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Matchmaking hits the dog world

Matchmaking services for people and dogs are revolutionizing the face of adoption and vastly increasing the chance the relationship will last.

Wednesday June 10th, 2009

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Emily Weiss matches shelter dogs with humans for the ASPCA.

In retrospect, it was a terrible idea. But after the Los Angeles couple with a two-year-old daughter fell for a Beagle's big puppy eyes, there was no turning back. "He was just irresistibly cute," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "The minute we laid eyes on him, we wanted to take him home."

Once home, however, the arrangement proved less than ideal. The rambunctious pup tore across the living room, repeatedly knocking the toddler off her already unsteady feet. Abject chaos--not to mention crying fits--ensued, and the grownups decided that either the child or the pup would have to go.

Happily, a new home was found for the Beagle. But most "mismatched" family dogs are not so lucky. They're either abandoned or wind up at shelters, where at least half never find another home.

But a new adoption model is emerging that may rewrite the ending of this sadly common tale. The premise is simple, but powerful: Match a dog's personality to a human's and you dramatically improve the odds that their relationship will be a long and happy one.

Fighting the high rate of dog returns

Beleaguered shelter workers typically focus on doing whatever it takes to get dogs out of the shelter. The sheer excess means that at many shelters, nearly any person can adopt any animal at any time, without considering whether they're suitable companions.

So it's really no surprise the dogs keep coming back. Exact numbers vary by shelter and region. And every shelter has to expect some returns. "But when return rates start hitting ten percent or higher," says Kim Intino, Director of Animal Sheltering Issues at the Humane Society of the United States, "a shelter really needs to look at its policies to find out how it can ensure better matches between animals and adopters."

The trouble with love at first sight

It's not just a shelter's policy that stands in the way of successful adoptions. It's the tendency most people have to adopt a dog simply because he's cute. "People tend overwhelmingly to choose a dog based on physical looks," says Kelly Dunbar, a trainer and co-founder of Open Paw, which is based in Berkeley, California. "They're not thinking about what kind of dog makes a suitable companion."

And just as humans eventually learn that a pretty face or rock solid abs are no substitute for shared interests or even helping with the dishes, an owner may discover his adorable dog is too intense for a studio apartment. Or so excitable, he keeps knocking over the toddler. And so they bring them back.

The power of matchmaking

The importance of highlighting personality over looks isn't news of course. Humane organizations and the best funded shelters already require prospective adopters to go through a lengthy qualifying process. The most responsible rescue groups and shelters provide as many details as they can about a dog's behavior, quirks included, on online adoption profiles.

Sites like Open Paw try to get people to think about what makes a suitable canine companion in its online questionnaire. So does DogTime's own Matchup; since it launched last October, just under 15,000 people have logged on to meet their perfect match.

And across the country, a new, fairly systematic personality matching effort is being introduced in many shelters. It's presenting the best argument yet for the power of matchmaking.

ISO Purple Couch Potato

As senior Director of Shelter Behavior Programs at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Emily Weiss had long observed the sad consequences of unsuccessful matches, and seen too many adopted dogs returned because they were "too energetic," "not energetic enough," "grew too big," and on.

So she started developing a color-coded system that would make it easy for animal care workers to evaluate and characterize dogs, and for potential adopters to assess themselves.

"Finding a canine match is a lot like finding a partner or spouse," says Weiss, who has also worked as a behaviorist with the Kansas Humane Society. "You're choosing to make another individual an integral part of your family, so you have to be careful."

In 2001, Weiss and the Kansas Humane Society officially launched the Meet Your Match pilot program. Where there were once single bookish females searching for neutered gray Poodles, there were now "Purple Couch Potatoes" or "Orange Busy Bees" seeking same.

The program's effect was almost immediate--and undeniably successful: a 50 percent drop in the number of returned animals.

The start of many beautiful relationships

Since then, Meet Your Match has been introduced to shelters across the country, with similar results: In Negaunee, Michigan, adoptions went up 37 percent. In Green Bay, Wisconsin, the return rate dropped below two percent. And in Salem, Oregon, adoptions went up 20 percent.

The ASPCA launched Weiss's program in 2004, and today, the Meet Your Match assessment is used in over 150 shelters nationwide. "Having this program as part of the ASPCA's national offerings will help take us one step further to being a humane community where no adoptable, healthy, treatable animal is euthanized for want of a home," says Ed Sayres, ASPCA President and CEO. He's hoping to take the program online in the future.

Weiss expects the program's success to fuel the matchmaking trend. "There was a Rottweiler who had been in a shelter in Maine for six months," she says, a hint of delight in her voice. "When they took down her Rottie sign and put up her 'Purple Couch Potato' sign, she was adopted the next day."

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Please let us know if you meet the love of your life through DogTime's MatchUp. We'd love to feature you in "How we met," tales of how people and their dogs found each other.

You can also share your story with other DogTimers on our forums.

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Hey baby, what's your color?

Meet Your Match more closely resembles an online dating service than a traditional pet adoption programs--and that's shown to be a good thing.

Here's how it works: After a dog is evaluated by a shelter staff-person or volunteer, he's assigned a user-friendly label (like Constant Companion or Free Spirit) and placed in either the Purple, Orange, or Green group.

Placement is based on a variety of factors, including energy level, drive, and motivation. For example, a dog jazzed by tennis balls and trips to the beach will probably wind up a different color than dog who prefers a belly rub and long nap.

Green human, meet Green dog

Potential adopters also complete their own self-evaluations and, similarly, are assigned a color. So, once you know you're a Green human, you can begin searching for your Green canine love match.

The idea is to find the dog compatible with your lifestyle. And what happens if you fall in love with a Purple at the other end of your color spectrum? Don't panic. "It's not that animals outside your color aren't a fit, but it may mean it's more of an adjustment for you both," says Weiss.

Feeling amorous? Check out DogTime's MatchUp tool and DogFinder and search for your dog match.

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