INTERVIEWING PROSPECTIVE ADOPTERS
This is an article abut how to interview potential adopters, with emphasis on adopters for Bouvier.
I wrote this in 1996 and a significant change since then is that nowadays many adopters will have already filled out an adoption questionaire on the Web and/or their first contact with you may be by e-mail.
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Note: though written as a guide to Bouvier rescuers, this same approach can be modified to suit other breeds. I have also written it as though the interviewer were also the foster home of the dog under consideration. However it is perfectly reasonable to have one person do all the initial interviews, with follow-up conversations with the foster homes of dogs deemed suitable matches for this adopter.
This article assumes that you (or whoever is fostering the dog) have already evaluated the dog, spayed/neutered it and gotten its Rabies & DHLPP shots, have done a bitof education in good behavior & obedience, and have advertised its availability for adoption. Ideas on advertising are presented in another article, "Advertising the Availability for Adoption" and ideas on doing home checks are presented in "How to do a Home Check"
People may intially contact you by telephone or by e-mail or by filling out an on-line adoption application. An intitial e-mail / on-line contact may call for a preliminary e-mail reply, usually to ask for more details, but at some point the telephone becomes essential. Only over the telephone or in an in person interview do you get to hear tone of voice, hesitations, and other valuable clues. This article assumes that you are on the phone, but much of it could also apply to other methods. Although it might seem that face-to-face would give more clues than telephone, I sometimes find that the telephone focuses my attention on nuances of tone of voice that I would miss face-to-face, especially since the presence of dogs in an in-person interview can be distracting. So usually the phone interview comes first and the face-to-face with foster dog present comes after that.
People may initially contact you in regards to adopting a particular dog (usually one they have seen on an adoption page on the Internet), or in regards to adopting a dog of your breed generally, or simply to find out something about your breed as part of their breed choice decision making. Nowadays most people who contact me have found me through one or another Internet Bouvier site, so that means they have already been exposed to some breed information.
In all cases when interviewing, you must remember that this is a golden oppertunity to educate and enlighten this person about your breed and about dog care issues generally. The less clued in and the less responsible the caller might appear to be, the more important your function as an educator will be. Dealing with the more ignorant and opinionalted callers can be very annoying and frustrating, but I urge you to do your very best. Remember that if they don't get a dog from you, they can easily get one from a backyard puppy mill , a pet store, or their local Pound, ie from what I call a "don't ask, don't tell" source. To whatever degree you are sucessful in upgrading their concept of responsible dog care, you will be saving whatever dog they do get from possible suffering as well as saving those dogs whom you cause them to recognize they should not get.
Tip : if you are new to interviewing, you may want to arrange that a more experienced interviewer (such as the Rescue Chairperson) will also do a follow-up interview and will cover again any areas that might be unclear to you. Afterwards the two of you can compare notes. Such comparisons will almost certainly bolster your confidence in your interview skills. I almost always find that the same "alarm bells" or "red flags" will pop up in the heads of both interviewers, though they may describe their reactions in somewhat different words. If you think you cannot arrange a second interview, then at least tape record the original one and ask a more experienced Rescue person to listen and give reactions.
Tip : a good interview takes time, usually upwards of an hour. This can get expensive in terms of your phone bill. So do try to have that phone call take place on their bill, not yours. If you aren't able to catch the original call that they made to you, do realize that you can and perhaps should return the call collect. If they aren't willing to pay for a call to inquire about getting a dog, then they are not worthy adopters. You may want your message machine to inform callers that "rescue adoption inquiries will be returned collect; please tell me a convenient time." Also keep in mind that most people cannot absorb information in chunks of more than an hour or so (that's why college class lectures rarely exceed an hour). I always find it hard to resist the urge to try to pour 20 years worth of knowlege into the caller. Impossible. So I try to say fairly early that "since I can't see your eyes begin to glaze over, please do tell me when we need to take a break; this won't be our only oppertunity to talk." By the same token if someone calls when you have only a little time (or little energy) to spend with them, it's good to state at the outset something like "you caught me at a bad time; I have to leave in X minutes to take a dog to the vet" (or to go to yoga class or to watch my favorite TV show or whatever you feel comfortable giving as the reason).
YOU MUST INTERVIEW ALL CALLERS VERY CAREFULLY to make sure that they know enough about Bouviers and that they are committed to providing responsible care for the entire rest of the dog's natural lifetime. You also want to assess and improve their level of knowledge about the breed and about dog care generally. A good adoptive home must have 3 things in abundance :
The adopter must be looking primarily for a "FRIEND" , a "companion", "a family member", or words to that effect. They must be committed to lifetime loyalty, care, and responsibility -- "come Hell or high water."
