This is a guest post from Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center. At the time of this post, she was with Fairfax County Animal Shelter in VA.
About a month ago, Fairfax County Animal Shelter removed all breed labels from our adoption kennels. There was much discussion and debate prior to us making this decision. Would the public be confused? Angry? Would community members protest?
We were committed to being honest with potential adopters. If the dog they were interested in might be visually identified as a breed that faces restriction, we would make them aware that breed specific laws or housing rules could affect them.
But was that enough? Would taking breed labels off our kennels prove too disruptive to serve our purpose?
To our surprise, no one even asked why the kennel cards weren’t labeled with breeds.
We also learned that no matter what the kennel card says, potential adopters, volunteers and staff will make guesses. And they’re usually going to disagree with each other about those guesses.
Brownie and his new family
We did notice an increase in people asking us about the breed of a particular dog. This turned out to be a good thing. The question provides the perfect opening for a staff person or volunteer to talk about the inaccuracy of breed labeling and the importance of getting to know each dog as an individual with its own unique personality traits.
Now that we’ve removed the labels from the kennel cards, we’ll be working with our shelter software system to remove the breed labels from our ‘adoptable’ pets list so dogs will be described only with their names, ages and personality profiles.
Our journey to do away with breed labels began about a year ago, when we stopped referring to dogs as ‘pit bulls’ or ‘Staffordshire terriers’ on our social media platforms. Between 2013 and 2014, adoptions of dogs visually identified as ‘pit bulls’ quadrupled and we knew we were on to something big. We talked about the individual dog’s personality, quirks, sociability with other dogs and people, but we stopped talking about breed.
We did this because we know the term ‘pit bull’ does not describe any breed of dog. Rather, it’s a subjective label that means different things to different people and has no basis in science or genetics. In our mission to get our adopters to see the dog not the label, and in the interest of full disclosure, the most honest thing we could do when describing our dogs was to simply say, “We don’t know what the breed or breed mix is.”
A happy new FCAS family
Things got a little more complicated when we stopped labeling all dogs, because we would all stand in front of a dog, and a staff member would say, “That IS a purebred Dachshund” or Rottweiler or whatever they thought it was. But, we asserted, the vast majority of dogs in our shelter are of mixed breed heritage and unless we have indisputable proof a dog came from a breeder and has a documented pedigree, we don’t know for sure. And even then, how does a breed label, any breed label help a dog get a home?
People are going to make their own visual breed identification whether it’s written on a kennel card or not. It simply isn’t necessary nor is it honest for us to present our guesses of any breed as if they are fact.
At our shelter, we’re having a lot of success focusing on the dog, not the perceived breed. But each animal welfare organization has its own challenges and in some places, not labeling is impossible because of breed specific legislation or breed-based adoption restrictions. What then?
It’s up to us, as advocates, no matter what our particular situation, to start explaining to people that breed labels are subjective, not based in science and that when we, as animal welfare professionals guess, we guess wrong at least 50% and often 75% of the time. We should be telling people that the vast majority of dogs in our shelters are mutts or mixed breeds and that the way they look says nothing reliable about their behavior.
Jasper and his new family
If you are at a shelter or rescue where putting an end to breed labeling is a possibility, consider trying the following and tracking the results. You may be surprised at the immediate changes in your adoption numbers.
1. Stop using breed labels in social media posts. In some cases, a breed label gives your followers a quick reason to say no and keep scrolling. Instead, for a week, just tell the story of each particular dog. People love stories and it helps them connect with dogs they otherwise might be drawn to.
2. Remove the breed labels from your kennel cards for one week and see what happens. Make sure to spread the word to volunteers and staff so you can be on the same page with potential adopters.
3. Ask your shelter software provider if they can remove breed labels from adoptable dogs online. We use a provider that is able to remove the public labels on adoptable dogs (even though they will not remove the breed labels entirely).
4. Role play with staff and volunteers about how to respond when a visitor says, “What breed is it?” Not sure what to say? The truth works: “We’re not sure! The vast majority of our dogs are of mixed-breed origin and when we guess we are often wrong.”
5. It’s human nature to put things into categories and most of us label dogs by breed, even if it’s for a purely functional reason, like asking someone to, “Go adopt that Maltese.” Challenge yourself and your colleagues to find non-breed descriptors for your dogs.
It takes a lot of practice to break the breed labeling habit, but you can do it!
For more information on breed identification please see the National Canine Research Council’s website and the Animal Farm Foundation infographic, All Dogs Are Individuals.
And for more on Fairfax County Animal Shelter’s progressive and effective adoption policies, please see No Restrictions, Just Success.
Last year we had the privilege to meet several members of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter (FCAS) at our Language and Advocacy Internship program. Later that year, FCAS shared that they had been able to double the number of “pit bull” dog adoptions at their shelter. This accomplishment is noteworthy at any shelter, but FCAS managed to increase adoptions while still struggling to remove a long list of breed restrictions on their “pit bull” dogs!
