Monday, June 2, 2014

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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Some Great Ideas for Promoting Adoptable Cats (will work for dogs too!)

Animal shelter staff are perpetually thinking of creative ways to promote animals, especially cats, that are looking for good homes. As we have discussed previously, a strong adoption program is an essential component of a healthy animal shelter, and it seems that shelters across the country struggle at one time or another to maintain steady adoption numbers for cats. Recently, a colleague shared an interesting article that put forward some unique ideas for cat adoption promotions. Some of the items on this list I have not heard of before, so I thought they are worth sharing and expanding on:
  1. If you have cages, pair up the kitties. The article explains that some people might be reluctant to separate cats housed together, especially the young kittens, so pair up your cats! It would be beneficial to test this theory if you have good data: look at the average length of stay for adopted pairs housed together compared to other cats of similar age that are not housed together. For example, average length of stay for paired kittens adopted together versus kittens adopted as singles. Additionally, investigate the time to adoption for both cohorts once officially made available for adoption. If pairing seems to be beneficial to your adoption numbers, you might want to create a campaign around double adoptions: “Two for the price of one, “Adopt a kitten and get a free companion”, or “BOGO” (Buy one, get one). I would count this idea as a cat kennel enrichment technique as well! Having a playmate is a great socialization and entertainment tool for the cats. 
  2. Make business cards for the cats. This is brilliant! I have seen many people come in to the shelter with profiles printed from the shelter website of animals they wanted to visit. In a similar practice, when potential adopters are undecided after spending time with a few animals, I have seen people grab the shelter business cards from the front desk and record animals they are interested in. Having a small “business card” that profiles the cat is a great take-away for those not quite ready to make a decision. And, as the article states, some people might even pass the card along to others in the hopes of advocating for one of the cats they visited. You can get even more creative with this idea and mirror the business cards after real business cards. The “jobs/positions” of the cats can be their strengths: sell the lap cat as a “Personal Therapist” or advertise the playful kitten as a “Entertainment Specialist”. Make sure to attach your adoption hours and requirements so they are prepared when they come in next time. If you can, I would recommend tracking statistics on the adoption rates and time to adoption for cats that have their own business cards.

  3. Make your voicemail from a cat. Each staff member with separate voicemail can record a message from a different adoptable cat. Is there a local fine arts or acting school in your neighborhood? Why don’t you call them up and ask if there are any talented voice students that would be willing to record your voicemails.

Although the article focuses on ideas for cat adoption promotion, you can certainly apply the ideas to your dog (or any other animal) adoptions as well. 

Have you tried any of the ideas mentioned in the full article? If so, what was your experience? Take the time to read through the comments…some good ideas are hidden in there too.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Shelter Voice

I apologize for the lack of posting, but I have been pretty busy lately blogging over at TAILS. Here is a list of my most recent TAILS posts. These are written for shelter supporters/non-shelter personnel, but I think there are still some concepts that are useful for those working on the front lines of animal sheltering as well.

Shelter Myths: This series of posts debunks the most common shelter myths heard around every shelter or rescue.
Do Fee Waived Adoptions Devalue Pets?
The Black Cat Myth
All Shelter Pets are Imperfect 
Black Dog Syndrome

Ways To Help Out: These posts discuss opportunities for engaging community involvement including fostering, volunteering, and
Become a Foster Parent!
Creative Ways to Help Animals
10 Things Every Shelter Volunteer Should Know

Working in an Animal Shelter: Working in an animal shelter has its ups and downs, challenges, and rewards. These posts discuss life in a shelter.
Memorable Firsts
Dealing with Compassion Fatigue
My Career in Animal Welfare

Shelter Concepts: These posts detail decisions shelter staff handle on a regular basis to maintain a healthy shelter population.
Returned Adoptions are not Failures
The Kitten Dilemma
The Purpose of Capacity Planning
Dog Kennel Enrichment Ideas
Cat Kennel Enrichment Ideas
Shelters Do More Than Just Adopt Cute Puppies
Shelter Length of Stay

History Lesson: This series of posts detail the various types of shelters and rescues, humane societies, and other organizations that help animals.
What's in a Name?
Open Admissions vs. Limited Admissions
Types of Animal Shelters

Sidney Einstein Duggan

Sabrina DaVinci Duggan

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What Effect do Kittens Have on the Adoption Rates of Non-Kittens?