The adopter must also be willing to and capable of assuming the leadership role in regards to the dog. And the concept of leadership must be one of calmly benevolent guardianship and dominion, rather than one of domineering domination or arrogant authority.
I used to do my interviews by asking a great many questions. Unfortunately this sometimes came accross to the prospective adopters as being an "inquisition" or as if they were being cross-examined by a hostile attorney. So I gradually changed tactics, and now I begin by simply encouraging the adopter to talk, to tell me about themselves and their family situation, and to ask me questions. If you let a prospective adopter talk on their own, usually they will ramble through about 3/4 of the information that you need. Just ask them to tell you about themselves and their family and about what they want in a dog --- as well as anything they need to avoid in a dog. Encourage them to ask you questions about the dog. Take notes as they talk. Then you can ask specific questions about anything that has not been covered. (You may want to use a checklist of questions.) DO be sure to take notes, because otherwise you will later have trouble remembering. sometimes many months will pass between the initial interview and the actual adoption. I keep my notes in simple loose-leafed notebooks. Whatever will work for you is just fine.
At some point in the process, ideally near the very beginning, you should make sure to get their name (including last name), phone number or numbers (home, work, cell), street address , and e-mail address. I like to be sure to get the phone number right away in case we get cut off , eg by my dog tripping over my phone cord or by their cordless phone's battery quitting or by whatever. People usually know these items, so these are "safe" questions to ask and to get them relaxed and talking. Anyone who is reluctant to give any of this info is not a serious inquirer or has something fishy about them, so I would politely terminate the conversation.Be absolutely certain you get the correct spelling of the e-mail address, as unfortunately on the Internet spelling does count. I explain that e-mail is how we send out information on dogs that become available for adoption. If they don;'t have an e-mail address , then make clear to them that it will be their responsibility to phone you or your group's Rescue Chairperson from time to time to find out what dogs are now available. Alternatively they can go to the public library and access the "dogs available" page for whateverto which site you post such information. Alternatively they can get a free e-mail account on Yahoo or Excite and access it from their public library. As to the need for physical address, well sometimes you will get a call from someone who is very far away from you. Unless you feel comfortable considering a long-distance placement (and I do NOT make such placements, the potential pitfalls of which is a topic worth its own article) , at this point you should refer them to a Rescue person in their own area and let that person do their own interview. Again, if they only want to tell you their town but not their full street address, that would raise some suspicions in my mind. I would immediately tell them that we always do a home check before we invite an adopter to meet any dogs, and I would put into my notes that for this adopter we definately must do a home check. (I'd better confess that I have gotten sloppy about asking for street addresses now that we have e-mail. But writing this makes me realize that I really should consistently get this information.)
Sometimes a good starting point is to describe briefly the dogs currently in foster care, paying attention to how the potential adopter reacts to varius qualities.When you describe your foster dog to a prospective adopter, of course you will mention his/her good points first. You must also frankly discuss any negative features or limitations. You might ask a few of your friends who know the dog to tell you frankly what qualities they admire or dislike in her to help you to "see your dog as others see her". If the prospective adopter is not very familiar with the breed , be sure to tell them loud and clear that Bouviers require a lot of grooming, ie at least half an hour three or four times a week, that their shaggy feet will track a lot of mud into the house, that they have some body or coat odor and that they sometimes fart a lot. Be sure to tell them loud and clear that Bouviers eat a lot and that this costs a lot, ie about $50 a month. Be sure they are willing and able to cover routein vet bills as well as major bills from illness or accident; I usually suggest setting aside $30 to $50 per month as a reserve fund for future vet bills. (Update note : that was in 1996; today in 2003 I would advise twice that amount !) You may wish to give them a copy of my "Don't Buy a Bouvier" article. Feel free to refer them to me for further breed information or for training and problem solving advice. (Update : and nowadays you could give them the URLs of some of the more informative Bouvier websites and encourage them to join one or more of the Bouvier e-mail lists : these are better sources of information than any one person's opinion.)
Be sure to inquire about previous dogs and their fates. The ideal adopter has demonstrated a LIFELONG LOYALTY to all prior dogs, never having abandoned or destroyed one for behavioral reasons (other than major aggression / biting, and then only after attempting to turn dog around with professional training help) or for treatable non-terminal health conditions. (But a responsible compassionate owner must be willing to euthanize a terminally ill dog who is now suffering.)
