Help for Homeless Pets: The ins and outs of adoption from experience

Editor’s Note: For the next three weeks, The Sun looks into the state of homeless pets in South Jersey and what is being done to find homes — and futures — for thousands of animals. This article is one of two featured in the third week of this series.

Brian and Barbara Agnew have a lot of love to give.

Wanting nothing more than to raise a family, before getting married the couple committed to raise a dog together to experience caring for another life.

Last year, after finding out they could not have children and did not currently have the money to adopt a child, Barbara and Brian decided they needed an outlet for all of the care and love they want to give. They decided to share that love with some small furry beings by adopting dogs instead.

“We just started adopting, figuring that while we wait for our dream of adopting a child to come true, why not help a couple of pups who need some tender loving care, which we have plenty of,” Brian said.

The Agnews have four dogs in their home. Brian and Barbara have an affinity for helping the less fortunate dogs — ones that are older, have ailments and spend a long time at the shelter.

“They all have a story. They all have stuff they went through, but … they have so much love to give,” Barbara said, “and you get so much back.”

Coming to adopt

Brian and Barbara met in 2006 and married in 2008. They lived in an apartment in Haddonfield before moving to a home in Sickerville.

They decided to adopt their first dog in late 2006.

“We both grew up with dogs and felt like we wanted a dog together. We wanted to care for something before marriage. It really brought us together and created a common goal,” Brian said.

Both knew they wanted to adopt a pet over buying from a breeder or a store.

“We really wanted to make a difference. There are so many dogs out there that need help and that people don’t consider,” Barbara said.

Before they adopted, Brian and Barbara were sure to think about what they wanted and what kind of dog was appropriate for them so they felt prepared. They knew they wanted an older dog because puppies can be a lot of work with energy and training. However, they didn’t have a preference on breed. The only thing they had to be careful of was the apartment they were living in didn’t allow dogs more than 25 pounds.

According to Dawn Mason, operations director for the Voorhees Animal Orphanage, it is important to ask yourself questions in preparation for a pet. Thinking about the appropriateness of your living situation, your lifestyle, your personality and how that fits with your potential pet is very important.

“We want to make sure the family or person matches the dog’s needs and personality,” Mason said.

Once they had an idea of what they wanted, Barbara and Brian decided to go to the VAO to find a dog. Looking throughout the shelter, one dog in particular caught their eye. It was Niles, a miniature pinscher, who was around 7 or 8 at the time. He was found in Georgia and was a week from being put down before he was rescued and brought into the VAO, which is a no-kill shelter. Niles was at the shelter for seven months before Barbara and Brian adopted him.

“He was the best dog. He was sweet and would follow you around like a puppy,” Brian said.

After Niles came their second dog, Ellie, a now 2-year-old cairn terrier. Ellie’s addition to the family came about unexpectedly. A coworker of Barbara’s had gotten a puppy and couldn’t handle the responsibility. When Barbara commented on the adorableness of Ellie, then 6 months, her coworker asked if she wanted her. After consulting with Brian, Barbara agreed.

The Agnews weren’t finished, though. They wanted another dog and went to the shelter once again. Since they had smaller dogs and Niles was older, they kept to the less than 25-pound dogs, as it is better for socialization, according to Brian.

At the shelter, they found Milo, a jack russell terrier mix. Milo’s anxiety problems dissuaded potential adopters, however Barbara and Brian wanted to give him a chance and have since found he’s a great fit.

When Niles died in January 2015, it was a big hit to the family. However, it seemed it was fate. Not long after, the Agnews once again visited VAO and found a dog they wanted to adopt — Rudyard, an older miniature pinscher that looked exactly like Niles. He was found wandering around North Jersey for months before finally being caught and brought to a shelter.

However, the Agnews were not done. About a month ago, after filing their taxes, the Agnews thought it was time to once again add to their family. This time, their eyes fell on Gretel, a bichon poodle mix that came into the shelter in horrendous condition. She was found in a box outside a Dunkin Donuts in freezing cold weather. Her fur was nothing but lumps of mats, and once shaved, she was found to have a deformed front paw. Although the whole family — dogs and humans — are still adjusting to Gretel, they all seem to deeply love one another.

“If you build trust, show them a nice home and be patient with them, they’ll come around and adapt to you,” Brian said.

The adoption process

For each of their adoptions, the Agnews had to go through a process to get their furry baby. They used both the internet and in-person considerations for their adoptions.

If considering adoption, there are many ways you can search to find pets. You can check online at the shelters’ websites or other well-known adoption sites such as www.petfinder.com or www.adoptapet.com. You can also go in person to the shelter to see the pets. If you apply to adopt a dog online, you still must go to meet the dog in person.

The VAO is open seven days a week for the public. Potential adopters are invited to meet with the staff and are encouraged to have a walk-around to see all the animals available for adoption. If an adopter is interested in a certain pet, they are able to take the pet out of the cage and interact with him or her. If both adopters and staff feel it’s a good match, the potential adopter would be considered.

For Brian and Barbara, from the submission of their application, it would usually take about one to three days to hear back from the shelter, after the shelter hears back from vet, landlord and personal references.

Once the application is approved, the shelter will ensure all family members in a household, including dogs, officially meet with the prospective adoptee before they are allowed to go home, to be sure everyone gets along. The whole process would usually take anywhere from four days to a week.

“We do not do same-day adoptions, as many people that come through our doors just happen to be passing by and come in just out of curiosity to see what we do and what kind of animals we have. Many times, a customer may impulsively do an application for a cat or dog, without consulting their whole family or fully grasping the responsibility of owning a dog or cat,” Mason said.