In January, FCAS’s efforts to remove the restrictions finally paid off. Today, FCAS is able to treat all dogs as individuals. We recently spoke with Kristen Auerbach, the Director of Communications and Outreach, at FCAS to find out more.
AFF: Prior to January 2014, what were the restrictions on “pit bull” dog adoptions at FCAS?
FCAS: The major components of the policy were:
-Adopter must be 25 or over
-Adopter must own a home
-Adopter must undergo a home visit
-Adopter must undergo a background check
-Adopter must agree to take their dog to training classes.
How did the restrictions directly affect adoptions?
As you can imagine, four out of five adopters walked out the door once they heard about the restrictions, even the ones that did qualify. We had to explain the policy to adopters, while simultaneously asserting that “pit bull” isn’t a breed and that pit bull type dogs were really okay. It didn’t make sense to people.
Each restriction affected adoptions differently. Many adopters who were turned away because of age were really frustrated. They wanted to ‘do the right thing’ and help a homeless pit bull dog. So many young people left in tears because they were aware of the plight facing pit bull dogs and they wanted to help.
The homeowner restriction was a huge problem too. Even if you rented a home and had lived there for ten years, you still couldn’t adopt a pit bull type dog, even if your landlord gave you permission.
The background check and home visit: No one ever objected to these, but they prevented countless adoptions, mostly because people didn’t want to wait the days or even weeks it would take for staff members to do the background check and go to do a home visit.
Fairfax is a huge county that encompasses almost 400 square miles; it can take an hour or more to get to any one place. Like most shelters, our human resources are limited and precious, and we expended a lot of them doing these home visits.
FCAS staff on the day restrictions were officially dropped at FCAS!
And how did they affect adopter’s perceptions of the “pit bull”dogs?
Overall, the restrictions both gave the public the idea that something was wrong, or at least very different, about these dogs. People who wouldn’t have even thought twice about adopting a pit bull were stopped in their tracks and left asking, “Why is the shelter so worried? Should I be worried?”
One practice that was in effect a year ago was to write “PIT BULL RULES” on every kennel card in bold, capital letters and then to highlight it with a yellow marker. Boy, that kind of thing will scare any adopter away!
What about the overall affect the restrictions had on your organization? How did they impact the staff?
The policy led to some shelter practices that compounded the problems, making things even worse. Just one year ago, the shelter had a practice of taking at least three ‘applications’ on every pit bull dog because the idea was that at least two would fall through. And that was often true. But not for the reasons you might think. It was because they got tired of waiting. Adopters are excited to bring home their new family member and they have so many options. In our area, adopters could choose any of the other shelters, most of which had no breed-specific policies.
We adopted out so few and the staff was demoralized. There was a negative attitude about pit bull type dogs – the staff seemed to dread seeing them. It wasn’t because our staff didn’t like pit bull dogs, it was because they knew that every one that went on our adoption floor was likely to wait months to find an adopter. For our staff, compassion fatigue was heightened by this sense of hopelessness around the possibility of pit bull dogs finding homes.
Finally, length of stay was a huge problem. Around 10 dogs waited five to six months or more to find homes last year. This is hard on the dogs of course, whose mental health eventually begins to decline, but it’s also devastating to the staff and volunteers who come to know and love these dogs.
In order to remove the restrictions, FCAS had to work with the Fairfax County Police Department, the County Attorney, and the County Commissioners.
What was that process like? What were their concerns about dropping the restrictions and how did you address them?
I think that the thing we did right was to really do our groundwork. We did extensive research and attended internships, conferences and trainings to learn about best practices in animal welfare.
We were really lucky, because virtually all of the other jurisdictions surrounding us: Alexandria, Arlington, Washington, Prince William, Montgomery and others had no breed-specific policies.
We built a strong case, using the research and recommendations of national organizations who have spoken out against breed-specific legislation, including the AVMA, HSUS, AFF, CDC, and others.
A turning point for us was when we invited the executive director and director of external communications from the Washington Humane Society to meet with our animal services advisory commission to talk about their adoption policies. Lisa LaFontaine and Scott Giacoppo were able to answer all of their questions and alleviate many of their concerns. It was following that meeting that the Commission agreed to unanimously support the lifting of the restrictions.
We also invested a lot of time into one-on-one meetings with the County’s leadership, who were incredibly supportive. During those private meetings, anyone who had questions or concerns was able to express that before the moment they had to make a decision.
All levels of leadership in the county, from the Chief of Police to the Board of Supervisors to the County Attorney, were supportive of the changes. Of course, there were initial concerns about public safety, but we were able to use information from Animal Farm Foundation, the National Canine Research Council, and other organizations to show that moving away from breed-specific policies would actually support and increase public safety and responsible pet ownership.