(Update : many adopters call a few days to a few months after the death of a well loved previous dog. In these cases , you need to be aware of mourning issues and be prepared to offer some degree of grieving support. These are often premium quality adopters. Be sure you have read at least one or two books on Pet Loss and the grieving process. I also gently encourage them to ask themselves if they are "ready to appreciate a new dog as being a unique individual rather than as an inevitably unsuccessful attempt to replace the irreplacable" and I stress that this is a question no one else can answer for them -- and that one family member may be ready and eager while another is still painfully unready, so they need to talk honnestly with each other. Remember that whether or not this particular call ultimately leads to an adoption, every bit of empathy and support that you can offer to a grieving person is a sacred gift to them and a most worthy good deed on your part.)
Be sure to inquire about their experience in training dogs (formally or informally). The ideal adopter has had some training experience and/or fully intends to take new dog to OBEDIENCE classes. The adopter must be willing to work through any behavioral problems. Please make sure that they understand that there will inevitably be some problems of adjustment to the new home and that the dog will have to be taught the new home's rules. This is a good place to discuss the "honeymoon" or "dating behavior" phenomenon and the need to beware the "oh you poor baby" overindulgence syndrome. By the former , I mean that often a dog in a new home, strange pack, will be "on its best behavior" or will be feeling uncertain while it sorts out the social hierarchy in the new pack. By the latter, I mean the unfortunate tendency of some adopters to assume that the adopted dog has suffered horribly in its former home (a few have , but most have merely been somewhat neglected) and therefore to seek to somehow make it up to the dog by showering it with every possible affection and indulgence and by not imposing any rules or discipline on the dog. The unhappy and potentially tragic result is that by the end of the first month the dog may well have decided that no one is in charge and therefore the dog is in charge and that the people are only too willing to be the servents of the dog. In other words the well meaning people have abdicated leadership and thus set themselves and the dog up for disaster. If at this point the adopter seems not to understand why the humans must take on leadership, doing so in a very benign but serenely authoritative way of course , then you know you have a lot of educating to do and that you must in a kindly way get the people to see that until they have done a lot more learning about canine nature and social structure, they are not ready to get any dog.
Make sure they do NOT plan for dog to be a strictly "OUTSIDE dog" : Bouvs don't take well to such a life of exile from the family Start by saying that you need information on the family's lifestyle generally and particularly on how often and for how long the dog is likely to be "home alone", either completely alone or in company of other pets, ie without humans present, and be sure to find out where the dog will be living when no one is home. If adopters indicate that the dog would be outdoors (ie excluded from the house, as opposed to having a dog door that allows the dog to come in or out at will) or in the garage at such times (or at any time), then this is NOT an appropriate home . Note however that it is not true that a "garage" is always a garage (habitation of cars, storeage for possibly toxic substances, uninsulated and not temperature controlled ; sometimes it has been converted to workshop, hobby, or living space and is as safe and comfortable as any other part of the house. You can discuss limiting the portions of the house to which the dog has access to a "dog-proofed" area, which can be a wise thing to do for the first few weeks or longer. (I usually explain that some areas of my home are part-time off limits to the dogs, eg when I come in from a walk in the rain I shut the stretch gate to my bedroom to keep wet dogs off my bed, and some areas are always off limits, eg the computer room, the cleaning goods closet, the medicine closet.)
In this context , I usually also discuss the advantages of dog doors. Note that there can be some completely valid reasons why an adopter does not choose to have a dog door (eg small children or cats in the home who could escape through same into an unsafe situation). However those who choose to not have a dog door must accept responsibility for the occasional "accident" on the floor caused by the dog being unable to "hold it" any longer.
This is also a good time to ask about the fencing, its height at lowest point and any gaps under or around the gate, and to suggest strongly that it is wise to keep gates locked so there will never be the need to ask "who let the dogs out?" I ask them to go out an inspect their fencing carefully before ur next conversation. For those who do not have fencing, I give them a chance to explain why and to state whether they are willing to install a safely fenced potty yard or larger play yard for the dog. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, I drop them from the list of eligible adopters. If they are willing, I discuss what is needed and tell them to let me know when it has been done so a home visit can be scheduled afterwards. (I've had a few rural folk who were obdurate that "they didn't need no lousy fencing" because their dogs always hung around and they were far from the paved road. If they can't understand the risks or don't care, then they are not getting a dog from me !)
Be sure to ask about the human and non-human membership of the family, including those not resident but who visit frequently (eg grandchildren, elderly parents, etc).
