When Sheryl Thorp and her family decided to adopt a dog, the Concord mother figured it would be “pretty straightforward, easy.”
That was before they lost out to one of the other four families competing for the young golden retriever her sons had fallen in love with. Before Thorp was asked to fill out a rescue agency questionnaire that asked about child-bearing plans. And before a high-stakes home visit that had her scrubbing her floors to impress the inspector.
“I was cleaning like my mother-in-law was coming over,” said Thorp, a program manager at Hanscom Air Force Base.
Adopting a pet — once a simple, one-day affair — has turned into a process that can stretch for months. It can involve not only home visits, but requests for mortgage statements, questions about employment status, waiting lists, and testimony from references.
Those without a fenced-in yard, or who are unwilling to erect one, may want to rethink their adoption plans.
“It’s not as hard as getting into Harvard,” said Jane Fulton, president of Fenway Bark , a pooch hotel that fosters dogs waiting to be adopted. “But especially if you’re going for a young, attractive dog, you’ve got to move quickly.”
The competition reached a fever pitch in September at MSPCA-Angell, when the agency rescued 16 Shih Tzu from a home in Marlborough — and 1,000 people started pitching.
Would-be adopters played up their experience with the breed or mentioned they have a home outside the city with a fenced-in yard. “They were marketing themselves,” said Rob Halpin, director of public relations.
More pets are being adopted than ever — 4.16 million in 2013, compared with 3.56 million in 2009 — according Petfinder.com. And as in the dating world, social media and the Internet play a big role. Those who are open to a wide variety of animals — a dog of any size or breed, a cat of any age — can generally get a pet quickly.
At the same time, competition is ramped up for pets that appear especially desirable — wowing Facebook and Petfinder.com viewers with a contrasting patch of fur over one eye, perhaps, or cute, droopy ears.
Meanwhile, over time rescuers and shelter workers have learned what makes a good adopter — and what doesn’t — and accordingly have started asking more and more questions with the goal of reducing or eliminating bounce-backs, said Halpin.
In pet circles, the goal is to find an animal its “forever home.”
As Allyson MacKenna, executive director of the highly selective Yankee Golden Retriever Rescue , said: “We always do the matching here from the dogs’ point of view. They’ve already had one bad break or they wouldn’t be at a rescue.”
The increased competition can be seen clearly at her Hudson-based rescue. “When we started in 1985 we had to advertise,” MacKenna said. Now, more than 100 families are wait-listed for eight dogs.
They’re people who have met Yankee’s eligibility requirements, which state, among other things, that a rescued golden may not be left outdoors — not even in the mandatory fenced-in-yard — when no one is home.
Those families have also survived Yankee’s home visit, in which a volunteer shows up with her own dog.
“Do they offer cookies and a bowl of water?” MacKenna said of what the volunteers look for. “Do they get upset if the dog disappears in another room and comes back with someone’s underwear? You get a sense if they will treat the dog as a family member or a pet.” (Hint: the right answer is the former.)
“Believe it or not,” MacKenna said, “we’ve had people who’ve said ‘You can’t take your dog in the house.’ ”
She paused, almost speechless. “Their application goes no further.”
Many would-be adopters approach the “tell us more about yourself” section of applications as seriously as they would a college essay.
“We get applications describing hour by hour how the dog will be cared for and cuddled,” said Cynthia Sweet, founder of the Massachusetts-based Sweet Paws Rescue, a nonprofit that rescues and re-homes dogs. “Then they’ll follow up with a full-on essay — one person wrote about a former dog, and how they spent $5,000 on chemo when it was diagnosed with bone cancer.”
The strict if well-intentioned placement policies sometimes lead to dishonest behavior, with applicants exaggerating the amount of time they spend at home, say, or downplaying the severity of their allergies.
In Marblehead, after several failed attempts to get a dog because she didn’t have a fenced yard, Lauren Goldfinger’s friends suggested she bend the truth.
“People were like, use my address, I have a fenced-in yard,” said Goldfinger, a systems administrator for a Boston nonprofit.
“But I wasn’t going to do that. I believe in karma.” (Karma soon smiled on her in the form of Hopscotch, a terrier mix.)
Meanwhile, earlier this fall, in Concord, the Thorp family was increasingly despairing, as they searched daily for a dog to adopt. In October, word came that there was a candidate at Fenway Bark.
The family drove to South Boston to meet Danny, a nearly 1-year-old black Labrador/coon hound mix. He sat in 11-year-old Aidan’s lap and licked 9-year-old Ethan’s face, and despite the fact that he met none of Thorp’s initial requirements (she wanted an older, potty-trained dog and not a hound), he won them over.
But they still had to pass a home visit from Great Dog Rescue New England . Thorp rehearsed her sons beforehand, like a defense attorney prepping clients for the stand.
“We talked about [canine] discipline and not yelling, but having an authoritative voice,” she said.
The visit went smoothly, and afterward, out of earshot of her boys, Thorp questioned the volunteer. “How did we do?” she asked, tension tightening her gut.
The reply was sweet: “Good luck with Danny.”