For high volume shelters, moving animals out the door as quickly as possible is crucial, and running a successful adoption program is one way to achieve quick movement. There is a plethora of ways to create adoption success: strong adoption promotion, open adoptions procedures, and reasonable adoption fees. But, have you ever thought about what impact the mix of animals in the adoption room has on the overall adoption rates? Specifically, does the presence of kittens help or hinder the adoption rate of older cats?

Dr. Kate Hurley and Dr. Sandra Newbury of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program ( have lectured and researched this concept. According to their lectures, in adoption rooms across the nation “the more, the merrier” notion is often employed without much thought to animal presentation or organization. We pack as many cats into the adoption room as possible, and leave it up to the animals to sell themselves. Those shelter animals are so darn adorable and do a great job of it, but research and data are actually showing that a little forethought and planning can improve adoption rates. In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, author Barry Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. So, extrapolating this concept to an adoption room is another way that animal shelters can work to improve their adoption rates.

To investigate one aspect of this concept, I looked at data for a medium open-admissions shelter in a large city. As mentioned above, I was curious to know if the adoption rates of adult cats rise or fall when kittens are also available for adoption. One might argue that having kittens in the adoption room will increase older cat adoption rates because kittens are like ‘eye candy’ and draw-in more would-be adopters. On the other hand, one might argue that kittens decrease the adoption rates of older cats because kittens are inherently more desirable.

A few notes about these data:
  1. Kittens are 4 months and younger; non-kittens are 5 months and older.
  2. Two months were chosen because kitten intake rates fluctuate seasonally (February = lower kitten intake; August = higher kitten intake) so looking at two different months can help account for this fluctuation.
  3. If no kittens were available for adoption on any day in the month, the day was removed from the dataset, thus there are less data points than days of the month.

That being said, let’s look at the data:

We can ascertain from the negative slope of the trend line for both months that having kittens available for adoption actually detracts from adoption rates of non-kittens. But, the negative slope improves in August—a time when kitten intake is at its highest:
  • In February, for every 4 additional kittens available, this shelter looses about 3 non-kitten adoptions
  • In August, for every 3 additional kittens available, this shelter loses about 1 non-kitten adoption

So, does this mean that shelters should not make kittens available for adoption? Certainly not! But, analyzing data in this way can be the first step towards understanding adoption patterns and choices. Knowing that kittens will take away from adoptions of other cats will help shelter managers space kitten arrival in the adoption room or increase their use of foster-to-adoption programs (an emerging trend in animal sheltering to “foster” underage kittens to families with the eventual hope/mutual understanding that the family will adopt the kitten when it is of age) for young and underage kittens.

Moving forward, shelters can analyze their data in this way for various types of scenarios including:
  • Adopter preferences of males vs females
  • Adoption rates of different colors (black vs. non-black) or coat patterns (solid vs. tabby)
  • Adoption rates for various kennels or rooms housing available animals (do animals housed in the kennels near the front of the room get adopted at different rates than those housed near the back?)

And, to further analyze this topic, I would look at each month of the year separately, and then the entire year as an aggregate. In addition, I would play with the age of kittens a little to see if the data change in any way. For example, define a kitten as anything under 6 months old, or twelve months old. And, then further split the age groups: kittens vs. seniors, kittens vs. young adults, kittens vs.adults, etc...

Let me know if you have any questions about this particular analysis, I’d love to hear how your shelter’s data stacks up!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dog Kennel Enrichment Ideas

One of the challenges for staff working in a shelter is keeping the animals stimulated while in their care. In fact, boredom for dogs is a primary contributor to negative behaviors such as excessive barking, jumping, inappropriate chewing or licking, and even resource guarding. The dogs in the shelter cannot directly communicate they are bored or stressed, but they do indirectly let us know through these undesirable behaviors. So, it is of crucial importance for shelters to do everything they can to keep the dogs entertained and ward off any negative behaviors possibly attributed to stress and boredom.

