The Pitfalls Of Adopting A Rescue Pet10:08

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Emily Yoffe's Cavalier King Charles, Lily (Courtesy of Emily Yoffe)
Emily Yoffe's Cavalier King Charles, Lily (Courtesy of Emily Yoffe)

If you’ve adopted a pet lately, perhaps you’re like many Americans who feel the right way to do that is to get an animal from a shelter or pet rescue group. But Slate contributor Emily Yoffe says "[t]he grilling you get for wanting to take in a homeless animal makes being strip-searched by the TSA seem like a holiday.”

Yoffe, who writes the popular "Dear Prudence" advice column for, mentioned her frustrating experience with pet adoption in one of her weekly online chats. A longtime pet lover and owner, she wanted to adopt a second rescue dog and found the lengthy application forms and rigorous screening process frustrating.

"There are incredibly intrusive questions,” Yoffe told Here & Now’s Robin Young. “‘Do you plan to have children in the next 10 years?' Now, the rescuers will say, well, some dogs don't do well with children, but normally one doesn't ask strangers about their reproductive choices over the next decade."

"The woman who ran the rescue at the last minute said, 'You know, I can't give you this dog... Because you have an Irish accent.. [and] the dog has never heard anything but American accents.' "

Emily Yoffe, Slate columnist

Yoffe said that each application form could be 40 to 60 questions, and after filling out several, she ended up going to a breeder and purchasing Lily, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Yoffe received dozens of letters from readers who had similarly frustrating experiences with pet adoption. She heard from a would-be pet owner who was rejected because she was over 60 years old, even though she had a daughter who promised to take care of the cat if anything happened to her.

Yoffe also heard from someone whose kitchen floor was too slippery, and one who couldn't adopt a greyhound unless she already had an adopted greyhound. One of her favorite emails was from a woman who was rejected by a setter rescue group.

"The woman who ran the rescue at the last minute said, 'You know, I can't give you this dog.' " Yoffe said. "Why? 'Because you are from Ireland, you have an Irish accent, your fiance is South African, he has a South African accent, the dog has never heard anything but American accents and this is going to be very confusing.' This is craziness!"

Yoffe says pet rescue groups are looking for the absolute perfect homes for the animals they care for, and in the screening process are preventing dogs and cats from going to good homes. But rescue groups counter that they are looking for homes that will be the best fit for the animal. Barbara Osgood, a volunteer with Lab Rescue of the Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac, in Virginia, says that her group does not "try to 'screen out people.'"

"We work to find the right match between dog and family," she said. "There is not a 'one size fits all' philosophy in rescue. Not everyone is open to the minor accommodations needed by a blind dog, can devote the necessary time to care for a puppy, or is equipped to nurse a sick dog back to health."

Moira Gingery, vice president of Best Dawg Rescue in Bethesda, Md., added that some of the examples Yoffe mentions are "out there." She says that people often take it personally when their application isn’t chosen. "In most cases, it’s likely one application just seems to be a “whole lot better” than any other application."

Response from Barbara Osgood, Volunteer for Lab Rescue of the LRCP (Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac) in Virginia


In her article “No Pet For You” (, Jan. 26, 2012), Emily Yoffe missed the point of the applicant screening procedures used by pet rescue organizations. These procedures exist to ensure the safety of both the pets and their new families, as well as to reduce the chance that the animals will be returned because of an inappropriate match.

Based on a handful of unrepresentative anecdotes, the article also unfairly maligns the thousands of rescue volunteers all over the country who spend countless hours trying to find the right homes for millions of abused, neglected, and abandoned pets every year.

Let me begin by saying that I have been a volunteer for the past 16 years with Lab Rescue of the Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac. We rescue Labrador Retrievers from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, the District of Columbia, West Virginia, Southeast Pennsylvania and Northeast North Carolina. Our Labs come from many different shelters in these states, as well as from families who, for many different reasons, are forced to give up their dogs. They may be elderly owners who can no longer care for them, military families who are shipped overseas to areas they cannot take dogs, or sadly, families who have lost their homes due to foreclosure and can’t take their beloved pets with them. When these dogs come to us we have a commitment to nurse them back to health if necessary and find an appropriate home for them. Last year we rescued and placed 902 dogs.

Our mantra is that the dogs are our clients, and we will find the best homes for them. Some of our dogs have led terrible lives. Some have been crated for their entire lives, only allowed out of the crate to take care of elimination (and sometimes not even then). Others have been chained outside without shelter and often with limited food and water.

We have rescued dogs that have been left in abandoned houses, tied to trees in the woods, dropped in the median strip of a major highway. There is no doubt that those of us who participate in rescue take a very dim view of people who treat animals so badly. But the other side of the coin is that we meet so many others involved in rescue as well as adopters who are wonderful, caring people. We could not survive in this endeavor if we were not optimistic about human nature.

We rescue dogs. That means that we do not rescue perfect dogs. We rescue puppies, old dogs, dogs ill with heartworm or cancer, blind dogs, deaf dogs, dogs with only three legs. We rescue dogs that have lived in a loving home all their lives, but we also rescue dogs that have been beaten, starved, and abandoned. Each of these dogs has different needs. There is not a “one size fits all” philosophy in rescue. Not everyone is open to the minor accommodations needed by a blind dog, can devote the necessary time to care for a puppy, or is equipped to nurse a sick dog back to heath. That’s why we have adoption applications and why we interview our applicants.

