The Dakin Humane Society opened in 1995 with a mission to offer an open adoption program that emphasizes "understanding and respect" for its human customers.
The shelter in Leverett, MA — which was then called Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society — eliminated the standard application and interview process used by traditional shelters. Instead, it uses a Pets and People Profile that serves as a basis for conversation with an adoption counselor.
In 2009, Dakin faced a new challenge: It took over the MSPCA shelter in a nearby city with a high crime rate and a large population of urban poor. The goal was to offer open adoptions at the new site, based on the same values of customer service, a culture of understanding, and good communication.
Keys to Success
Dakin Humane Society Executive Director Leslie Harris says the keys to success have been remembering "to serve the community" and "be there as a resource." So far, so good. In the last three years, Dakin's Springfield site has significantly increased adoption numbers and has built a strong relationship with the community. Meanwhile, its rural shelter continues with a record of very strong adoption rates.
Harris says Dakin's policies are based on one simple truth: "If we aren't able to help humans, we won't be able to help animals." The shelter staff has used this philosophy to create successful programs at both the rural and urban shelters.
How It Works
Step 1: Open, frank discussions
To help staff see potential adopters in a more sympathetic light, Harris says it was important to challenge staff to think about their own behaviors from the past.
Did they ever allow their animals to breed?
Did they ever let their dogs run off leash?
Was there a time when they weren't perfect animal lovers? If so, what changed them? Was it being called ignorant, or reading a great book, or being told by a friend of their enlightenment regarding the treatment of animals?
These discussions became the catalyst for getting buy-in from staff and helping them see that people can learn and change.
Step 2: Identify practices that may hinder adoptions
Shelters rely on generous donations and good referrals from the people who use and appreciate their services. Dakin didn't always provide the respect those people deserve. For instance, the Leverett shelters had policies that included:
Insisting on proof of home ownership
Making adopters wait two days before bringing an animal home
The Springfield facility had similar policies in place when Dakin took over, including not allowing dogs to be placed in homes with fenced yards, for fear they'd be abandoned in them. "Such measures mean you insult far more terrific people while you are trying to catch the rare person doing the wrong thing," Harris says.
Step 3: Seek out and adapt models to fit your needs
Join Internet bulletin boards and listserves in the animal welfare field, where you can post questions to a group.
Check out the websites of shelters who have successfully implemented open adoptions.
Tweak programs to fit your shelter's specific needs. For example, Dakin's Pets and People Profile is based on a similar document used by Humane Society of Boulder Valley, but is tailored to fit the community it serves.
Step 4: Bring personnel policies in line with the culture you desire
Ensure that staff and volunteers receive the same good care and respect as clients
Remember that a great staff is the key to your success
Step 5: Be available as a long-term resource
"We always tell adopters that it is OK to come back for help," says Harris. "We will be here for you."
In Springfield, where money is tight, the shelter also provides adoption specials, dog training on a sliding scale, a free behavior helpline, a pet food bank (which provided 44,000 pounds of food in 2011) and a ASPCA Spay/Neuter Alliance Spay/Neuter clinic that provides services to about 12,000 animals per year.
Both Dakin's Springfield and Leverett facilities continue to receive extremely positive feedback from clients. Adoption numbers have soared to record highs, Harris says, and return rates have not increased.
The biggest challenge Dakin faced in changing the culture of the shelters is staff members who were skeptical about the program. Some were eventually able to make the leap but others were not, and Dakin opted not to retain some workers with great animal skills but very poor people skills.