Do you have any advice for other shelters that are considering dropping blanket restrictions based on breed?
What some people forget is that this is a cultural shift. If you’re going to change the way that others think about pit bull type dogs, breed restrictions, or anything else, you might have to also look at the way you think about those things.
For example, we are constantly interrogating our own ideas and assumptions. We’ll catch ourselves stereotyping a certain breed or type of animal, and realize that whether we’re stereotyping a pit bull, a Dalmatian, or a guinea pig, we’re doing a disservice to that animal. At AFF, you say, “All dogs are individuals.” We took that a step further in our shelter and our slogan is “All animals are individuals!”
Before overturning the restrictions, we started to make small changes that would help change the internal culture of the shelter as well as the experience people had when they came into the shelter. For example, “PIT BULL RULES” changed to “Ask about my special adoption procedure!” It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step in the right direction.
A positive spin on “pit bull rules” and restrictions. Better, but not ideal!
Instead of taking three applications on every pit bull type dog, we took one, and then committed to seeing in through in a timely manner. And then, if the adoption fell through, we made the dog available again. While we had the restrictions, we sped up the process so that instead of an adoption taking three weeks, it took three or four days. This was hard on the staff and volunteers, who had to drop what they were doing for a home visit or to run a background check, but it got the dogs adopted.
And after the AFF training, we decided that we were going to invest a lot of time and energy into showing off our pit bull type dogs. We did this thoughtfully, as to not isolate or differentiate them, but we made sure that when people saw our pit bull dogs on their computers and smart phones, that they would want those pit bulls – in their home, on their couch, playing with their kids, cuddling with their cat, or riding shotgun in the car.
We’ve been very conscious about how we want people to feel when they see Fairfax pit bulls. Some of the feeling we want our dogs’ images to elicit are: triumph, joy, overcoming, survival, thriving, love, family, laughter and comfort. We kept sad, hopeless, and angry off that list.
FCAS creates fun, positive memes to help connect with potential adopters through social media.
What impact do you foresee this policy change will have on your organization – internally or eternally?
Without the restrictions, we did 12 pit bull dog adoptions in just two weeks. Last year we only did 40 pit bull dog adoptions in the entire year!
Some of our staff and volunteers were the most hesitant about the policy changed. This really surprised us. They were afraid that the dogs wouldn’t go to good homes or that they would be victims of dog fighting. They felt that we needed to have the restrictions to protect the dogs.
What’s been great is that in just two weeks, those who were the most vocally opposed to the change have made a complete turnaround. They can’t believe how many of our dogs are getting adopted and to great families!
Those staff resources we were using to do background checks and home visits? Now those resources are going towards a more comprehensive post adoption follow up program. We’re now going to be able to reach out to adopters, ALL adopters, several ways and we’ll be able to offer them advice and resources throughout their pet’s life.
In just the past two weeks, our pit bull dog length of stay had dramatically decreased. Last year, we had nearly 10 pit bulls who spent five to six months waiting for adoptive homes. We’re hoping that nobody has to wait more than a month or so to be adopted.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. It’s wonderful to see all of your hard work paying off for the staff and volunteers, the adopters, and the “pit bull” dogs in your care. Bravo FCAS!!
It seems like just the other day that we were writing the 2012 wrap up (read that here). But here we are at the end of 2013 already!
We’re excited to report that the positive trends we shared with you a year ago are still in full effect: Towns across the country are continuing to veto and repeal Breed Specific Legislation, shelters are dropping blanket restrictions from their adoption polices, and community advocates are busy connecting families with much needed pet-related resources.
This continual positive shift for “pit bull” dogs and their families has allowed us to commit more time in 2013 to working with a variety of shelters, their staff, and volunteers.
It’s not exactly headline news or breaking research, but getting to work one-on-one with shelters is big stuff! Why? Because shelters are the local animal experts in their community, working with and speaking on behalf of “pit bull” dogs and their families. For that reason, the time we spend working with shelters is always worthwhile (and a lot of fun!).
As the year comes to a close, we couldn’t think of a better way to wrap up 2013 than by sharing a few successes that you probably won’t hear about anywhere else! The following is just a handful of the shelters we’ve worked with in the past 12 months and a small sampling of the good work that’s being accomplished:
Charlotte Mecklenburg Animal Care and Control, North Carolina: Starts adopting out victims of dog fighting for the first time.
When a group of 27 “pit bull” dogs was confiscated from a dog fighting operation at the beginning of 2013, CMACC saw this case as an opportunity to evolve and dropped their former policy to euthanize all dogs from alleged dog fighting operations.
Rather than making assumptions about the dogs’ future behavior based on their past, CMACC opted to evaluate each dog as an individual. This approach, along with marketing the dogs to potential adopters in their community and partnering with rescues around the country, was a success for many of the dogs. It’s an excellent start toward treating victims of cruelty as individuals.
