Teamwork Saves More Dogs

Teamwork Saves More Dogs

Rescue groups and shelters “partner up” to save dogs

By: Vicki DeGruy  Date: 06/30/1998 Category: | Rescue | Shelter Issues |


Purebred rescue groups and animal shelters have a common goal - to place abandoned pets into responsible, permanent homes. Unfortunately they often have a hard time working together to achieve it. In this month's column, we'll explore the reasons why and how they can develop better teamwork.

Relationships between rescues and shelters have improved in the last 10 years as shelters have acknowledged the legitimacy of rescue and rescues have refined their procedures. While things have come a long way, there are still areas that both need to work on to reach their maximum potential.


Shelters exist to protect animals from irresponsibility and abuse. Every day, shelter workers see the results of both come through their doors. They must also tolerate adopters who pledge to provide "good homes" but don't follow through. This kind of negative public contact, day in and day out, fosters a general distrust of people and suspicion of anyone who sounds too good to be true. At first meeting, rescue groups often sound too good to be true! They must expect to prove to shelters that they are what they say they are, know what they're doing and aren't interested in the dogs for breeding, fighting or resale. (The breeding issue is especially touchy since many rescuers are also hobby breeders. Many shelter personnel, heavily indoctrinated with the overpopulation myth and unfamiliar with the differences between irresponsible and ethical breeders lump all of them together and consider them the enemy.) As there are no legislated prerequisites to calling oneself a "rescue," anyone can claim to be one. Rescues should make their policies, contracts, facilities and references available for review before expecting to be fully trusted with a shelter's dogs.


Before breed rescues really took off in the last 10 years, shelters were the only adoption game in town. Some shelters see rescues as competition for adoptive homes, volunteers, donations and publicity. Adoption fees are often a large part of a shelter's funding (just as it is rescue's) and many charge a higher fee for purebreds. The availability of purebreds at a shelter is also a drawing card for the public, bringing in potential homes for mixed breeds as well. Releasing dogs to rescue decreases these opportunities resulting in some shelters' reluctance to utilize their services. I believe that rescues will get more cooperation from these shelters if they work with them by referring pre-screened adoption candidates to the shelter and offering post-adoption support to help make the match successful rather than against them by criticizing their policies.

Rescues can also relieve competitive feelings by sharing credit with shelters. Rescues often use the phrase "rescued from an animal shelter" when describing a dog they've placed. "Rescued from" implies that shelters are the bad guys and rescuers good, hardly a designation that makes a shelter feel positive about their role! Instead, rescues should thank shelters for allowing them to help make another happy ending possible.

Joint fundraising activities and advertising are other opportunities to bring rescues and shelters together. Some rescues hold events in conjunction with shelters, sharing the proceeds. Probably the best joint advertising ventures I can think of involve rescue web sites on the internet that include links to animal shelters and the The Muttmatcher's Messenger, the Humane Animal Rescue Team's newspaper that lists animals available through rescue as well as from animal shelters.


I believe that one of the biggest obstacles to developing good relationships between shelters and rescues is the great variety of policy among them all. Shelters in the same town may differ in everything from their hours of operation and adoption criteria to their willingness to work with outside groups and volunteers. No two rescues, even within the same breed and geographical area, seem to function alike with significant differences in the type of dogs they accept, the way they handle adoptions and the way they deal with their local shelters. Because of the many different breeds of dogs and accompanying rescue groups, I think the inconsistencies between groups are far more confusing to shelters than shelter differences are to rescue. These inconsistencies are particularly problematic because, while rescues tend to look at shelters as individuals and understand that each behaves differently, shelters tend to judge all rescue groups by their experiences with one or two. A difficult time with one rescue can convince a shelter not to work with any.


As a national rescue coordinator for my breed, I talk to several hundred shelters during the year. From their feedback, I believe that reliability is probably the biggest area in which rescues need to improve. The two most common complaints I hear are: "we called rescue but they haven't called back" and "rescue promised they'd get back to us but that was a week ago." It's always been a mystery to me why a person would publicize him or herself as a rescue contact and then fail to return calls promptly (or at all), however, this is, unfortunately, a common scenario. Nothing will get a rescue service on a shelter's bad side faster and keep them there than failing to answer their cry for help or promising help and not delivering, not to mention the damage it does to rescue in general.

In some parts of the country, rescue groups have joined together to form coalitions that have improved consistency and reliability among themselves and consequently, overall relationships with shelters. Seattle Purebred Dog Rescue and the All Breed Rescue Associations in the Houston, Texas and New Jersey/Pennsylvania areas are excellent examples. They have a basic code of conduct to which rescues must adhere in order to belong to the coalition and they publish a directory of their members' services that's distributed to local shelters for easy reference.


Frequent turnover of personnel in both groups often results in equally frequent policy revisions. A previously good relationship between a rescue and a local shelter can be lost simply by the appointment of a new shelter director who is unfamiliar with rescue. A roster of rescue volunteers can change quickly as well, leaving shelters to discover that contact phone numbers are suddenly disconnected or that a new coordinator has drastically changed the rescue's way of doing business. Better communication on both sides will help here - shelters need to make a stronger effort at continuity and transfer of information when changing managers and rescues need to keep their area shelters informed of changes in their contacts and policies.


Shelters, because of their municipal contracts, boards of directors and public perceptions, are often less flexible in their policies than private rescue services. While a greater flexibility might be able to be negotiated in some cases, I believe that rescue must be willing to meet shelters more than halfway in order to gain their full cooperation. Shelters don't have to work with rescue and if rescue makes itself difficult, they won't.

In my next columns, we'll meet some highly successful rescue groups and find out what makes them work!

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