For families who’ve never taken the plunge, the idea of adopting an unknown shelter dog — with unknown experiences and behaviors — can be so nerve wracking that some simply go the puppy route, believing success will more likely result from raising a canine from scratch.
Well, the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA has a new plan for nervous, potential new parents, giving them one more reason to consider adopting a four-legged forever friend from the preeminent animal welfare organization in the San Gabriel Valley and help save one of the thousands of homeless creatures that pass through its doors each year.
And if you’re not prepared to take on the responsibilities of a full-time dog owner, that’s OK, too. There’s still a way to enjoy the company of a furry companion and give a homeless dog a break from the stressful shelter environment.
The new sleepover program, in which volunteers take a dog home for two nights or more, has become a resounding success for families and pooches alike.
“We are finding it is a great way to help animals get adopted and help alleviate some of the stress for them that comes just by being in the shelter,” said Dia DuVernet, president/CEO of the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA. “We’ve had some ‘foster failures’ — when a family decides to adopt — which for us is a real success. But even just getting additional information about the dog is enormously helpful and helps us provide positive placements down the line.”
Volunteer families are given some guidance and instruction, and asked to provide as much information as possible on the dog during the visits — how it interacts with children and other pets, habits, likes and dislikes. The information is proving invaluable for the nonprofit’s adoption services, since oftentimes, the behavior of an animal observed in a shelter is not true to its character. Dogs in particular are prone to high-stress behaviors in the shelter if they’ve been there some time, DuVernet noted.
For those who are not quite ready for a full weekend but still want to help, the nonprofit has also created a field trip program, in which volunteers can check out a dog for two hours and take it to the park, home or around town. Again, the goal is two-pronged: Volunteers can provide information, such as how the dog handles being on a leash and behaves in public places. Separately, research has shown even the minimal break from the shelter helps the dog lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands. After a two-night sleepover, for example, the dog’s cortisol levels drop “significantly,” and even upon return, the levels never return to those previous amounts.
“In a shelter, dogs are not themselves. Imagine when you’re really stressed out at work … well, just stepping away and decompressing does wonders,” said Izzy Nidetz, foster sleepover program manager. “Field trips are less time out of the shelter than the sleepovers, but it still gives them the chance to be a normal dog, go to the park or out to lunch. Just the information we’re able to gather really helps us paint a better picture for potential families looking to adopt. We really think of it as getting this wealth of knowledge.”
As one of the Humane Society’s many partnerships, it has teamed up for the sleepover program with Maddie’s Fund, an animal-welfare nonprofit that awards grants for research and programs to improve shelter management leadership, medicine education and foster care across the U.S. The program began in November and has about 100 participants, with no end in sight thanks to its success, Nidetz said.
“All of our participants have given really positive feedback. One of our concerns was that it would be more stressful for the animal after they come back from a sleepover, but that’s not been the case,” she noted.
Programs like these are part of PHS’ ambitious, multitiered effort to reduce lengths of stay at the shelter by half or even more, said DuVernet, sitting down to discuss the nonprofit’s new three-year strategic plan.
DuVernet, who joined the 116-year-old institution in June, expertly scooped up a small blend of a dog who was visiting with staffers at PHS’ arched entrances on South Raymond Avenue. The dog was retrieved from the kennel earlier after some incessant barking, and the young adult female — yet to be named — seemed to settle into the available lap.
“Isn’t she cute?” the CEO asked rhetorically, the oversize-eared bundle answering for herself.
The dog made a good talking point, though. Since coming on board, DuVernet has focused on creating an integrated plan across all the departments to help devise strategies to reduce lengths of stay by the 13,000 animals that cross the shelter’s threshold each year.
“We’re trying to flip the model … we’re doing brand-new things that haven’t been done before, including more community outreach with adoption counseling, open adoptions — trying to have more open conversations with people about adoptions rather than just putting up barriers to adoptions,” she said, joking: “You used to have to give a blood sample.”
Previously, DuVernet worked as president and CEO of the Virginia Beach SPCA, her first foray into animal welfare after years of work in child and family service nonprofits. It was an easy transition, she noted: “To work with animals you have to work with humans, too, since they come with owners, or we want them to have owners. You just can’t help animals if you’re not ready to help people.
“I really love the breadth of the program at the Pasadena Humane Society precisely because it is so focused on helping people in the community and their animals, through education or temporary support for people who are in crises.”
That support includes emergency temporary boarding help, subsidized vaccine and medical services, and an animal food shelter program that is particularly important to some of PHS’ homeless neighbors, many of whom pass through Union Station Homeless Services around the corner.
Expanding the medical services offered at the nonprofit has also been one of the top goals since DuVernet took over, she said. Three additional, full-time veterinarians were recently brought on, bringing the total to five. That was considered a feat, given that there is a nationwide shortage of shelter medicine vets. Combined with a bolstered wing of new intensive care units and quarantine areas, the Humane Society can now offer a lot more in emergency medical care.
“Part of our growing as an organization is looking at our ‘capacity for care,’” she said. “There are a lot of new attitudes about disease control for the whole population within the shelter. Previously we just didn’t have the capacity to treat many of the animals quickly … we are saving many more than we have been able to in the past. Our focus now is getting them healthy, keeping them healthy and getting them adopted as quickly as possible.”
PHS board chair Steve Johnson noted how excited the nonprofit’s leadership is to work with DuVernet and take the Humane Society to the next level.
“We were just thrilled to have Dia on board with us and we’re really looking forward to taking the Humane Society in a new direction. She’s done a great job of expanding the executive staff and establishing relationships and partnerships in the community,” he said. “We’re just getting started with the process, but we are implementing what will be the next natural evolution of sheltering in order to have healthier and happier animals that are adopted more quickly.”
Speaking on some of the more creative foster programs, board director John Berger can attest to the tempting dangers of “fostering to adopt.” He and his family undertook two puppies late last year after two sets of abandoned litters landed at the shelter.
“I am definitely what you would call a foster failure — it has dramatically changed our lives, albeit for the better,” Berger laughed, recalling how the two puppies turned his family’s world topsy-turvy this past year. “We had been considering adopting a dog — one dog — but then these puppies came along. It was a big undertaking, but the Humane Society gave us everything we needed, all the supplies, baby gates, everything. And, well, they just became part of the family.”
Berger has also helped to foster kittens in the past, with the help of his daughter, and said he really recommends the sleepover and field trip programs for people who might not be ready to commit full time.
“They will bring a smile to your face; it’s such a win-win for everybody. It helps socialize the animals, gets them in a loving environment which, in turn, makes them more adoptable,” he said. “And the Humane Society supports you every step of the way. I’ve been really blown away by all the work they do.”
Nidetz added that the sleepover program is a great way for an entire family to volunteer together.
“For families that weren’t expecting to want a forever-home dog, this helps them test out the waters, realize they can do this, they can see this and this dog is perfect. Even if they chose not to adopt permanently, these families become real advocates for the dogs they take out,” she said.
To learn more about the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA or how to volunteer or donate, visit pasadenahumane.org.