Bess, who is seen here graduating from her CGC class, was just one of the dogs who benefited from their policy change. Like many of the victims of dog fighting, Bess now shares her home with another dog (and a couple of cats!).
Bess on Graduation Day
Another North Carolina dog, Mara, is currently with Chicagoland Bully Breed Rescue, waiting to be adopted. We think you’ll enjoy her terrific adoption video:
Thank you CMACC for making these new beginnings possible!
Fairfax County Animal Shelter, Virginia: Dramatically increases “pit bull” dog adoptions and begins accepting “pit bull” dogs on transports from other shelters.
FCAS spent 2013 committed to creating fair, equal policies to increase “pit bull” dog adoptions. Despite having a few remaining restrictions on “pit bull” dog adoptions (which the shelter is actively working with the County to remove), FCAS was STILL able to nearly double the number of “pit bull” dog adoptions this year and achieved an overall positive release rate of 93% for their dogs!
King Tut: who can resist this guy?
In addition to starting play groups, a weekend fostering program, and a dog walking club, FCAS launched their popular Facebook page this year. And now they’re the ones teaching us a little something about great marketing via social media. Check out their photos, like the one below, designed to help this dog score a home with his ideal adopter (a guy)!
Bam Bam showing off his moves at football practice
Not only are they dedicating their efforts to getting local “pit bull” dogs adopted, but FCAS welcomes transports of dogs from nearby shelters in Virginia and DC and in 2013 those transports included “pit bull” dogs for the first time. Many shelters that accept transports do not accept “pit bull” dogs, so this deserves recognition.
Thank you FCAS for opening your doors to ALL dogs in need!
Rochester Animal Services, New York: Launched a 100% volunteer run playgroup program.
In August of 2013 RAS opened the gates to a brand new play yard, launching a play group program run entirely by volunteers and supported by the staff. In addition to using the yard to exercise and enrich more than 240 dogs (of all breeds and mixes) since the gates opened this summer, RAS also uses play groups to increase adoptions.
Throughout the week, the public is invited to view play groups, so that they can see the dogs in a different environment than in their kennels. Potential adopters get to watch the dogs at play and can pick their new best friends right out of the yard!
Snow doesn’t stop RAS volunteers from running play groups!
“We have made a commitment to marketing and promoting our play groups within our community. We post the weekly play group schedule via social media and we are committed to sharing photos and videos of play yard escapades to help build our brand. With many people expressing hesitation about viewing animals in a shelter environment, play groups provides us with yet another option/venue to capture and engage potential adopters. It is powerful stuff.” – Deb C. Volunteer
RAS Play Group Winter 2013
Rescues and other shelters are also welcome to watch the play groups. Getting to see the dogs interact in the yard helps them choose which dogs to pull for their own adoption programs. Since implementing play groups in August, RAS has increased their transfer out rate (to rescue partners) by 27%!
“I am thrilled to have this as a resource to make decisions in pulling dogs. Knowing a dog is doing well in a play group makes it easier to answer questions for potential foster homes to ensure their family pets are safe when pulling a dog from the shelter with little or no known history. It has also shown us a considerable difference in the behavior from kennel to play yard and that the play yard is a much more reliable tool than the shelter evaluations. Our rescue doesn’t rely on the leashed evaluations now that the play yard program is in place.” Melissa N. – Going to the Dogs Rescue
Thank you RAS for showing us that a small group of dedicated volunteers can make a huge difference!
Liberty Humane Society, New Jersey: Reduced Owner Surrenders by 30% through Pet Owner Support Program.
LHS, instituted a new Pet Owner Support Program in 2013 and the results have already made a huge difference. In just the first three month, owner surrendered animals have dropped 30%!
LHS tsaff member Alycia and puppies at your service!
The pilot program offers families a $35 stipend (the equivalent that LHS spends to intake a new animal) for shelter services that can help pet owners keep their animals at home, rather than surrendering them.
LHS staffer (and former AFF intern) Donte is every dog’s best friend
Services include free vaccinations, training consultations, dog crates and other simple solutions to assist families in keeping their pets at home. LHS reports that the majority of families didn’t need to use the full $35 stipend and the pets did not enter the shelter system.
Thank you LHS for helping families to stay together!
These shelters may not be making headlines, but to us and to their communities, the work they’ve done in 2013 was truly big news. Their accomplishments are indicative of what we’re seeing around the country – shelters are stepping up as the experts and making a difference for pets, people, and especially “pit bull” dogs in their communities. Bravo!
Thanks to the good work being done by these organizations, and many, many others, we’re excited to see what 2014 brings. Stay tuned for more stories, new free resources, and learning opportunities coming soon from AFF…
And Happy New Year everyone!