Understanding the shelters and the process of bringing home your next family member
By Taylor Ham
Next time you look to add a furry member to your family, consider this: more than one million homeless dogs are euthanized each year, while thousands of animal shelters and rescue organizations around the country overflow with loving canine companions.
While some pet parents have no question that adoption is the way to go, others may be hesitant about adopting a dog with an unknown background and family history, or they fall prey to the stigma that “rescued” is synonymous with “broken.” The truth is that dogs end up homeless for a variety of reasons, the most common, according to the American Humane Association, being their owners move to residences that don’t allow pets. Other dogs may have been left behind by sick, aging or deceased owners or because of incompatibility issues with the family. While it is true that some rescue dogs have had difficult lives and require some extra time and TLC to blossom, others are simply misplaced pets waiting for a new family to love. In most cases, rescue organizations do a thorough job of screening dogs for potential serious issues and will work with you to find the perfect match.
Here in Northern Virginia we are fortunate to have a large network of passionate animal advocates working together to tackle the problem of animal homelessness, and potential adopters have plenty of options from which to choose. We’ve put together this guide to help you dig through the details and find your perfect pet.
Where to Adopt
These facilities, sometimes referred to as open-access shelters, are often operated by city or county governments and provide shelter, care and rehabilitation to a wide variety of animals. Because municipal shelters accept any animal that comes in regardless of breed, age, behavior or medical issues, they can rarely tout themselves as “no-kill” shelters, and sometimes do face overcrowding and funding constraints. They are no less passionate about animal welfare, however, and the animals in their care are no less wonderful than you will find elsewhere.
In fact, the municipal shelters of today are a far cry from the “dog pounds” of the past. “Over the years, animal shelters have evolved alongside the communities they serve,” says Tawny Hammond, Director of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter (FCAS). FCAS is an example of a modernizing facility determined to change lingering negative perceptions. A recent renovation and rebuilding project at FCAS has doubled its size and allowed for numerous enhancements including larger enclosures with natural light, dedicated space for treating injuries and infectious diseases and adoption rooms where pets and potential owners have a chance to meet and bond.
“We want animals to feel as comfortable as possible during their stay at the shelter. They shouldn’t feel like they are in jail,” says Hammond. With 4,000–5,000 animals coming through its doors each year, the shelter has reason to be proud of its placement rate of over 90 percent and its commitment to work closely with a network of rescue partners and fosters to find homes for all adoptable animals that come through the shelter.
Despite these successes, however, public shelters often find themselves fighting a stigma. “We try really hard to show people that the shelter isn’t a sad place, it’s a life-saving place,” says Stephanie Zain, chief operating officer of the Washington Humane Society (WHS), whose two adoption centers serve as the open-access shelters for the nation’s capital. “Great things happen in our adoption centers – we are completing lives and making happy families every day.”
WHS is unique in that it’s a congressionally chartered nonprofit that contracts with the city government to offer a variety of community services in addition to adoption, including: humane law enforcement; animal control; spay, neuter and vaccine clinics; and public outreach and education. Many other municipal shelters form similar partnerships with independent organizations to improve outcomes for the animals in their care. The Prince William County SPCA, for example, is a nonprofit made up entirely of volunteers that has no shelter or foster program of its own, but works closely with two municipal shelters in Manassas to increase adoption rates and enhance quality of life for homeless pets.
Private Shelters and Rescue Groups
Private shelters are organizations that rely on funding from the community and revenue from adoption fees to cover day-to-day operations. They are often advertised as “no kill” shelters, as they have greater control in ensuring that all the animals taken in are adoptable or able to be placed in long-term foster care.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have fewer pets available, however. Friends of Homeless Animals (FOHA) is a private shelter that typically houses more than 100 dogs and up to 60 cats on 40 acres in Aldie, Va. “We get hundreds of emails each week with pictures of dogs that are in jeopardy,” says President Laura Dove. In addition to helping individual owners who can no longer care for their animals, FOHA works with municipal shelters in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland to help as many animals as they have room for. With miles of wooded dog-walking trails, room is something FOHA is in the unique position to offer both dog residents and potential adopters. “We believe in a no-pressure approach to adoption with no time limit to how long you can spend bonding with your new prospective family member,” Dove says.
The Briggs Animal Adoption Center (BAAC) in Charles Town, West Virginia, is another large private shelter that relies solely on charitable contributions for funding. The BAAC prides itself on offering the highest quality veterinary care as well as socialization and basic obedience training for dogs. Private shelters often have the additional flexibility needed to offer these types of unique features that make them stand out from the crowd.
