How to Avoid Pesky Holiday Pet Returns

How to Avoid Pesky Holiday Pet Returns

This time of year, one of my favorite Christmas movies of all-time practically runs non-stop. “A Christmas Story” is a classic that tracks the anticipation of Christmas through the eyes of a very precocious child named Ralphie. It’s a hilarious movie. Ralphie is completely obsessed with getting a really cool BB gun for Christmas. Everyone accurately tells him, “you’ll shoot your eye out.” When Christmas finally arrives, (spoiler alert) that almost happens.

It’s a funny plot, for sure, but there’s a good lesson for animal welfare agencies hidden in that story: No matter how pumped up someone is about adopting a pet, they better know what they’re getting into. Unfortunately, an un-informed adopter can mean an shelter pet is going to get returned after the holiday magic wears off. And there’s nothing funny about that.

So how do agencies avoid that frustrating and perhaps even crippling post-holiday reconsideration? Like almost anything else, good communication up front – where both parties are actively listening – and even better follow-up can help make for better matches and successful adoptions. Agencies with low recidivism rates have mastered some basic skills:

  • They listen more than they speak. There’s an old saying that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason: we’re supposed to use them in that proportion and listen twice as much as we speak. So, what are they listening for? Questions about things like lifestyle and home situations. Is the pet going to be alone a lot? Is the adopter an active person that would do well with an active pet? Most organizations have good checklists for matching pets with their people, but they must be consistently used. In the excitement of a busy place and the desire to get pets into homes, skipping steps can be a common problem.
  • They make good product recommendations. Over the years, manufacturers have developed products to make the transition home better. This can include: compounds that calm animals as they leave shelters to proper chew toys that reduce anxiety and some destructive behaviors that often accompany stressed pets. Nutrition companies know maintaining a proper diet will make that shelter-to-home transition go better. From my experience, manufacturers in this industry want the adoption to go well just as much as you do. They want pets in happy homes enjoying their products throughout their lives. Find ones you trust and make sure adopters know why you trust those products.
  • They have good post-adoption follow-up and effective websites. Once an adopter leaves the building, effective organizations know the relationship with those people and their new pet is far from over. Shelters provide education in the form of classes, continued health through clinic services and close-by assistance through good websites. Not only do these things enable more successful adoptions, they also pave the way for greater relationships within the community. And by greater relationships, I mean additional adoptions, volunteers and donations.

In “A Christmas Story,” Santa came through for Ralphie  but he soon found out there were significant drawbacks. Don’t let adopters make the same mistake. Help them apply good decision-making skills to their enthusiasm and make their holidays — and everyday after — happy.


Tom Tholen

Tom Tholen is SAWA's Senior Vice President of Marketing & Development. The SAWA member has served as President of Companion Channel, a cloud-based digital screen media service that streamed into partner shelters. Tom is perhaps best known in the animal welfare industry as the former President & Chief Marketing Officer for Callahan Creek, which was the agency of record for Hill’s in the early days of their shelter program. Over the years, he has worked for several agencies, as well as major corporations including Hallmark, Sprint and General Electric. A Colorado native, Tom received his BS in Journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and he lives with his family in the Kansas City area.


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