Tails: RTO – The Low Hanging Fruit No One is Trying to Pick

There’s celebration in Wisconsin this week.  A bill passed to shorten the stray hold in shelters.  Oh, you probably can’t hear the party, because not everyone is celebrating.  Lost Dogs Wisconsin along with their umbrella organization, Lost Dogs America, tried very hard to stop the bill.  “Why?” you may ask… Well, Lost Dogs America, an ALL volunteer organization, helped reunite over 30,000 families and dogs in 2015.  It seems they know a thing or two about the bonds between pets and their owners.  They are also painfully well aware that most of the shelter systems in WI are broken.  Return to Owner (RTO) rates are tragic with many of the big shelters not making RTO a priority and rarely attempting to find owners or list found dogs on their websites.

LDA pleaded with WI legislation to fix the shelter systems BEFORE shortening the stray hold, but, sadly, they went ahead and passed the bill with no necessary improvements for shelters.  Basically, in the vast state of WI, you now have only 4 days, that is 96 hours, to find your lost dog at a shelter before they can adopt it out, transfer it to a rescue in or out of state, or kill it.  There was some stipulation for a longer hold UNLESS the dog was ill, or its behavior was a danger to the public.  The reality is those two exceptions are subject to so much interpretation that a shelter can act however it sees fit.  One bad cough or loud growl and your dog could be heading over Rainbow Bridge long before you could ever locate him.

Yes, there are statistics that back-up some of the advantages of shorten stray holds.  Stats that show more dogs move through the shelter system quicker – HOPEFULLY resulting in more live release rates, but not always.  I don’t think anyone really challenged those stats, but, instead, argued that in the world of rescue and animal welfare, we should be trying to preserve the human-animal bond, not destroy it.

Return to Owner is an area of animal welfare few people talk about.  You certainly don’t hear the big guys talk about it much (Best Friends, HSUS – both groups who lobbied in favor of the bill).  Yet, RTO seems like an area shelters and rescues should dedicate resources to.  Why are they so willing to spend time and money on adoptions and transfers (even euthanasia) when there is a really good chance the dog sitting in the kennel already has a home?

I remember working at my county animal control… we had a binder for lost dog reports and when dogs would come in, we would check the binder.  We would also check it before placing the dog on the adoption side or euthanizing him.  However, we didn’t really do much else.  There the dog sits for a week and we just “hope” someone calls or comes in for him.

Not everyone who loses a dog knows where to look or even what to do.  LDA is trying hard to change that by educating those who contact them on the many avenues there are to find your dog, from fliers to website postings, to calling every vet, shelter and animal control in a 100 mile radius.  The truth is unless you are active in the rescue world, not many people know all the shelters and vet clinics in the area.  Rescue people take that kind of knowledge for granted.

LDA partners with Helping Lost Pets.  Helping Lost Pets has an INTERNATIONAL, FREE database that allows individuals, shelters, vet clinics, etc. to post lost and found dogs (as well as pinpoint sightings) on a map based system.  It is truly brilliant.  I did mention is was FREE, right?  Yet, there are shelters across the country NOT using it?  Shelters right in WI who choose to do nothing instead.  How does that make sense?  An animal shelter should be using all possible resources to get that dog home.

RTO is really the low-hanging fruit when it comes the array of possibilities of getting a dog out of the shelter.  To adopt a dog out, he has to stay for the stray hold period, might need medical care, he has to pass some type of temperament test or behavior assessment, he needs to have all his vaccines and be neutered, he has to sit on the adoption side waiting for the right person to want him, maybe he goes to adoption events.  Once someone adopts him, there is a fairly decent chance, he will be returned and the entire cycle starts again.

To transfer a dog, the shelter has to have partnerships with rescues in the area that they manage, the dog has to stay for the stray hold period, be medically treated,  the shelter has to reach out to rescues hoping someone will take him, they have to arrange transfer dates and at times vaccinate and neuter the dog before the rescue will take him.

To euthanize a dog, he has to stay for the stray hold, he has to be behaviorally assessed, he might have to be medically treated and, then, the decision is made to be euthanized.  For most shelter workers, that is the hardest and saddest part of the job – placing unbelievable amounts of stress and depression on shelter workers, causing them to quit the job sooner.

To return a dog to owner, the shelter simply has to post the lost dog in a database.  When the owner comes to get the dog there might be microchipping or a neuter involved, but there is no behavior assessment, no extended shelter time and rarely a chance that the owner is going to return the dog a few days later.  RTO is ALWAYS a quicker, happy ending.

RTO is not a number many shelters use to measure success, but if your dog gets lost wouldn’t you want to believe that getting him back home is part of the shelter’s responsibility as an animal welfare organization?  Wouldn’t you want to assume that a shelter’s first priority is to find the owner, not just get the dog out the shelter?

My favorite phrase is, “Dogs don’t fall from the sky.”  Not really just a phrase, a fact, right?  Yes, in some areas strays are a prevalent reality.  Yes, some people (very few) lose their dogs and don’t even try to find them.  I have found quite a few dogs in my 45 years and not one has been a stray.  Each one had a family desperately looking for them.  Interesting that when good Samaritans find dogs they almost always make incredible attempts to find the dog’s owner, yet, shelters and rescues don’t?  The irony… and the very sad reality that needs to change NOW.

2 thoughts on “Tails: RTO – The Low Hanging Fruit No One is Trying to Pick

  1. Jim Kieselburg

    Additional Information about that law which changed the hold time from 7 days to 4 days. It was promoted by the CEO Anne Reed of Wisconsin Humane Society in MKE was an impetus in drafting this bill. While claiming to have the animals best interest, it really comes down to money. The less time an animal is held, the lower the operational cost. While there were more opposed to this law than in favor, it passed. Quite typical of the governance of Wisconsin.

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  2. Sandra

    Unfortunately almost all legislation passed in Wisconsin the last few years has been woefully shortsighted and wrongheaded. This is no exception. Given our current legislature and Govenor, I’d say follow the money. Someone is making a profit from this – or the law wouldn’t have passed.

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