CEO Blog: Undercover Boss (not really) Series – Episode 5: Adoptions | Winnipeg Humane Society
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The next destination, as I do as many jobs as possible, was the Adoptions and Retail Department. In our shelter, every time we hear “Available adoption counsellor to the front desk, please; available adoption counsellor to the front desk” our hearts beat a little faster, because it means someone has filled out the initial adoption form and is ready to learn more about an adoptable animal. But how exactly does the process work? I was eager to learn all about it.

The day I became an adoption counsellor trainee, Reception was managed by Rachel and volunteer Carla. They are both super professional, always smiling, and truly committed to the WHS.

As I reported for my shift, I was greeted by Kristina, the manager of the area. If you asked anyone in the department, you will hear the same thing: “Kristina is amazing”. She is hard-working, optimistic, and always willing to lend a hand. She is a manager who leads by example and we are lucky to have her. Alessandra, the Assistant Manager and satellite adoption expert was busy planning which pet goes where, which is not as simple as it may seem: pet personality and the needs of each of our satellite locations must match. It is an art and a science.

The Adoptions team that afternoon was comprised by Emma, Brynn and Etienne, a student from Quebec who is volunteering with us to improve his English and is clearly enjoying his time with us. At the WHS Pet Shop we had Daniel, our Adoptions supervisor and Sarah.

When it comes to adopting animals, our counsellors are faced with competing priorities: we want to adopt as many pets as possible quickly, so we can make room for those pets waiting for a spot, while at the same time fulfilling our duty to ensure the adopter and the pet are indeed a good match. It is truly an art that combines gut instincts, experience, asking the right questions, and being 100% truthful about what we know about the pet, so there are no surprises.

Another challenge the Adoptions team faces is that lots of prospective adopters are interested in how a pet may look, rather than focusing on what personality best matches their lifestyle and expectations. The exterior appearance of a pet does not say much about what type of dog or cat you may be getting. That is why we no longer try to guess the prevalent breed of a shelter dog and we really want people to focus on the behaviour and overall demeanor of the pet. So if I can ask you a big favour… please trust our adoptions team when they may suggest a different pet for you.

My first client was a dad and daughter who had met a tiny kitten the day before, placed a 24-hour hold, and they were back to complete the adoption. Emma was the Adoptions counsellor in charge, and she introduced me to the adopters as the CEO. The dad looked at me and said “well, it was about time the boss did some actual work!”. I agreed and we laughed and chatted through the process. It was such a lovely family, I felt very good about the future of the kitten we were about to adopt out.

The adoption process has many moving parts. We need to go over the medical file once again and point out any ongoing treatment (in this case with a kitten it needs another dose of the de-wormer and the rabies vaccine). We provide a printout of the medical history of the pet for the adopter to take home. Then we ask if the adopter has a veterinarian they currently go to, because if not, we have partnered with many clinics in Winnipeg and surrounding areas and the adopter receives a free exam if they agree to be referred to one of the partners (they get to choose).

Not only you get a free exam and establish a positive relationship with a veterinarian, every WHS adopter receives 45 days of free pet insurance courtesy of Pet Secure, and a free pet license thanks to the generosity of the City of Winnipeg Animal Services Agency.

When we say “adopt, don’t shop”, we really mean it. Every cat goes home with a hand-knitted blanked from one of our amazing volunteers, and a folder with information about typical behaviours and our help line –  in case the new adopter has any questions or concerns. And you can also microchip your pet, so the information enters the national pet database, for $30.

Emma was fantastic and while she was getting the kitten ready to go, the Pet Shop team prepares the adoption payment fee and goes over the type of food the pet has been eating or how to transition to another brand. We also have toys, treats, collars, and everything you need to start your relationship with your new pet the right way. Daniel and Sarah were stellar and I appreciated the fact that we do not push to sell anything: we offer advice and we let the person decide. And all net proceeds of the shop go straight to save animals.

