Wednesday, May 7, 2014

That Magic Moment: Foster Dogs and Love at First Sight

Do you believe in love at first sight?

Many (maybe even most?) dog lovers do believe in serendipity and the magic of instant connections. I have heard countless stories of a stray dog turning up on a country porch the day after a beloved old pet was laid to rest, of eyes meeting through kennel bars in an overcrowded shelter, of seeing a picture posted on the Internet and knowing, as everyone knows in these stories, that this is the one.

And I have seen it happen in real life, with my own foster dogs, time and again.

Gremlin actively sabotaged my attempts to get her adopted -- even going so far as to growl and snap at several prospective adopters -- until she met the person who had driven 20 hours from Minneapolis to meet her (and had me holding my breath in semi-silent prayer that she would please, please not tank this one), at which point she was immediately charmed and had no further use for me.

Others -- Mab, Foozie/Lolly, Sydney -- clicked in the same way with their adopters and trotted off just as happily at the moment of first meeting. Penny (who became Skunky) ran across a dog park and jumped into her eventual adopter's lap. They knew.

So I do believe that those instant, electric connections happen, and sometimes dogs truly do choose their owners. But I also believe that they don't always happen, that they can be intentionally manufactured, and that they can be artificially prevented, too. As a foster, you can try to use this cultural phenomenon to your advantage. As an adopter, it can help to be aware of the pitfalls that lie in spending too much time looking for sparks, rather than looking at the dog.

The practice of manufacturing these magic moments is pretty straightforward. Many adopters are primed to accept the existence of a deep-yet-instantaneous connection with very little prompting. Like lovelorn hopefuls walking into a palm-reader's parlor, they are looking for magic to happen.

Knowing this, savvy rescuers and shelter workers will, if they have the time and opportunity, try to photograph dogs making eye contact with the camera in an inviting fashion. Some shelter workers also train dogs to sit at the doors of their kennels and make eye contact with any approaching human -- a deliberately indiscriminate practice (because it has to be intentionally trained as a response to any approaching person, especially strangers and infrequent visitors, rather than the more-natural response to focus on familiar faces) that is intended to evoke a response from adopters by mimicking an individual bond.

And it works. It works very, very well, so much so that this is a standard recommended practice for those shelters and rescues fortunate enough to have the personnel and resources to do it. Adoption rates increase significantly when the dogs make calm, inviting eye contact with strangers, because the natural human response is to interpret this behavior as a sign of that magical bond... even when it's intentionally and artificially trained.

My point in noting this practice is not to criticize it (to the contrary, I think it's a brilliant idea and helps set the dogs up for post-adoptive success by reinforcing Sit-and-wait as a strong default behavior), but to encourage other rescue volunteers to do it, and also underscore that sometimes the "magical moment" is entirely one-sided, even imaginary.

It can be totally faked. And that doesn't matter. The dogs who are adopted through this minor subterfuge don't get returned. Their people love them just as deeply, and the dogs reciprocate that love just as intensely. Whether or not a bond existed in that first moment of meeting, it develops shortly afterward.

Love at first sight can be prevented, too. It may even be outright impossible for a given dog in a given circumstance.

I didn't have a magic moment with Pongu. Initially, I wasn't even sure I wanted him; I surely did not know much about dogs back then, but I still had some inkling the puppy might have problems. I went back and forth for days before I finally decided to adopt my little guy. At no point, until he actually came home, was I certain that we'd have any connection.

Today, of course, there is no question that we have an extraordinary connection, and I can't imagine life without him. Our first meetings were not predictive of whether we'd develop that depth of relationship. Everything that followed later was.

What I know now is that it would never have been possible for Pongu to give me the calm, sustained eye contact that is often interpreted as "love at first sight." He is a fearful dog, and he was much worse as a puppy. He was terrified in the noisy, unfamiliar shelter; the environment was far too overwhelming for him to accept a stranger calmly.

This, too, has implications for the placement of foster dogs.

Every time I have had a foster dog click instantaneously with adopters, the initial meeting was in a relatively quiet place where the foster dog felt comfortable. For this reason, I typically use nearby parks to introduce dogs to prospective families; the dogs are familiar with the area, there are as few distractions as possible in a city setting, the open space allows them to choose their proximity (to some extent), and it's much easier for them to focus on the new people in a welcoming, relaxed way.

When I have foster dogs bomb out on that initial meeting, by contrast, it's usually because they are encountering strangers when they are already near or over threshold: most commonly, it's a chance encounter on a crowded street or at a noisy, chaotic, crowded adoption event. These are difficult environments for dogs and not conducive to creating good first impressions (which is one of the main reasons that I so seldom bring my foster dogs to adoption fairs).

But, of course, people who stop and ask about a dog wearing an "Adopt Me" vest on the street are very likely the exact ones hoping for some sign of serendipity -- some indication that this is a cosmic "meet cute" worthy of a canine rom-com. And they are the least likely to get it, unless they have the luck (or foresight) to stop the dog in a quiet park while she's still under threshold.

I don't have an easy solution for this. Of course I always try to explain to the adopter what is happening and why the dog doesn't seem immediately smitten with them, but that doesn't change the fact that the dog isn't smitten, and that the prospective adopter is likely to conclude that therefore the dog isn't the right match. In this scenario, the weight of cultural expectation is likely to torpedo the match no matter how good it might actually have been. That's unfortunate, but easy to understand and difficult to change.

As a foster, I think pretty much all you can do is offer those explanations, hand out a card with contact information and a blog link (where the adopter might be able to get a more accurate picture of the dog's personality), and hope that cosmic coincidence leads people to stop you in environments where the dog can show well.

The other major downside of the "love at first sight" expectation, and the last thought I want to touch on, is when people fall in love with the wrong dog.

Probably everyone who has placed a litter of puppies has had some version of the experience where a doting, dewy-eyed, slightly fluttery person has been immediately smitten by the puppy who trotted out to greet them ahead of the pack because "that's the one! he picked me!"

...when, of course, that puppy is the devil in a small fuzzy jacket, struts out with the same brazen confidence to greet all interlopers into his domain, and would undoubtedly eat this person alive within 48 hours of going home.

I think (hope?) this sort of thing is less common than it used to be, as public awareness spreads that some dogs are really just not appropriate for some homes, and probably to some extent as puppies become less common in rescue (in my experience, this is much less of an issue with adult dogs). It still does happen on occasion, however, that somebody falls in love with a completely unsuitable dog and then is extremely reluctant to be talked out of it. From the adopter's point of view, this sucks, but from the fostering side it is actually one of the easiest problems to handle. In the words of Nancy Reagan, just say no.

First impressions matter. It's as true in the world of dog adoption as any other realm of human experience. For foster homes, I think the important thing is to recognize that it's possible to encourage behaviors in the dogs that will facilitate a good first impression. Conversely, be aware when the dog is unlikely to be able to succeed in a particular environment, or when and why an adopter might be acting on an inaccurate impression, and try to avoid setting that dog up to fail.

Above all, though, I think it is useful to be aware of the power of this cultural idea, and how it can be harnessed to help our dogs find homes. Sometimes the magic happens spontaneously, but sometimes it needs a little help.

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