However, that isn’t the case for all shelters. The Burlington County Animal Shelter, the Animal Welfare Association and Camden County Animal Shelter allow for same-day adoptions.

“We’ve recently moved to same-day adoption,” Eric Arpert, Burlington County public information officer, said. “In prior years, adopting in our facility could be a multi-day or week process.”

The shelters all strive to place animals in loving, responsible homes. However, a shelter environment does not provide an ideal situation. Same-day adoptions help ensure the best quality of life for all animals, according to Arpert.

While the application has the potential to be approved in the same day, that doesn’t necessarily mean an animal can leave the shelter right away, since all animals need to be vetted and spayed or neutered before adoption.

“One of the issues you face without a same-day application process is that the shelter can miss out on an opportunity,” Arpert said, explaining that while a family is waiting for an application approval, they may find another animal at another shelter to bring home. “If you’re approved that day … that’s less likely to happen.”

The hurdles and drawbacks

Though adoption might seem like the right choice, there are some potential hurdles people may have to clear or they might find drawbacks to adoption.

Shelters try their best to not have any hurdles for potential adopters, however they are still there.

“We’re not here to add frustrations or barriers,” Vikki Rowland from the Camden County Animal Shelter said. “(Adopters) are here to adopt a dog or a cat, and our staff and volunteers are here to assist them with that and make it the best fit for them.”

However, there are some unexpected hurdles for which adopters should be prepared.

Not every pet you are interested in will be available or work out for you or your family. For example, shelters don’t choose what dogs they get, so anyone looking for a specific breed or puppy may not find that dog at the shelter. Also, especially for puppies and kittens, the shelter can get many applications for one animal, so the shelter will chose whom it believes is the best fit for the pet.

Brian and Barbara were denied a dog they were interested in because one of their dogs was nervous around the potentially adopted dog and the trainer did not see the dog as a good fit.

Adopters also have to remember there are fees associated with adoption. Fees can range from $35 up to $300, depending on the shelter. That price can include all shots and neutering/ spaying, but not necessarily. Other expenses that need to be considered include vet visits, ailments that adopters may not have known at the time that need to be treated and the necessary items needed for a pet once adopted.

Mason said shelters give all information it has about the pet upfront. This includes breeds, known medical history, temperaments and any ailments found. However, because most of the dogs and cats come in as strays, there is no formal background history for many of them.

“We believe in full disclosure. We are all animal advocates in this work, and we need to ensure success for the animals we adopt out and for the families that take them,” Mason said.

However, that was not the case for Barbara and Brian in regard to their adoption with Rudyard. When they got Rudyard, he was known to be frisky, as he was too old to be neutered. However, the Agnews were not told about his friskiness around female dogs until after he was adopted.

They also didn’t know about many of his ailments until after they took Rudyard to their vet. He was found to have an enlarged prostate, a cyst and a stone, requiring more money to have him be treated. However, Barbara attributed the lack of knowledge about those issues to requiring more invasive treatment to find those problems and the lack of time and funding for all of the pets to see a vet at the shelters.

“As much as they know, the vets can only look so far. I don’t think they do that thorough of an examination because they don’t have the funds. They rely on donations, they don’t get tons for tests and blood work with vets there. If you want to investigate further, you’re going to have to go through your own vet because they don’t have the money to do so,” Barbara said.

Another possible struggle after adoption includes adaptation to their new environment. Many pets will pee in places they are not supposed to go for the first few weeks or months as they adapt to their new environment, according to the Agnews. They also said the newly adopted pet might not get along with other pets in the household at first. However, after some time, and maybe a little tussle, everyone learns to get along.

“Whenever we have adopted a new dog, there has definitely been some scuffling with our previous dogs, just like kids establishing who is in charge. But, we’ve always found that over time, dogs figure out their place and settle in,” Brian said.

One final thing that can be a struggle is finding time and planning your schedule around your pets. Pets are like children, according to the Agnews, and you need to have them on a schedule so they can feel safe. That will help improve behavioral problems and bodily accidents. Also, if planning to go away for a few days or if you have a crazy work schedule, you need to find a way to have your pet cared for, either by a friend, neighbor or an animal daycare.

“Adopting a dog or cat takes compassion, commitment and responsibility. You have to be willing to take her or him to the vet once a year, feed her or him well and make sure that she or he is getting proper exercise. It’s a little bit of a parenting job, but they appreciate it so much,” Brian said.

The benefits of adoption

The Agnews believe there are many more positive than negative things that come from adoption.

The responsibility of having a pet can be very positive. One can learn time management, patience, caring, problem solving and much more. Brian and Barbara felt adoption was a way to prepare them for parenthood, and still continue to think so, as they call their dogs their babies.

“All of them really, really appreciate the second chance, and it’s like having little kids scampering around the house. If Barb or I are ever upset about something, they pick up on it and snuggle in or lick our faces. When we wake up in the morning, we often find Milo and Ellie looking down at us excitedly waiting for us to get up like a kid on Christmas morning. We feel really loved and appreciated by them and I think they really know that we love them,” Brian said.

One of the best benefits from adoption is the knowledge you saved a life and could potentially save another. Having so many homeless pets in the world, there is not enough space or funding to care for all of them.

“The most rewarding benefit is saving a life while making more room in the shelter so we can continue doing this work,” Mason said.

The Agnews feel adopted pets appreciate your taking them into a home and caring for them, and they show a little more love because of it.

“Especially when you adopt through a shelter, they give you a little more than you give them and you get a lot back. It’s like a sense of helping them. I think they know that and they become so grateful,” Barbara said.

“I really think there is a difference. They know they are suffering in there,” Brian said, “and you’re there to save them.”