Is the Trend Toward Open Adoption Good for Animal Welfare?

In this post, I talk to Rain Jordan about the use of “open adoption” policies in animal shelter and rescue organizations, and why she thinks these policies put animals at risk. We also explore how the language and goals of rescue could usefully shift, so that instead of talking about “making animals more adoptable” (which puts responsibility on the animal) we talk about “making adopters more adaptable” (which puts responsibility right where it should be: with humans).

Rain works in canine training and behavior, specializing in fearful and traumatized dogs. She also runs an international non-profit rescue, training and behavior modification, and public education organization.

Can you define for readers what “open adoption” means and why it is not, as supporters claim, a new and “progressive” approach to re-homing shelter and rescue animals? Why do shelters sometimes call it “conversational adoption”?

“Open adoption” is a practice that seeks to make potential adopters feel comfortable and welcome during the adoption process rather than screened for suitability for the desired animal. As a result, proponents of the practice reject feasibility and safety measures such as detailed adoption applications, home visits, landlord permission checks, et cetera.  

“Progressive” means working for better conditions by employing new and experimental ideas. Because open adoption proponents reject screening of applicants, they increase the likelihood of worse conditions for animals.  That makes the practice regressive. Additionally, open adoption practices are not new; they are essentially a rebranding of the same old ways. For how many decades has it been easy to get an animal? Walk into a shelter, pick a pet, pay a fee (or not), sign a simple form, and off you go.  The only notable difference is that now there is a “conversation” added. Some organizations go so far as to encourage adopters to rehome the animals themselves, if they don’t like their initial choice of animal, by listing on craigslist, giving to a friend, etc.

Proponents of open adoptions cite less work for staff, more room for new intakes, and higher adoption numbers. But these things help people and their organizations more than they help animals per se. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to help people, but animal welfare organizations are supposed to be focused on doing what is best for the animals. Practices that make it easier for people to get animals do not help already scared, previously abused or neglected, or otherwise at-risk animals because without proper screening of adopters, the potential for another round of neglect, abandonment, trauma, or abuse is greater.

The old practice of open adoption is often given the new name, “conversational adoption,” because a “conversation” with a potential adopter replaces detailed application and screening processes. But conversation is a key element of screening-inclusive adoptions as well.  The difference is the attention to important details—our conversations are much more comprehensive.

Proponents of open/conversational adoption claim that “barriers to adoption” need to be reduced or eliminated. The problem with this stance is it assumes that a higher number of adoptions is more important than the suitability and longevity of the adoption—it values quantity over quality. Just as physical barriers are used in other areas of life to ensure that no one gets hurt or goes someplace they shouldn’t, the “barrier” of proper screening helps protect and save lives, by working to ensure that the animal goes where she should.

Why do you think that the move toward open adoptions is putting animals at risk?

Since practitioners of open adoption skip feasibility and safety measures such as detailed adoption applications, home visits, landlord permission checks, etc., animals are being sent into unknown and potentially high-risk settings. Conversational adoption only provides claims, not evidence, of feasibility and safety. Skipping landlord confirmation of pets being allowed can easily result in the adopted pet being returned, given away or sold, abandoned, or even killed. No home checking means zero chance of discovering applicant-unreported unfriendly, unsafe, or unhealthy conditions.  And without a detailed application, an adoption coordinator has little idea of what the topics of conversation should be with each individual. These are just a few examples of many.

Some open adoption practitioners check to see if an adopter has a conviction of animal abuse, but there are many types of abuse, not just the kind that make the courts and the news. And these checks say nothing about the other household members of the adopter with whom the adoptee must live.

What do we know about the success rates of open adoption programs?

Scientifically, very little. Partly this is because those who adopt then surrender, give away, sell, lose, harm, or euthanize an adopted animal are unlikely to report doing so, which could explain why one of the most advertised studies done on open adoption had about 50% of adopters ignore the email and phone call surveys that were the only tools for the gathering the data used to measure success. (Even if you believe that 50% response is normal, it still means we are not getting a true picture.) Furthermore, this particular study and others are conducted by open adoption proponents, who of course are hoping to prove “success”; as a result, both the set up and the presentation of such studies are likely not objective.

Subjectively, proponents may claim that the practice is “successful” when adopters are happy with their experience at the practicing shelter or when lots of animals are adopted. Things like “clear the shelter” events and free adoptions increase those numbers, but they do not attempt to confirm the safety and well-being of adopted animals, nor even whether animals remain, with their adopters, so there is no evidence of success for those adopted animals. The long-term welfare of adopted animals should be the criterion by which success is measured, but in open / conversational adoption, such measurement is, by nature of the practice, impossible.

How would you define a successful adoption?

In a successful adoption, the adopter prioritizes the animal’s safety, well-being, and happiness, and he acts accordingly. The adopter would do everything in his power to avoid taking actions—or letting others take actions—that lead to the animal feeling (or being!) unsafe, afraid, or anxious. The adopter rejects aversive treatment, handling, and training. The safe, well, and happy adoptee and adopter remain together.

What kind of adoption process is most likely to lead to success, as judged by well-being of the animals? Why?