Here are a few simple ideas to introduce kennel enrichment in your shelter:
  1. Physical Exercise: it’s no secret that a tired dog is a well-behaved dog. In a shelter, exercise can come in the form of walks, agility or fly ball training, time off-leash in a large outdoor kennel, or even supervised play groups with other dogs in the shelter. In many shelters staff is stretched thin with day to day operations and volunteers are the primary providers of exercise for dogs.
  2. Basic Obedience Training: sitting in a kennel for extended amounts of time can make even the most well-adjusted animal stir crazy, so mental stimulation is extremely important. Basic obedience training can achieve the mental stimulation as well as time out of the kennel and interacting with people.
  3. Mental Stimulation/Entertainment: here are some great ideas for providing kennel enrichment for the dogs for when staff and volunteers are unable to directly interact with them. If you cannot volunteer with your local animal shelter, consider donating some of these items:
    1. Frozen thick rope chew—dunk a rope chew in water and freeze overnight. For an even tastier treat, dunk it in meat broth and freeze.
    2. Kong—stuff with peanut butter, frozen water, or treats. If your shelter has space, consider freezing them—the treats will last a little longer! The Kong Company © has a donation program (; consider registering your local shelter or rescue for donations!
    3. Squeaky toys—any stuffed toy with a squeaker inside could be hours of fun for a dog.
  4. Meal time—even feeding time can be an opportunity to provide enrichment for shelter dogs.  Here are a few inexpensive ideas for making dinner stimulating:
    1. Crinkle up some kibble in a wadded piece of paper—the dog will have to rip through the paper to get at the kibble bits.
    2. Remember paper towel rolls for cat enrichment ( Dogs can get in on the action too! Shove kibble bits in a paper towel roll for dogs to get out. You can fold or bend the edges to make it more challenging.
    3. Freeze some kibble in an ice cube. Dogs usually go bonkers trying to get the kibble in the middle!
    4. Layered cereal boxes—hide kibble between the layers of nestled cereal boxes. This will be a challenge for any dog to get the kibble out
It is advised to always have supervision when the dogs are playing with any toys or food items. As easy as these ideas are to put together, it's could be just as easy for the dogs to inadvertently ingest something that may harm them. 

For shelters with a large and eager volunteer pool--put them to work collecting, creating, and distributing these enrichment ideas, and then ask them to also monitor the dogs while they enjoy!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Statistics for Managing Your Volunteer Program

How can you measure the volunteer's contribution to your shelter?

Most, if not all, animal shelters these days have volunteer programs.  Some may be long-established and running smoothly, others may be in their infancy and struggling with some growing pains, while most probably fall somewhere in between these two scenarios.  Whatever the case is for your shelter, statistical reporting of the accomplishments and contributions of your volunteers is essential.  These statistics can justify to your supporters and board of directors why the volunteer program is important to the organization and can also justify having paid staff oversee the program.  Statistics can be used as a measure of the goals of the volunteer program and to give future direction to any work the volunteers are doing.  And finally, tracking volunteer program statistics will give you a better understanding of the services and care you are providing to the animals in your organization.

Simple statistics: these are statistics that, at the very least, every shelter with a volunteer program should be tracking.  They do not require much mathematical manipulation, but are a great start to painting the picture of your volunteer contributions. 
  • Total active volunteers / month.  What each program considers active may vary (click here to read about the administration of a volunteer program), but whatever measure you use, keep track of how many from your volunteer list is actually hitting the mark each month (or whichever time frame you are collecting statistics for).  For example, shelter XYZ considers a volunteer active if they contribute 3 hours each month.  In the month of June 50 volunteers of the total of 125 volunteers on their roster hit this mark.  That translates to 50 / 125 = 40% of their volunteers were active in June.

