Setting adopters up for success: resources that we love

Preventing failed adoptions might be as simple as helping adopters set realistic expectations for their new pet.

A study published in 2022 found that adopters who returned their adopted dog to the shelter within 3 months of adoption had higher expectations for the dog than adopters who did not return their dog, including the dog's health, "desirable behavior," and their own bond with the dog. Expectations about the work that goes into owning a dog were about the same for both groups, and they were equally likely to experience some level of behavior problems with their new dog.

This suggests that expectations placed on the dog itself play a key role in whether or not an adoption is successful. If we can help adopters set realistic expectations and provide resources to help, they may be more likely to work through challenges rather than return their adopted pet.

Open conversation prior to adoption

Setting expectations starts well before an adopter takes their new pet home. Most adopters have been considering adding a pet to their family for some time, and that naturally comes with expectations for the future.

Starting a conversation with a potential adopter about what they're looking for in a pet can help adoption counselors make better matches. Once an adopter has selected a pet, the counselor can then use this information to give personalized advice on successfully integrating the new pet into the adopter's home.

Conversation points for better understanding potential adopters

This non-exhaustive list is a starting point for getting to know an adopter and their expectations for their new pet.

  • Past pet experience. Is this the adopter's first pet, or first pet of their own as an adult? If they've had a pet before, what characteristics or activities did they enjoy and not enjoy?
  • Existing household members. Are there other people in the home? Are they adults or children, and do they have pet experience? Are there other pets in the home, and have they lived with other pets?
  • House training and manners. Is the adopter looking for a pet that is already house trained or knows basic cues? Do they have experience teaching these behaviors?
  • Outdoor time and walks. Does the adopter have a yard, and is it secure? Do they want a dog that enjoys going for long walks or other outdoor activities?
  • Energy level. What is the household energy level? Does the adopter want a pet that is more active or laid back?
  • Giving and receiving affection. Does the adopter want a pet that is super cuddly and affectionate, or enjoys their personal space? 
  • Dealbreakers. Is there anything that the adopter is unwilling or unable to handle, like separation anxiety, special medical needs, or not getting along with other pets?

Conversation points for setting realistic expectations

Once an adopter had chosen a pet, it's time to help them better understand their new pet and how to best set this particular pet up for success. 

  • Known history. What do we know about this pet? This might include their origin (stray? owner surrender?), behavior in a foster home, and interactions with volunteers at the shelter. Always disclose any known history of aggression or reactivity, including bite history, if applicable, so that the adopter knows if there are situations that they need to avoid or discuss with a trainer. All known medical history should also be disclosed.
  • What do we not know? We don't always have a comprehensive history of each pet. It's important that the adopter knows where we're missing information so that they can use caution in those situations. This might include compatibility with other animals and kids, house training and manners, how quickly they bond with new people, etc.
  • All pets need time to decompress. No matter who they take home, adopters should be prepared to give their new pet time to settle in. Many adopters are eager to take their new pet to the pet store or dog park, but this is often not advisable in the first few days at home. Based on what is known about the pet, specific recommendations may be given about how long the adopter can expect it to take for the pet to come out of their shell or feel more comfortable with their new family.
  • It's okay if it takes time to form a bond. A lot of adopters are expecting a fairytale moment with their new pet, but that just isn't the case in most situations. Some adopters may feel an instant bond, but feel uncertain once the "honeymoon" period has worn off. Other adopters may feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or unsure in the beginning, but develop a strong bond with their new pet over time. Both of these situations are totally normal! Just like human relationships, it takes time, trust, and communication to build a strong bond with a new pet.
  • There will be problems. All new adopters will run into some kind of obstacle in the first few days, weeks, or months with their new pet! Discuss some common situations (accidents in the house, a cat hiding for the first few days, lack of appetite, loose stool, etc.) that may arise and the adopter's comfort level with those situations. What do they feel confident about, and when should they reach out for support?
  • Is there anything about their new pet that might not be a good match? Maybe the adopter mentioned wanting a pet that is more active, but this pet is a couch potato. They may have mentioned wanting a dog that can go to the dog park, but we don't know how this particular dog does with other dogs. The adopter may be willing to compromise on some things, but not others, so it's always a good idea to double check.

Send resources home for later reference

Bringing home a new pet is exciting and often overwhelming, and it's easy for information to get lost in the shuffle. Even if you've discussed something with the adopter in person, they may not retain every detail. Providing easily accessible resources that the adopter can reference on their own is a great way to make sure that the adopter has accurate and reliable information on hand.

When possible, try to provide resources in a variety of formats so that people can access information in the way that works best for them. This may look like sending home a folder of print resources, then making additional video, audio, and/or long-form text resources available on your website. Depending on your community, finding resources in multiple languages may be beneficial.

Always take the time to vet your resources for accuracy. We've provided resources that we like below to get you started, in no particular order.