What are the numbers and ages of the children, paying special attention to the age of the youngest. Take time to educate parents on the need to supervise all interactions between young children and dogs, and to separate child from dog when such supervision is not available. I always advise them to read the excellent book "Dogs and Kids" by Bardi McLennan. I advise them that my own policy on placement of dogs in homes with children is that the age of the youngest child plus the age of the dog must equal or exceed 5 years for homes where the parents are dog-expereinced and 7 years where the parents are less experienced or often away from home. If there is more than one or two children or if there are two young children, be alert to the possibility that the children are already absorbing most of the available resources of parental time , energy, and money, leaving too little left over for the dog. (And I would be especially concerned if the mother is pregnant again or considering further child-bearing, as this can easily result in overload of the resources, with result that the dog will become perceived as a burden and at best be returned to you, or at worst simply dumped at the shelter to be killed. If I sound cynical or child-hating, well it's because I have received far too many dogs who were surrendered to me basically beccause there were too many kids taking too much time and energy, leaving a dog who may well have been there first as an unwanted burden to be discarded.) I make sure that the adopters understand that adding a dog to the family is much like adding another young child in terms of the amount of attention and effort that will be required of the adults. this is also a good time to discuss and dispell any illusions the parents might have that the children will take responsibility for any significant portion of the work of the dog's care. Where visiting grandchildren are a concern, I remind them that if the dog and one or another grandchild would seem to pose a problematic situation, then it is perfectly reasonable to put the dog in a crate or a bedroom , ie out of the child's reach, during such visits. Similarly for any other visitor who could pose a problem regarding the dog. Usually once the dog is well trained such separation becomes unnescessary unless the visitor is exceedingly ill behaved and untrained.
DO remember that all parents are concerned that the dog be safe with their children. Behavior dangerous to the children or hostile to the children is the one reason cited by almost every parent as being a justification to get rid of a dog -- for many it is the only reason they can imagine themselves parting with a dog they have adopted. So it is incumbent on all of us in Rescue to make parents aware that for young children, who are inevitably lacking in experience, in judgement, and in impulse-control, no matter how kind and how tolorant the dog may be, the ultimate responsibility for the child's safety rests on the parent's reliability and judgement in supervising (and , when nescessary, separating) child and dog. And if ever a parent were to exhibit indifference to the child's safety, well not only would they not get a dog from me but I would bring them to the attention of Child Protective Servies ! (By indifference, I mean that they don't seem to care if the child gets hurt; this is to be distinguished from the parent who knows the Bouv breed well and who knows well that their child of age 5 or older is unfailingly considerate and gentle with dogs and reads their moods well and therefore is extremely unlikely to get hurt with their own dog.)
Are there any cats ? If so this is the time to discuss the need for a lengthy period during which all exposures of cat to dog MUST be vigilantly supervised by an adult capable of immediate intervention, and that when such is not possible, the dog and cat must be safely separated. Remind them that most rescued dogs come with no history as to their attitude towards cats, and thus any powerful dog such as the Bouvier must be "presumed guilty until proven innocent." Should the adopter be unconcerned with the potential for injury or death to the cat, I would completely remove them from consideration for adoption as this would indicate a disregard for the welfare of any pet. (Again I distinguish the perosn who doesn't seem to care if the cat gets hurt from the one who knows well that the crafty old barn cat is very dog aware and dog wary and will never allow itself to be in danger.)
Are there other dogs in the family ? This will often be the case. How does the resident dog get allong with other dogs of opposite sex, of same sex ? Are all dogs spayed or neutered ? While some Rescue people categorically refuse to place a rescued dog in a home that has any intact dogs in it, believing that this is a proof of an irresponsible attitude, I feel that it merely raises the need to inquire as to why this beneficial alteration has not been done. I always emphasize that NO responsible rescuer will place a dog that is still intact except in the most extraordinary circumstances (and then only to an adopter who is personally known and trusted and with a contract that specifies the dog will be reposesssed if the alteration is not accomplished by an agreed upon time.) Where there is only one resident dog in the home, I encourage the adopter to prefer a dog of opposite sex (altered of course) as being almost certain to get along peacefully with the current dog. This is often a novel idea to many people ! Where both sexes are already present in the household, of course the new dog cannot manage to be opposite to both. In Bouvier, because most Bouvs are pretty tolorant of other dogs, the outlook for a same sex placement is pretty good. I figure that 90% of male-male placements and perhaps higher than that % of female-female placements will work out OK. But I ask adopters to consider that some same sex placements turn out to be UNworkable no matter what the people do about it, so they should be prepared to let the new dog return to the same foster home if that should happen. should that be the case there would be no blame attached to the adopters for returning the new dog, as I consider that therir primary loyalty should be to the dog who is already a family member. "Man proposes, but Dog disposes." Especially "bitch disposes" since two bitches who truly dislike each other can fight with a fury unto which hell hath no equal, and it is not impossible that one will permanently dispose of the other.