  • Program specific volunteer participation rates.  Now take that same concept as above, and calculate for each program/area of volunteer opportunity.  How many volunteers participated in the adoption room?  How many volunteers logged hours for the offsite adoption event?  How many volunteers worked the fundraiser?

  • Total hours. Collectively, how many hours did the volunteers donate to your organization?  Standing alone, this statistic does not give you much reference, but over a period of time, tracking this statistic will help you measure the consistency of your volunteer program, the growth of your program, and will help you understand seasonal volunteer trends.

More complex statistics: these are statistics that give a more detailed look at the well-being and productivity of a volunteer program.  All shelter volunteer managers should consider tracking these for their program.
  • Volunteer retention/attrition rate.  Knowing how long you can keep a volunteer will help determine the practicality of your program and will also drive your recruitment efforts.  There are many ways to go about calculating a retention rate, here is one

1.     Count your active volunteers at a certain date (lets say, January 1, but it can be any date)
2.     Track on a monthly basis, the gain and loss of active volunteers
3.     Count all the active volunteers 12 months later (December 31)
4.     The % change from the beginning of the year to the end is your retention.  You can talk about this statistic either as retention (how many volunteers remain active) or attrition (how many volunteers you lost)
  • Training and orientation retention/attrition rates.  Similar to general volunteer rates discussed above, of the volunteers that sign up for your orientation, go through training, etc how many actually become an active volunteer?  If you have a multi-step training approach, how many volunteers do you loose along the way?  This will help you measure how many volunteers to invite to your initial training sessions.  For example, if I know that only 50% of the volunteers will finish the orientation process and I need 10 new volunteers in my program each month, then I will invite 20 volunteers to orientation to fill my program.

  • Volunteer to animal ratio: just like every parent wants to know how many kids will be in each teacher’s class, shelter supporters want to know how many volunteers are taking care of the animals.  Take your average monthly animal population and divide by your average active volunteer monthly participation.  20:1?  10:1?  0.5:1? If you have more volunteers than animals, express the ratio as: volunteers:animals with animals always being 1 (example, Shelter XYZ has 12 volunteers for every animal).  If you have more animals than volunteers, express as: animals:volunteers (example, Shelter XYZ has 12 animals for every volunteer).

  • Volunteer care days: much like the concept of Animal Care Days, tally up all of your volunteer hours for the month and convert that number to days.  Now, take that a step further and compare your volunteer care days to your total animal care days for the month.  How do they match? 

Not for the faint of heart statistics:  and finally, this set of statistics for volunteer management reporting is the gold standard of all.  Pat yourself on the back and be proud if you are already looking at these statistics, and congratulations if you decide to start measuring your program in this way now!
  • Volunteer Return on Investment (ROI): for the amount of resources (time, staff, money, etc) you put into recruiting, training, and maintaining your volunteers, what type of return do you see?  How do the contributions of the volunteers balance with what you invest in them?  Calculating volunteer ROI will enable you to gage a truer measure of the worth of volunteers to your organization, and again, can justify expanding and growing your program. No need to calculate volunteer ROI on your own, us the ROI calculator provided by Volunteer2 to see the value in your investment.  Within the industry, there are many approaches to calculating ROI, and this tool from Volunteer2 addresses them all! 

  • Value of volunteer time: This is another way to define the worth of your volunteers to your organization.  The Independent Sector releases statistics on the hourly value of volunteers and a volunteer manager can use the value for their state and multiply it by the total hours of volunteer participation for the month, quarter, year, etc.  If you do an annual review for individual volunteers, this is a great statistic to calculate for them. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that the most important factor in calculating any volunteer statistic is that you have to collect accurate volunteer statistics first.  That, in and of itself, is quite an undertaking especially since most groups depend on the volunteer themselves to report their hours.  To convince your volunteers how important it is, share this post with them and do a preliminary statistical review of your program and share the results with them.  Hopefully seeing the numbers on paper will remind them to report their hours each day/week/month. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Open Adoptions - A Call to Action for All Animal Shelters

There is a concept in animal sheltering that is slow in moving through our community, and in my opinion it is the next turning point in making a significant impact on placement statistics for shelters.  Open Adoptions is the practice of opening your adoption criteria to include a larger number of potential adopters. 