A process needs to be screening-inclusive and comprehensive to give the animal the greatest chance for success and the highest likelihood of well-being.  Nothing is perfect and screening is no exception, but well-being is much more likely to result from a screening-inclusive adoption than one without screening.  This is so true that it is almost tautological. 

I also believe that the adopter remaining in regular contact with the placement organization further heightens adoptee well-being, since any potential issues are then more likely to be discovered or reported very early on rather than ignored until it is too late to save the adopter-adoptee relationship or, in some sad cases, to save the adoptee herself.

Between screening and continued, personal contact, services to the adopter are improved as well. Screening provides insights that help organizations understand how to best educate, serve, and work in supportive partnership with adopters, and continued personal contact throughout the life of the adoptee helps facilitate ongoing cooperative efforts to support the adopter, not only by responding to difficulties, but by reducing the likelihood that difficulties arise.

What concerns you most about conversational or open adoptions?

The reality that animals adopted out without benefit of confirming adoptee suitability means these animals remain at risk—in some cases, even more serious risk. This is simply not good animal welfare at work. How devastating to be a surrenderer giving over an animal due to, e.g., the surrenderer’s terminal illness, or to be the rescuer, or the animal herself, only to then have that animal placed in conditions worse than any previous conditions were.

One thing I like about your work is a subtle but powerful shift in language. Rather than talking about making animals “more adoptable” (putting responsibility for success on their shoulders), you talk instead about making people who adopt a rescue “more adaptable” (placing responsibility on the human). Can you talk more about why you are trying to change the way we talk about animals and adoption?

Yes! Until we change our habitual, sometimes self-centric ways of thinking and speaking, these ways inadvertently perpetuate the problems of at-risk animals, so we are not properly serving the animals who are entrusted to us. The proof of this is in the fact that so many animals continue to find themselves in sanctuaries, shelters, rescues, foster homes, and euthanasia rooms. As long as the welfare community continues to focus on “interventions” that animals must accept, we thereby avoid admitting that we, too, need “interventions” if are we going to be able to truly help the helpless. We are responsible for their well-being. We need to stop acting as if they are responsible for it. If that were possible, they wouldn’t come to us, over and over again.

What do you think is the most effective way to improve welfare outcomes for animals? 

In addition to reinvigorating and supporting screening-inclusive* adoption, it is time we take our next big step forward.  Every time an animal is relocated, there is a decent possibility her behavior as well as emotional state will be negatively affected. With each new environment come responses to that environment; we can toss up our hands and hope she responds positively, or we can innovate, providing each adoptee plenty of opportunity for her emotional and behavioral responses to be enriched rather than diminished. But how can we do that unless we relocate with her? What we can do is equip adopters with crucial skills. To most effectively address adoptee behavior after adoption, adopters must be provided these skills before a need arises. 

Colleagues and I are working on what is tentatively called the TBL program. TBL stands for Training & Behavior Literacy. The program’s key goal—the most innovative part—is to ensure that every adopter leaves the placement organization with two new gifts instead of one: Each adopter takes home an adopted animal and a TBL toolbox, so that the adopter is prepared to properly respond to behavioral/emotional difficulties that may occur, whether immediately or down the road. The TBL program is an ABA-based, anti-aversive program to prepare each adopter for R+ (positive reinforcement) training and classical conditioning/counterconditioning before he leaves with an adopted animal, thereby exponentially increasing every adoptee’s chances at a safe, well, and happy life with her adopter. Together with screening-inclusive adoption, the TBL program will decrease the number of returns, surrenders, abandonments, abuses, and euthanasia—in other words, it is a life-improving and life-saving innovation.

Some will complain that TBL would be too labor intensive and too expensive. To that I would say, Isn’t it worth the lives saved? I would also remind those people of the correlation between behavior problems and euthanasia and remind them what it means to be an animal welfare professional, what it means to be responsible for and entrusted with the safety and well-being of surrendered, rescued, sheltered, and re-homed animals. And I would ask the public to ask itself, when millions of dollars currently are spent on less thorough practices of questionable efficacy and ethics, why not put that money and effort to better use?  Surely we would like to stop the revolving doors of suffering, sheltering, and rehoming.  Wouldn’t we?


* The ramshackle argument that screening-inclusive policies result in sending adopters into the arms of breeders seems manipulative if not absurd. First, the few who do buy from a breeder were probably predisposed to that anyway or they wouldn’t have done it, and one might argue that doing so suggests these folks are not committed to the principles of rescue to begin with. Second, the most reputable, responsible breeders are also screening-inclusive, and we don’t see a lot of “clear the breeder’s house day” or “free AKC purebred adoption day” events. I’m not saying that breeders are more animal-well-being committed than animal welfare professionals are. Perhaps when you’re paid $1500 for a pet, you are more acutely aware of the animal’s value and therefore more likely to work to protect that animal?  That’s just an off the cuff musing. I’m not stumping for breeders. In fact, it is my understanding that some breeders believe me to be radically anti-breeder.

The truth is, I’m radically anti-suffering—and I believe that lack of screening and lack of humane behavior and training proficiency are harbingers of suffering.

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