The Pawsitive Side of a Pandemic

During a time when all the news is so somber, AWLA has seen a boom in adoptions, interested fosters, and volunteer involvement.

The sweet and goofy Kingston has found a home. (Photo: Dirty Paw Photography)

Alexandria, VA – Meet Kingston. Kingston is a five-year-old pit bull with a sweet and goofy disposition. He was recently adopted from the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria (AWLA), though he may not have been adopted so quickly had the global pandemic not inspired the shelter to rethink what is possible. During a time when all the news is so somber, AWLA has seen a boom in adoptions, interested fosters, and volunteer involvement, as well as a few unexpected surprises.

Kingston had been at the shelter for five months when AWLA had to suspend adoptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem was that his true personality didn’t come through in a kennel.

“He didn’t love having a barrier between him and the people that he could see on the outside, and it made him nervous. It made him bark,” said Gina Hardter at AWLA. “He didn’t understand when people would poke through, what that meant. And sometimes they were trying to give him treats, and sometimes they were trying to pet him, but it just made him very nervous.”

When stay-at-home orders came through, Kingston was in the care of an experienced foster who was evaluating how he gets along in a home environment. While staff sorted out how to move forward, Kingston spent a couple of extra weeks in his temporary home.

AWLA staff and volunteers video Kingston’s virtual meet and greet. (Photo: Animal Welfare League of Alexandria)

Meanwhile, AWLA staff worked through how to keep their employees and potential adopters safe. They tried appointment-only shelter visits in order to maintain physical distancing, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to suffice. There was such demand from the community to adopt that ALWA soon moved to virtual adoption.

Adopters could file to adopt online, then meet their potential pet(s) virtually. If that was successful, next was a phone consultation to learn more, and they could pick up their new pet the same day through a no-contact drop-off. In six weeks, AWLA found homes for almost 100 pets, including Kingston.

“When he came back to the shelter, we were doing virtual adoption. Because he was doing it in a room that wasn’t a kennel—we do them in visiting rooms—people had a chance to see what a goofball he really is. He just kind of played with toys. He ran around our visiting room. He booped the camera a couple of times. They could see what our staff and volunteers already knew, that he was really sweet, really goofy,” said Gina.

Some dogs don’t show well in a kennel. They may be frightened, they may bark loudly when they are trying to say hello. People tend to bypass those dogs to look at others that are quieter or wagging their tails.

“That’s the really positive thing we’ve seen through the virtual adoption processes,” said Gina. “People seeing animals the first time get to see them being themselves. It’s really made a difference.”

Kingston is just one of the animals at AWLA that have benefited from the pandemic. The shelter saw an uptick in adoptions and fosters following stay-at-home orders, and would-be adopters found the time they needed with their new pets.

“It’s a perfect time to train an animal, to really spend the time that you want to when you adopt an animal, and we really appreciate that people are thinking that through,” said Gina.

This was especially important for puppies, for whom the first several months are crucial. “This is when the world is imprinted on them. By experiencing new things, meeting new animals, even things like learning to walk up stairs, and feeling different types of things under their feet, like hardwood flooring versus rugs versus grass, if they get used to those things now, they are much less likely to develop fear,” said Gina.

For many people, isolating at home is easier with the companionship of a furry friend. For people adopting dogs, taking them on walks and bathroom breaks provides a reason to leave the house and change the scenery. “You’re supporting this animal,” said Gina, “and, you know, they’re supporting you right back.”

The same has been true for fosters. AWLA saw an even more dramatic increase in the interest for fostering, so many people that they didn’t have enough animals to foster.

“This means that throughout the summer, especially when we see litters of animals, we have a much longer roster of people to foster. It prepares us not just for now, but also the coming months and probably the rest of the year,” said Gina.

AWLA has also seen tremendous adaptability and support from its volunteer staff. With their help, AWLA has been able to provide online teaching for pet owners, and have also been able to offer online education to volunteers. “We have a program that we call Polite Pups that we normally offer to volunteers in shelter, and they’ll work with a shelter animal for four courses over four weeks,” said Gina. “Now we have the opportunity for them to do that at home.”

Most virtual meet and greets take place in training rooms like this. (Photo: Animal Welfare League of Alexandria)

For all the new pet owners, AWLA checks on the pets a few weeks after adoption to make sure everything is going smoothly. Sometimes it’s not the right match. Perhaps a dog who normally loves other dogs doesn’t get along with the dog in the household, or a cat who has never had problems with the litter box suddenly does.

“We want to people to understand there’s no stigma associated with returning an animal, and it doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t be able to adopt from us in the future. It’s about finding the right match,” said Gina. “And that’s what’s best for the family and for the animals.”

Thankfully, virtual adopters seem to be keeping their pets. AWLA saw fewer returns with virtual visits than usual. “I’m not attributing that to any kind of success or failure, but just statistically, we are seeing a [lower] percentage of returns,” said Gina.

Rumor has it that Kingston is doing well in his new home. It seems the pandemic gave this pup a new leash on life. To learn more about activities for your pet when staying at home, visit www.alexandriaanimals.org.

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