To begin, it might be a little easier to explain what Open Adoptions is not.  Open Adoptions is not punishing a person because they had to give up a pet 10 years ago; Open Adoptions is not turning away an adopter because they don’t have all the answers about how to train a dog; Open Adoptions is not penalizing a person because they chose to not vaccinate their indoor house cat last year; Open Adoptions is not sending home empty handed an adopter wanting to bring a new pet home for his/her significant other.  And on the same token, Open Adoptions is not giving a pet away to any person that walks into your shelter.  Rather, Open Adoptions is shifting the approach of adoption counseling to utilize the process as an educational tool and in doing so, ensuring the best possible match of person and pet is made.   

Open Adoptions asks us to rethink our adoption criteria and rather than create barriers for an adopter, aims to set up building blocks that become the foundation of a long-lasting relationship between pet, adopter, and your organization.   The main focus in Open Adoptions is meeting the needs of adopters and their new pets during the adoption process and after adoption.  This is achieved when animal shelters commit to an inviting and non-judgmental adoption process culture and think first about how they can facilitate a conversation with adopters and educate them about pet care and animal needs.  It is time to abandon the inflexible adoption guidelines of the past and move forward toward a friendly and conversational approach to adoptions.  In doing so, shelters and rescues stand to increase their adoption numbers, increase their influence on adopters, and also gain community support.

On the opposite end of Open Adoptions is the process of maintaining communications with new adopters, ensuring the bonding and acclimation periods are going well.  Again, this is a necessary shift of resources for many organizations; many groups adopt pets and then send them home with their new family usually never to have contact again.  With an Open Adoptions culture, it is essential to maintain contact with new adopters (and even ‘old’ adopters for that matter) to provide them with support, advise, and resources should they need help. 
There are a multitude of ways an Open Adoptions culture can be achieved, and the roadmap to achieving this at your shelter will look a little different for everyone.  Here are some ideas to get started:

1.     Institute a pet match program at your shelter.  Meet your Match from the ASPCA is probably the most well known, but a homegrown version will work just as well. 
2.     Consider prescreening applicants and approving their application even if they have not yet found a suitable animal in your shelter.  Make the application approval good for 60 days (or whatever time frame makes sense for your organization) and they can come back to your shelter within that time and select an animal.     
3.     In the same spirit, maintain a request list for adopters.  If they are looking for something very specific (eg: neutered, all-white, front declaw, 4 year old cat), give them a call when you get an animal that fits their description.
4.      Send all adopters home with a resource packet, both in print and electronic.  This will give your adopters a point of reference for any questions they may have post adoption.  Even if your organization cannot provide for all their post adoption needs, give them resources for other organizations or businesses who do.
5.     Hire staff or volunteers to make follow-up calls/checks on adopters at various points post adoption.  This will remind the adopters you are committed to the success of their placement and the resources available to them.  As an added bonus, it will widen your circle of supporters, probably increasing donations and return adoptions when adding to the family.
6.     Speaking of return adoptions, go ahead and give return adopters a “Go Directly to the Front of the Line” pass.  You already have their information and know they have successfully adopted from you in the past, so make the process even easier for them the second (and third, forth, fifth, etc!) time around.   

Open Adoptions can increase your live release rate
*Photo courtesy of Chris Tanaka

I challenge all readers of this blog to do an internal examination of their adoption process and start implementing some of the ideas presented above.  It will be worth your time to take a look at your recent adoption applications and do a mini-analysis of the percentage of applications you turn down and for what reason.  Based on this data, decide how you can make the process easier for adopters and guide them through the process rather than turn them away and risk losing their support now and in the future.  Of course, in the animal sheltering business we want to do what is best for the animals in our care, and it is very difficult to decide if someone would be a good fit for an animal in just a few hours.  Therefore, utilize these Open Adoptions concepts and create a long-lasting relationship with adopters in which your organization continues to be instrumental in the connection between the adopters and their pets thus ensuring the animals are well cared for long after they leave your doors.