Next I was paired up with Brynn, another Adoptions counsellor. She is a legend around here as the counsellor with the longest tenure: she was trained in our old shelter on Kent Road and started working in adoptions when we opened our new location in 2007. She has single-handedly helped us find forever homes for thousands of animals, including one of our dogs and the cat we have at home, so you can imagine how honoured I felt to be able to watch her in action.

Our client was a retired individual who has recently lost her pet, a beautiful small dog. She has had 5 dogs in her life, and you could tell she loved each of them. We looked at pictures on her phone, and we each shared stories about dogs. As I was watching the interaction, I was thinking wow, that is how Brynn starts her conversations, which is so smart. You get to know your client, their humanity and relationship with pets, but also you learn the type of pet caregiver you have in front of you. The dogs this person had were treated regally, and you could tell something is missing in her life now that she is pet-less.

A few members of her family saw a dog we have in our shelter. His name is Bandit, and he is 12-year old small dog. Unfortunately, Bandit was surrendered to us because the previous caregiver did not have sufficient funds to care for him. Bandit had 3 masses in various parts of this body, was anemic, and needed extensive dental surgery. The WHS clinic, thanks to the support of our donors and friends, was able to fix all these ailments. And while Bandit is elderly, his overall health allowed him to go over 4 surgeries and recover well. He is still very overweight, but we are working on it too.

Brynn sat down with our potential adopter and she went over the medical records. It is tough, because Bandit had a lot. Every time we went over something we found, Brynn will pause and say “Do you want us to continue? Are you still interested?” To me that was a bit counter-intuitive… Why would we go over all the bad stuff first, even before making a formal introduction?

I got the answer later, and Brynn explained that in her vast experience, once you met a pet your heart can take over your brain. If anyone is going to take on Bandit, they need to know the care and potential vet bills that will come with it. While we very much want Bandit adopted, we have a duty to him and to the public to find someone willing and able to do what this dog needs in his final years.

The person interested in Bandit was okay with the many surgeries, with the 7 tooth extractions, with the low-calorie diet Bandit needed, until we got to another issue: Bandit has hip issues and early signs of arthritis, which of course is not helped by his current weight. The potential adopter has had to carry her last dog around in the final years of that pet’s life, and that triggered a negative reaction. Still, she wanted to meet Bandit. So off we went to Adoption pod number 1.

Bandit is such a chill, cuddly, easy-going dog. Tail-wagging, very friendly, he won our hearts immediately. After spending about 10 minutes and talking about the various surgeries and how is he recovering, the person said she will think about adoption, but was likely not going to do it because of the hip issues. We bid farewell and I have to admit my heart sank. This person would have been so perfect for Bandit: retired, not looking for a young dog, willing to give a senior pet a chance. But the thought of having a pet that would not move well on its own was something she was not prepared to take on. And that honesty, both from Brynn as the Adoptions counsellor and the potential adopter was actually good to see, despite the fact that Bandit has to spend yet another day here.

After that meet and greet, I learned more about other duties Adoptions counsellors have: the write the bios you see online for each pet, they make sure all information after an adoption is entered accurately, create posters, think about promotions when we are overflowing with pets, they take time to visit pets and if they notice some changes in their behaviour or health notify the right team. I also saw that our printer for the area is not working properly, and that frankly the desks we have need to be replaced. I took note of it all and we will try to find a budget or a donor who may be willing to help make their workspace better. They deserve it, so my job is now to try to find a way to make it happen.

Today not only I did I have the privilege to see how our seasoned team of counsellors and Pet Shop hosts work, but also I deeply understood how important it is to be thorough and honest with potential adopters. Our reputation and the idea of adopting from a shelter can suffer if we let the heart lead solely and we don’t explain what the potential adopter may be taking on.

My next stops will be with our dog walkers and our Education team, and sadly this project will come to an end. I am grateful to every staff and volunteer working with the Adoptions and Retail team: every year, over 6,500 pets who had a very rough time end up finding a new, loving home. And now you know how that magic happens.

If you’d like to look back on my other department visits, you can find them here.

In service,
Javier Schwersensky
WHS CEO