A central focus of Ms. Yoffe’s article is her criticism of rescue adoption applications, including ours. Unfortunately, she never contacted us to find out how we use the application and why we ask certain questions. The adoption application is just one input into the evaluation of a potential adopter. There are no “drop dead” questions, and no “required responses.” Applicants are also interviewed by an adoption coordinator and references are checked. After many years of experience, we have determined that all of this information is important if we are to place the dog in an appropriate environment. Not every dog can go to every environment, and we use the information we obtain to find the right match.

Ms. Yoffe specifically cited our question about the number of steps to the front door. There is a very good reason for this question. We rescue senior Labs and those with orthopedic concerns. If they can’t climb a lot of stairs we would avoid a home with many front steps. On the other hand, the question is not, as Ms. Yoffe represents, a “deal breaker”. A subsequent conversation with the adoption coordinator might reveal that the applicant would be a great adopter for such a dog and, despite the front steps, lives in a one-story home where there is another suitable entry.

The adoption process is complex, and all the information we collect helps us to develop a picture of the adoptive family and the dog that would be best for them. There is a very good reason why we are interested in whether applicants intend to have children We want to make a match that is right not only now but during all of the years that the family will share their life with the dog.

We don’t try to “screen out people”. In fact, we reject only a small percentage of applicants (less than 1%). We work to find the right match between dog and family, so that everyone will be happy with the result. We know, for example, that it is important for a dog to be socialized with young children in order it to be comfortable with them. For everyone’s safety, we do not place dogs without a child history in families with children under 10. Our applicants with young children often have to wait a little longer for the right dog, but once they have taken their new family member home, they are glad they waited.

The article tries to link rescue groups to hoarders with a statement from Dr. Randall Lockwood of the ASPCA. But Dr. Lockwood’s statement actually refers to “purported rescuers.” Actually, there have been a number of occasions when we and other rescue groups have rescued Labs from hoarding conditions and found adoptive homes for them. No reputable rescue organization would countenance hoarding conditions or hoarding behavior on the part of its volunteers.

Volunteers devote countless hours to rescue groups, with their only return the joy of seeing a pet go to a good home. The idea that we would keep this from happening is patently absurd. The more dogs we place in good homes, the more we are able to take in from the shelters. But we will never rescue a dog from a bad environment and place it in another bad or inappropriate environment.

Senior dogs are my passion, and I have experienced the joy of seeing many of my foster dogs going on to their “forever homes.” I often hear from my “alumni.” They are in wonderful, loving homes where they have a warm bed, plenty of food to eat, and people who care about them. It doesn’t get any better than that—for a rescuer or a dog!

Statement from Moira Gingery, Vice President of Best Dawg Rescue Group in Bethesda, Md.

Ms. Yoffe seems to have assumed some intermediary position between unnamed rescue groups and unnamed disgruntled applicants. All I can do is give you information based on my experience in rescue, which spans several organizations and about 15 years. First off, if a rescue organization doesn’t have high standards, what is it doing? Each group presumably places its dogs responsibly in accordance to a policy, process and knowledge of each dog, although there are variances among rescue organizations. Even shelters don’t adopt to everyone who applies for a shelter dog. And I doubt an applicant has been told that he/she is unworthy of adopting a pet. A “care for aging animals” question is not critical, as the answer is obvious. It’s only one question on applications filled with questions that have more relevance. I am sure some applications ask for personal references. We don’t. Personal references are usually friends, so why ask for that? I suspect all rescue applications ask for vet information to know how a prior pet owner/applicant cares or cared for pets. Home inspections? Maybe some rescue organizations peek into every room. We do home VISITS in a pending adopter’s home to help prepare the person/family for adoption. If they have never had a dog, and/or have pets and kids, it’s absolutely essential. However, I’ve done home visits with experienced adopters who appreciated current training tips and a brush-up on information they forgot or didn’t know anything about. I have never inspected a home, just walked into the area where the dog will spend most of his/her time, talked about how to initially contain the dog for safety and housebreaking, inspected a fence for holes, etc. (which owners don’t always see), and asked what questions the pending adopters may have. Each rescue organization’s process is typically identified on the group’s website and application form. If someone doesn’t like the process, don’t proceed! People become angry and often take it personally when their application isn’t chosen. I believe most rescue groups do not explain, just like an employer doesn’t explain to job applicant s why they were not selected. In most cases, it’s likely one application just seems to be a “whole lot better” than any other application. It could be that the person is home more or has a fenced back yard for a dog with a lot of energy to burn. Each of our temperament-tested dog has a “personality.” Some may need work with trainers or a quiet home. Rescue volunteers who work closely with their dogs should be respected for their knowledge of each dog’s needs, which aren’t often obvious at adoption shows or shelters. Having said the above, I’m sure there are a few “odd” people in the rescue world. That’s true in every facet of life! So slippery floors and accents are “out there” examples. I hope this explains some of the rationale behind what we and other rescue organizations do to ensure, to the best of our/their ability, a home that meets each dog’s needs.
Moira Gingery
Best Dawg Rescue


  • Emily Yoffe, advice columnist at 'Dear Prudence' for Slate

This segment aired on February 28, 2012.