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Milwaukee shelter dogs head home for ‘test drives’ with prospective adopters

The Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission started new program to get more dogs into forever homes

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A dog waits to be taken home while at the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission on Thursday, May 22, 2024. Evan Casey/WPR

In a typical year, about 9,000 abandoned, lost or unwanted animals come through the doors of the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission, an animal shelter on the city’s south side.

Last year, that number exploded to 12,000, said Kate Hartlund, the shelter’s community engagement coordinator.

“And the number just keeps growing,” Hartlund said.

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With so many animals in need of homes, the shelter launched a new program aimed at getting more people to consider offering dogs a forever home. Hartlund said people interested in a particular dog can now take the animal for what she calls “a test drive.”

Prospective adopters can take a dog home for five days before making a decision about whether to make the placement permanent.

“You’re basically fostering the dog for five days so that you can take the animal home, you can get to know the dog, you can get to see if it’s a good fit for your family, for your lifestyle,” she said.

The Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission has space for around 175 dogs at its shelter in Milwaukee. Evan Casey/WPR

Hartlund said the idea came to fruition when leadership began thinking of more “creative” ways to get dogs out of the shelter. She said the program offers people more time with a dog to see how it will behave when it’s not in a shelter setting.

“Adopting a dog is a big commitment and it’s hard to do that with meeting (the dog) for five, 10 minutes,” she said.

“We felt like it really could be beneficial to the shelter, to the dogs, to the staff, to the volunteers, to the community,” she said.

So far, they believe the program, which officially launched for all dogs at the shelter on May 15, has been successful. On Wednesday, May 22, there were 15 dogs out for “test rides.” Hartlund said only two dogs have been brought back to the shelter since the program began.

“For a dog to be able to just get out for five days, to decompress, even if it’s not the right fit, is a huge benefit to their health and wellbeing,” she said.

If someone does take the dog home after the five days, they get half-off the normal adoption fee. If someone decides not to keep the dog, they’re asked to fill out a personality form about the dog’s traits, so it can get better matched next time.

Kate Hartlund, the community engagement director for Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission, pets a dog. Evan Casey/WPR

A January report from Shelter Animals Count found shelters across the nation were “overwhelmed and overflowing.”

Shelter Animals Count, which surveyed over 7,000 shelters across the nation, also found that even as 2.2 million dogs were adopted in 2023, dog adoptions are still five percent lower than they were five years ago.

“Shelters are quite literally at crisis and some of them are making the decision to close their doors or reduce hours of operation or reduce the kind of animals that they bring in,” Stephanie Filer, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement.

Hartlund said she believes the economy is partly to blame.

“I think it has gotten to the point where owning a dog or a cat has kind of become more of a luxury for a lot of people these days,” she said.

Shelter Animals Count said pet restrictions made by landlords can also be an issue for people wanting to keep their pet or adopt a new one.

A dog reacts excitedly at the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission shelter. Evan Casey/WPR

The Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission used to transfer pets to other shelters when they were out of space, but that hasn’t been happening lately because other shelters are just as full as they are.

“I hope that it gets better, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon, unfortunately,” Hartlund said.

She said it’s up to the community to help.

“I beg that people check out shelters, check out rescues, give the animals a chance, get rid of your preconceived notion that animals in shelters and rescues are flawed, because they’re not,” she said.

The new program is only available to Milwaukee County residents.

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