Decompress for Success, Dog Latin Dog Training

The Canine Ladder of AggressionOntario SPCA

Dog body language (multiple graphics, mixed sources)

Reading your cat’s “body language”, Winnipeg Humane Society


Helping Your New Dog Cope With Being Alone, Tina B. Flores KPA CTP, CSAT

What does my cat's body language mean?, RSPCA

Why does my dog bark at other dogs?, K9 Turbo Training

What is trigger stacking?, K9 Turbo Training

Helpful tips for fearful dogs, Zazie Todd, PhD

Cat Decompression, Feline Fine Cat Rescue

The 3-3-3 Rule When Adopting a Dog or Cat, Mckamey Animal Center

Videos & Webinars

Understanding Dog Body Language, Kris Crestejo

Trigger Stacking, Donna Hill


The BEST and FASTEST way to teach STAY - stay training, stay fun!, Kikopup

Other places to look

Doggie Drawings by Lili Chin. Tons of great infographics for a wide variety of species, including dogs, cats, birds, and even hedgehogs!

Center for Shelter Dogs. Lots of printable resources for specific, common behavior challenges in dogs, such as reactivity, resource guarding, fear of people, and more. 

Understanding Dogs, Shay Kelly. Blogs, podcasts, and webinars on dog behavior and enrichment.

Kikopup on Youtube, Emily Larlham. Excellent training videos on tons of common topics.

ASPCA Pet Care. Covers just about any pet-related topic you can think of.

Resources for professional help

Knowing where to find a qualified professional can help adopters address health or behavior issues before they become dealbreakers. Some adopters, especially those who are new to pet ownership, may not know how to determine if a professional is the right choice for them. Providing a list of vetted professionals, including trainers and behaviorists, vets, and even groomers can make the decision much easier - and prevent the adopter from seeing someone that is unqualified and makes matters worse.

Finding professionals

If you do not already have a list of recommended professionals, here are a few places to begin your search.

  • Trainers and behaviorists. Remember that training is an unregulated industry, which means that anyone can call themself a trainer, regardless of their knowledge or experience. Finding trainers with certification through internationally recognized organizations with standardized educational requirements is a good place to start. Try searching the CCPDT and IAABC databases for local consultants.
  • Veterinarians. Many rescue pets benefit from seeing a veterinarian with Fear Free certification. Fear Free vets and practices are experienced with and often best equipped to handle pets who are anxious and/or have little experience with being in a veterinary setting. 
  • Groomers. Fear Free grooming is often a great option for the same reasons.

Partnering with professionals

Some professionals may offer discounts or special programs for newly adopted pets. In some cases, professionals may be willing to create a specialized partnership with your organization to offer special discounts, classes or workshops specifically for your adopters, or even host pop-ups at your facility or event. 

The easier it is for an adopter to seek help, the more likely they are to take advantage of it.

Keep the conversation going

Maintaining an open line of communication with adopters can help them feel supported and better able to handle any issues that may arise.

Many organizations offer a "support line," either via email or phone, that adopters can contact at any time with questions or concerns. Even if the adopter isn't able to immediately speak to someone, they can leave a message so that someone can reach out to them. Just be sure to set realistic expectations about how soon they can expect to receive a response!

Consider creating a system for reaching out to adopters at certain points after adoption. This could be an automated email or text, or a phone call from an experienced volunteer. Occasional check-ins give adopters the chance to ask questions and address concerns before they spiral out of control.

There will always be adoptions that just don't work out

Use returns as an opportunity to gather more information about the pet to determine the best next steps for that pet.

It is vital that we are open, respectful, and non-judgemental with adopters who return their pets so that we can gather the most factual information. Especially in the case of pets who have previously been in a shelter, adopters are often able to provide the best information on how a pet does in a home environment.

Conversation points for returns

  • What is the main reason for returning the pet? Often, there isn't one black-and-white answer to this question, and that's okay. In some cases, there may be opportunity to provide outreach or other intervention to help the adopter keep their pet.
  • Are there any health or behavior concerns? Collect as much information as you can. Ask about the specifics around any reactive or aggressive events (when, where, who was involved, what happened immediately afterwards, etc). When did these concerns start, and what has the adopter tried to do to solve these issues?
  • What was the pet like at home? Ask about their personality, activity level, affection level, and compatibility with other pets and kids, if applicable. Did the adopter see a change in personality at some point after adoption? If so, when?
  • What was the pet like out-and-about? Did the adopter take the pet out on walks, to the store, or to public events? How did the pet react to these situations and any pets/people they might meet? Did they observe any reactive behaviors?
  • Was there anything about the pet that the adopter didn't expect? Maybe the pet ended up being way more energetic than the adopter thought they'd be. The pet may have seemed like they were okay with new people at first, then became scared after the first few weeks at home.

Remember that past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior. It's common to see behavior changes around 3 days, 3 weeks, and 3 months in a new home as the pet settles in and begins to feel more comfortable. The information that we gather from the adopter can help us better set the pet up for success with another adopter.

What does your organization do to set adopters up for success? Tell us in the comments!

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