Homeward Trails Animal Rescue opened its first facility in Fairfax Station last fall, which has three indoor play rooms and three outdoor play yards where dogs have the opportunity to exercise and socialize together during the day before heading to their crates for a night of restful sleep. Rescue groups like Homeward Trails come in all sizes and types, and not all have brick-and-mortar buildings; many rely on a vast network of foster homes to provide care for animals. These groups can be breed-specific or cater to all breeds, and may be powered by volunteers or operated as nonprofits with full-time staff. Because many of the animals these organizations take in end up living in foster homes, potential adopters benefit from gaining additional insight into the personality and behavior a dog exhibits in a home setting and with other pets and people.
What to Expect
The adoption process, timeline and fees will vary depending on whether you find your dog at a municipal shelter, a private rescue or in a foster home. In any case, your adoptive pet will likely come already spayed or neutered, micro-chipped and up-to-date on vaccinations. Adopting from a rescue or private shelter may be a longer and more personalized process, as these organizations often focus not only adopting animals, but also choosing the very best homes for each. In some cases the process may take a week or longer and involve a home visit and trial meetings with other family pets, while at many municipal shelters animals are often ready to go home on the same day.
The process starts by filling out an adoption application, either online or in person, which asks questions about your living arrangements, family members and prior experience with pets. Once you’ve found an animal you are interested in, you will meet with an adoption counselor to ask questions and learn more about personality, energy level and any special care or training needs. “We look at the adoption process as a conversation, not as a screening or an interview,” says Zain. “There are no right and wrong answers – we want to find out what you are looking for and if that dog will meet your needs and vice versa.” If the animal you are interested in is in foster care, you will likely have to contact the foster parent directly to set up a time to meet. Be sure to check on the organization’s policies and procedures ahead of time so you know what to expect before you go, and remember that no matter the details of the process, at the end of the day the goal is the same – to find loving homes for every animal.
Before You Go
As excited as you may be at the prospect of a new pet, remember that bringing a dog into your life is a significant commitment, and one that should be undertaken with patience. Before rushing off to the shelter to find your best bud, spend some time thinking about what kind of companion will suit your lifestyle. Timing is also critical. Consider what else you have going on in your life, and if you can realistically negotiate the responsibilities that will come with a new addition. Choose to adopt at a time when your life is relatively stable and you have the extra time and energy to devote to helping ease the transition home. “While some rescue animals settle right in to a new home, others need patience and time,” advises Dove. “Hope for the best but expect there will be a time of adjustment.”
GoodDogz.org is a Reston-based nonprofit that offers a number of online resources to potential adopters, including a step-by-step guide to help walk you through deciding whether a rescue dog is right for you, how to choose a dog and what to expect in terms of commitment and costs associated with feeding, training and health care. You will also find a comprehensive database of rescue groups organized by state and breed, and an online community to offer information and support throughout the process.
Starting your search online allows you to see many animals at once. You can go straight to a shelter or rescue’s website, or check out petfinder.com to search multiple sources by breed, age and gender. Once you’ve generated a shortlist, however, there is no substitute for getting out and seeing which dog you really connect with in person.
If you take your time, do your research and use all the resources available to you, adopting a dog should be an enjoyable and fulfilling experience, no matter which route you take to get there.
Taylor Ham is a freelance writer from Ithaca, NY. She currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with her husband Stephen and two dogs, Samson and TJ.
Briggs Animal Adoption Center
731 Berryville Pike
Charles Town, WV 25414
Washington Humane Society
Georgia Avenue Adoption Center
7319 Georgia Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20012
New York Avenue Adoption Center
1201 New York Avenue, NE
Prince William County Animal Shelter
14807 Bristow Road
Manassas, VA 20112
Manassas City Animal Adoption Center
10039 Dean Drive
Manassas, VA 20110
Animal Welfare League
4101 Eisenhower Avenue
Alexandria, VA 22304
Animal Welfare League of Arlington
2650 S. Arlington Mill Dr.
Arlington, VA 22206
Friends of Homeless Animals
firstname.lastname@example.org or call
Address to shelter given out after speaking with representative
Homeward Trails Animal Rescue
11116 Fairfax Station Road
Fairfax Station, VA
Mutt Love Rescue
PO Box 1005
Fairfax, VA 22038