Proven Strategies

White pit bull type dog sitting with person in dark gray sweatshirt in clinic

Let’s Talk About Managed Intake

Under the limitations of the pandemic, shelters were forced to find a way to operate while being closed to the public. In a lot of communities, foster homes stepped up to take much of the burden off a challenged animal sheltering system. But with the need to still take in at least a few animals, many shelters decided to try implementing a managed intake program—something I was particularly excited about, because managed intake programs are a key component to reaching no-kill.  

Since then, however, I’ve spoken with several shelters whose programs are operating more like a waiting list. As Brent Toellner noted in his blog, Data Proves Power of Managing Intake, the objective of managed intake is to help find the best possible outcomes for pets, which often doesn’t mean going straight into the shelter. Simply setting appointments for people to bring in their pets later may alleviate some immediate pressures, but if you aren’t providing other resources that might enable people to keep their animals or rehome them on their own in the meantime, then you aren’t running a managed intake program.  

Take Your Shelter’s Inventory  

Now’s the time to evaluate how managed intake works at your shelter and make sure that it is a robust program that is set up for success. A good place to start is to consider whether your appointment system is based off a careful evaluation of your current shelter population and available resources, from cage space to staffing levels. Some questions to ask include:  

  • What is a comfortable level of population at your shelter, both for basic care and to allow staff time to work with animals with complex medical or behavioral needs? 
  • How many cages do you have available? How many do you need to keep open to accommodate emergencies?  
  • How many adoptions do you do in a typical day or a week? 
  • On average how many strays do you taken in daily or weekly? 

Looking at these elements allows shelters to be proactive instead of reactive, and to avoid those situations where animals are stashed in every nook and cranny because you’re afraid to turn anyone away. And no animals should be coming through your doors if your shelter is still euthanizing for space. 

Arm Staff with Tools for Success 

Shelters are customer service entities, but many don’t operate that way. In fact, the epitome of bad customer service is waiting in a long line and having to surrender your pet to a distracted staff member who is just trying to get to the next person in line.  Ditch the free-for-all system in favor of setting appointments and you are already taking huge steps to improving the customer experience at your shelter. 

 Managed intake is also much better for your shelter staff. It alleviates the stress of trying to tend to long lines of people in favor of a scheduled, manageable flow of customers, and it means staff will not be getting pulled off the adoption floor or from other tasks every time someone shows up unexpectedly. It makes for a better staff experience and allows them to be more productive in managing their day. 

Giving yourself some breathing room to provide a higher level of service to the animals in your care is one benefit of managed intake, but you also need to be offering some form of adoption or behavior counseling to the people who have come to the shelter for help with their pets. That means you need to invest in people who can do the job of truly offering help without judgment.  

It helps to look at your frontline staff as social workers of a sort. Can they help someone write up a good adoption bio for their dog? Are they capable of walking someone through how to post their kitty online? And because nothing says your shelter must be the be-all, end-all, is your staff aware of other resources in the community? No doubt your city or county has vets who offer low-cost services or payment plans, food pantries with connections to pet food resources and a variety of trainers and behaviorists. Make sure the staff interfacing with the public have such resource lists handy so they can provide prompt, thorough support.  

Lastly, train and empower your front-line staff to make decisions that are in the best interests for the animals and people in front of them. When an animal can’t wait and must come in right away, then give them the authority to make such a decision. The worst that can happen if they accept an animal that could have been dealt with another way is that your shelter will care for the animal and use it as an educational opportunity.  

We are really good as an industry of handcuffing staff. Empowering your staff not only fosters a positive attitude toward the organization and increases employee retention, but the public will also come away feeling that you really care about them and their pets—and your shelter’s reputation will benefit, too.  

Collect Data to Defuse Critics 

One of the reasons shelters often don’t want to try implementing managed intake is because of the concern about their reputation in the community: “If we tell people ‘No,’ they’ll just call their councilperson/trash us on Facebook/yell at the staff at the front desk/tell all their friends how awful we are.”  

First, most people won’t do those things (and by managing your intake and giving your staff some authority, you can afford to take in animals from those people who are really difficult). But most people don’t even know what your policies are until they need to use your services, so they have no reference point to get angry about things changing from how they used to work. For instance, my son has to get his driver’s license and I don’t know anything about the process because I haven’t done it since I was 16. I also didn’t care what the process was until I needed it.  

People are used to making appointments for everything. I have to make an appointment to give blood, to get rid of empty paint cans or to get the electrician to come to my home.  Why would it be any different when seeking services for my pet, even when that service is relinquishment? Once you have a chance to communicate with people both the “what’ and the “why” of your policies, there’s not likely to be any pushback.  

When there is pushback, your shelter should be ready by having statistics at the ready to show how your policies have worked. Take the time now to set up a simple, real-time tracking system that shows what the original request was, what the shelter did to help, how long people waited to bring in their pet and how many didn’t end up needing to after all. 

It’s a powerful argument in support of your managed intake program if you can say, “Out of the 400 people who contacted us last month wanting to relinquish their pet, this is how many we were able to support keeping the pet in their home permanently or until the family was able to rehome them on their own.” When numbers aren’t the most persuasive argument, have anecdotal evidence about those happy endings handy, too.  

Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of having information available about the situations deemed critical enough that people could bring in their pet right away, as well as those where the shelter was the safest option for a particular animal. When you are combatting the thinking that animals will suffer under these policies, it helps to be able to prove with both numbers and stories that’s not the case.  

More importantly, helping animals is our mission and managing intake frees up resources. When the shelter isn't packed with animals that didn't need to be there in the first place, we are much better situated to help critical cases. Simply put, managed intake is a system that benefits pets, their people and the community that relies on shelters to be a resource when there truly are no other options.  

  • Want to learn more about how to implement managed intake at your shelter? Watch our town hall “Out with the Old, In with the New: Switching gears to Managed Intake” from January 28. Michelle Dosson, bureau manager of Norfolk Animal Care and Adoption Center, and Jill Mollohan, associate director of Lynchburg Humane Society walked through their experience implementing this program from kick-off to tracking your progress and managing critics. 
  • Stay tuned for upcoming information in the Network partner email newsletter and on the Facebook page about a master class in setting up a successful managed intake program. 
  • For more resources on managed intake, check out this page.  

Makena Yarbrough  
Senior director of regional programs
Best Friends Animal Society  

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