In this guest post, Kelly Duer, Maddie’s® Foster Expansion Coordinator at Austin Animal Center, shares how The Ventura County Animal Shelter is getting all of their long-stay dogs adopted. Read the post, and then try some of the creative ideas for yourself!
The Ventura County Animal Shelter was in a tight spot: The busiest time of year had barely begun, and they were already dangerously close to hitting capacity in their dog kennels. Worse, the shelter had a slew of long-stay dogs that desperately needed to get out of the shelter and into homes. What could they do?
They got creative. In addition to asking the community for help and placing as many of their pets as possible into foster care, the shelter piloted a new – and very successful – marketing program that they called the Long Stay Challenge. They started with a group of 20 dogs who had been at the shelter for the longest amount of time – a collective 6,181 days. Many had been living there for over a year.
Two months later, half of these dogs were settling into their new forever homes, efforts to market those who remained were well underway, and many other stressed-out dogs who were marketed had also been adopted or rescued. Here’s how they did it:
They focused on their neediest dogs. The shelter looked at their data to find the 20 dogs who had been there the longest. They created a list and asked their volunteers for help. They resolved to market these dogs heavily for a minimum of 60 days. Many other dogs who were suffering from shelter stress, no matter how long their stays, were also targeted.
“It made us as volunteers continually check for dogs falling through the cracks,” said shelter volunteer Darrell Berdine.
Everyone participated in marketing the dogs for adoption. At many shelters, the organization’s Facebook page is the only way pets are marketed. This puts stress on the shelter’s staff and leaves out a huge group of people who are often more than happy to contribute: the shelter’s volunteers. Using volunteer- and foster-driven marketing, the shelter was able to feature a much wider variety of photos, videos and stories about the dogs in their care.
In addition to taking the dogs on outings, volunteers worked together to create new and innovative ways to showcase the dogs. They not only shared this material with the shelter, they shared it with the community by posting on their own social media pages and creating new pages to market these pets.
They got their dogs out of the shelter. A few went to foster for a week or more, but the majority? They only went off-campus for half a day at a time: on group walks, lunch dates, visits to the beach and outings to the park. It may not seem like a lot of time, but even a few hours in foster care was enough to capture these dogs looking relaxed and happy in different settings.
In the shelter, marketing opportunities can be limited. For example, it can be difficult to get photos of pets looking relaxed when they’re stressed out in a shelter setting. Adopters want to know what a pet would look like in a home, and this is not often possible to show in the shelter.
“Not only is this different marketing material than photos and assessments done in shelter, it reaches an audience that may not be following us on Facebook,” said Kim Flavin, the shelter’s behaviorist. “The dogs meet the people where they are. It is also a vital stress reliever for the dogs and helps gather important information about the dog’s behavior in the ‘real world.’”
They got creative. Volunteers and staff worked together to come up with innovative new ways to market the dogs. Photographers, fosters and other creative volunteers teamed up to generate ideas, make videos, take pictures and create themed photo shoots.
They made it into a fun game. Several gift cards were donated as prizes for participants. Prizes were raffled off to day trip fosters and the first two people whose marketing led to a dog’s adoption. A list of those who took dogs on outings was posted next to the long-stay list in order to keep track, and updates on winners were given in the shelter’s internal social media groups.
Berdine, whose advocacy on behalf of long-stay dog Snoopy led to his adoption, was the contest’s first winner. Snoopy had lived in the shelter for nearly a year, and his behavior was beginning to deteriorate. Berdine not only helped to market him, but also worked with Flavin to create and implement a plan and a training protocol.
“He blossomed very quickly with the consistent training. We took pictures and videos and marketed the heck out of him,” said Berdine. “The more I took him offsite the better he got with his manners. I think a lot of his issues were kennel stress. He turned out to be one of my all-time favorites.”
That gift card he won? Berdine spent it on enrichment items for his new favorite long-stay dog, Bayou!
“I think the most important part of this project was bringing attention about these dogs to everyone,” said Sarah Aguilar, the shelter’s foster coordinator. “Getting them known, increasing awareness, having them ready to go — all of these things contributed to the number of these dogs that have gotten adopted.”
When the two-month trial period was over, the shelter reassessed. In just two months, the average length of stay for their 20 longest-stay dogs decreased from over 300 days to 235. Not only had half the shelter’s longest-stay dogs been adopted or rescued, but working together to achieve this goal brought renewed vigor to the whole organization.
Building on their success, the shelter’s staff developed some additional marketing tools such as the new bulletin board of long-stay dogs that is now displayed prominently in their lobby. Then they printed out a new list of long-stay dogs and started over!