Are there any elderly persons or persons with physical or mental disabilities in the home that might need to have the choice of dog restricted to one that is especially gentle or especially sedate ? Is there a person who might welcome some active assistance from the dog and if so what form would this assistance take ? Eg a person using a wheelchair might welcome the oppertunity to teach a dog to pick up and fetch dropped objects ? Would it be desired that the foster home acquaint the dog with some paraphanalia such as a walker or a wheelchair ? Any other unique or special needs that you wanat me to know about or advise about ?
Also find out about any other pets, such as rodents or reptiles that might be considered a tasty snack by the dog, or any livestock on home premises or neighbors that the dog could ever have any oppertunity to chase. Bouvier, like all the herding breeds, almost always will vigourously chase livestock such as sheep , goats, cattle, horses, as well as poultry. A kick from a horse or cow can easily be fatal to the dog. This is the time to tell adopters loud and clear, that in every state of the USA the law allows and encourages livestock owners to KILL trespassing dogs ---- and that most livestock owners are very trigger-happy ! If they have livestock of their own but expect the dog to leave the stock in peace in the absence of very securely dog-proof fences separating dog from livestock, I would first educate them as to the predatory basis of herding behavior and then strongly reccommend that the only breeds they should consider are those very special breeds that have been developed as Livestock Guardian Breeds and that they should make sure to get one that has been properly socialized and bonded to stock of they type they have, and if possible I would give them a referral to a reliable breeder or rescuer of such breeds. Where the adopters have livestock and say that they do have secure fencing and do understand the nature of the herding breeds, I would insist on a home check to make sure the situation really is safe.
Towards the end of the interview, you may want to discuss arranging a "home visit". I always emphasize that the purpose of this visit is NOT to find reasons for denying them a dog (because the interview usually ferrets out any such reasons), but rather to help them identify aspects of the home that could cause difficulties and that could be altered for the better before the adoption takes place. Even if you don't plan to actually DO a home visit, I would suggest that discussing it as something you usually do is a good idea. If they sound the least bit reluctant to have you make a home visit (or a post adoption follow-up visit) then that would give rise to real doubt about their suitability as an adopter. ( Of course they may quite legitimately have some time frame in which such a visit is more acceptable than others.)
( I will write more about doing home visits in a separate article, as it needs a ful discussion of its own. The bare basics are below.)
(Ideally) You (or another rescuer) should visit the home where the dog will be living before the adoption takes place and you should meet every human member of the household and be certain that all of them really want the dog. Notice whether the parents supervise children and require that the children treat the dog with respect and gentleness. (This could also be observed if the family visits your home, but they may behave more naturally in their own home.) Inspect the fencing and gates carefully to see if the adopters might have overlooked any defects, and if so ask that these be fixed before the dog moves in. Likewise it can be a good time to advise on where a dog door might be installed and where stretch gates might be appropriate and what breakables and chewables might be moved out of the dog's reach.
Make sure that the adopters agree that you may make a follow-up visit a few weeks after the dog has begun living with them; this should be a a time of mutual convenience, ie not a "raid" or "surprise visit", and should take place before the adoption becomes final (usually there is a "trial period" provision in the adoption contract.) Definately let them know that you expect them to make follow up phone calls during ther first month or more of the adoption so any incipient problems can be addressed promptly. Let them know that you are prepared to be the dog's "god-parent" for the rest of its life. (Note : I don't usually actually do follow up visits unless an adopter asks me to do so, but I do do a lot of follow up phone calls and nowadays a lot of follow-up e-mail. Sometimes I will "buddy up" a less expereinced adopter with an expereinced Bouv person in thier locality who is willing to help as a "mentor" or a "buddy", and this person may well make invited visits to help with training and grooming.)
I wrote this in 1996 and a major change is that nowadays many adopters will have already filled out an adoption questionaire on the Web and/or their first contact with you may be by e-mail. You might look at the questionaires on some of the sites listed on the Farewell page, as a guide to what information one should gather about an adopter. Although Web and e-mail information is a great place to start, often providing much of the matchmaking information you need, it is not a substitute for phone calls and personal visits.