venues around town — Mud Bay, Petco, Bellingham Pet Supply, wherever we might be — and we’re not having those conversations, we’re not having those face-to-face connections.”

The ‘Disneyland’ experience

Shelters in the region have adapted to help their communities. Bradshaw described the process that they strive toward as the “Disneyland” experience.

“When you bring … this new companion home for the rest of its life, it should be a day that you remember forever for how wonderful it was. And we really want to be part of that,” she said.

Westie Hamish was rescued from a hoarding situation and found his way to a good home. (Courtesy photo Cynthia St. Clair)

Just that experience was described by Phil Humphries and Cynthia St. Clair, who adopted their dog Hamish from the Whatcom Humane Society. Humphries and St. Clair had been trying for months to find the right dog and had even seen a dog that met their goals vanish off the website a day after they had seen it. The Whatcom Humane Society called them a few days later to let them know that a Westie (West Highland White Terrier) dog had come in and placed on hold for them for a day, so they could meet him. 

Hamish had come from a dog hoarding situation. His fur was matted with feces and had to be shaved, but as Humphries and St. Clair were tentatively sniffed by Hamish in the meeting room, they knew they had found their dog.

The weeks and months following their adoption of Hamish were difficult. He had territory-marking issues. He woke up in the middle of the night snarling and barking at nothing and would not calm down. “I was so tired, [it was] like having a new baby, and I’m 73,” said St. Clair. “I’m not at the age I want to have a new baby.” 

Humphries and St. Clair found themselves nearly at the end of their ropes, almost ready to surrender Hamish back to the Humane Society. But by working with a professional trainer and day care center, Hamish’s behavioral problems started to subside and he started to regain confidence.

The right breeder, for the right reasons

With all the difficulty in finding the “perfect” adoptable pet at a shelter, many people have chosen to work with a breeder even if it means a higher up-front cost. 

However, there are risks, according to Janine Ceja, executive director of the Skagit Humane Society. “I commend the pet breeder that’s responsible and willing to go ahead and go an extra mile, making sure that the pet that they’re selling is a pet that’s not going to be exploited.”

Unfortunately, she said, “You have folks out there that are breeding that don’t have a good setup, they don’t have a healthy environment set up for these animals that they’re selling. And the ones that are paying the price are the animals.”

Linda Maffett, an American Kennel Club licensed Labrador Retriever judge, as well as Labrador breeder agrees. She cautioned against puppy mills and backyard breeders that throw up a few key red flags, such as unwillingness to show the animal’s parents or genealogy, or suggesting to meet in a parking lot to exchange the puppy. According to Maffett and O’Keefe, if you see an ad for just a puppy, it’s probably not coming from a reputable breeder. 

“The buyers just need to do their research,” said Maffett. “It’s so typical that once the family decides ‘we’re going to get a puppy, we got to get it right now,’ you know? ‘We’ve made a decision, let’s get one now.’ And that’s not always the way you’re going to be able to find a good dog, because most of us [reputable breeders] have waiting lists.”

Mark Nelson breeds a specific Italian breed, formally recognized by the American Kennel Club in 2015, called the Lagotto Romagnolo. They’re known for being smart, scent-sensitive dogs, bred partially for their ability to locate truffles. Nelson has been breeding less than two years and during that time, he has noticed the demand for dogs increase by several hundred times. 

Nelson said that in his first year, he had about 40 or 50 inquiries about puppies. Since March, he’s had more than 800 inquiries. He’s stopped taking down payments. If there’s one thing that Nelson wants breeders to be aware of, especially this year, is that they aren’t just filling an economic hole. 

“It’s become more important than ever that we are asking the right question,” said Nelson. “That we are finding families that are truly ready for a dog … rather than plugging a short-term hole.”

Shelters and rescues in regional partnerships

In other (warmer) parts of the country, stray animals are more common and shelters are often overwhelmed in these regions. That means that a quickly growing dog will need to be moved from one part of the country to another where it’s more likely that they’ll find a home that can take proper care of the animal, according to Bradshaw. 

To do this, shelters have established informal partnerships to move these animals around, according to Amy Millman, director of Main Street Mutts, a rescue organization. If one rescue takes in a dog, and all their foster homes are full, another might have the space to hold the dog until it can be adopted, said Millman. This shuffling highlights the difference between rescues and shelters: While shelters have a physical presence, a rescue works with volunteers to temporarily house the animals in foster homes. 

For the Whatcom Humane Society, rescue groups serve a valuable purpose. According to Kelsey Forbes, Outreach and Education coordinator for the Whatcom Humane Society, rescue organizations helped them in the early lockdown by taking dogs and cats out of the shelter and freeing space for incoming animals, which the Whatcom Humane Society are required to take in.

The work of the fosters — driving to meet the animal, picking it up, holding it and taking care of it (including if it needs potty or behavioral training) — is unpaid. Most expenses such as vet bills and food are paid by the rescue organization, but Millman emphasized that volunteers are “the backbone of our whole rescue.” She said that barring reasonable accommodation, if the adopter isn’t willing to take the extra steps to meet the foster who has dedicated time and gotten to know the dog, that they probably won’t be a great prospective owner for the dog, either. 

For the Alternative Humane Society, the costs of adoption rarely break even with the costs of care, according to O’Keefe. “What people don’t understand is, for the most part, we spend more on our pets than we end up taking in an adoption fee. We rarely ever break even,” said O’Keefe.

Making the commitment

As the pandemic ends, local shelters and rescues expect to deal with an influx of surrenders, as people find that they don’t have the time to deal with a dog that is left home alone during the day. Ceja expects that many of these dogs will be reaching their teenage years right when people will start going back to work and that will lead to more troubles at home, and possibly more return of adoptees. 

Along with the biological “puppy season” coming in Spring as the weather begins to warm, shelters and rescues are expecting a significant increase in surrenders and are hoping that the trend of adoptions continues to meet it.

Humphries warns that even for experienced dog owners, “if you don’t know all of a dog’s history, [you should] be prepared for some difficult times. But if you just have confidence and aren’t too rigid, take the rough with the smooth, you end up with a great dog.”

Breeders, shelters, and rescues in the region are optimistic that many of these pets will find their forever homes, like how Hamish found his home, curled up with his nose in the crook of Humphries’ arm, and Taffy making herself a home with Dee Simmons.

Alex Meacham is a recent Western Washington University graduate with a degree in environmental journalism. He spends his free time playing with his dog and enjoys craft beer, cooking and videography.