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For people who love their pets, having to give them up for adoption or surrendering them to a shelter can be one of the most emotional experiences of their lives. Pets are surrendered for a number of reasons. Perhaps the owner needs to move into assisted living where animals are not allowed. A move to a new city or poor interactions with children or other animals can lead to some really tough decisions. Panhandle Animal Shelter (PAS) in Sandpoint sees this on a daily basis, as do thousands of other shelters across the country. While PAS is a no-kill shelter, many across the country are forced to euthanize surrendered dogs and cats because they do not have the room to accommodate all animals. With this in mind, volunteers at PAS decided to do some brainstorming on how to keep more animals in loving homes and fewer inside the shelter. What they came up with utilizes social media platforms and web presence and the early results are quite astounding.

“We saw a significant increase in owner surrenders in 2015,” said Panhandle Animal Shelter Executive Director Mandy Evans. “We decided to take a proactive approach to either help people keep their animals or, if they had no other choice, provide them with an alternative to shelter surrender.”

That alternative is the website . Launched this past August with the help of the Northern Tier Inland Northwest Community Foundation and other grants, the website is a place for current owners to put up information on their pet in need of a new home. Those interested in taking ownership of the animal can reach out to the owner and the pet can be transferred without it ever having to spend time in a shelter. Within two months of the site going live, PAS saw a 33-percent reduction in owner surrenders.

“We usually had about 70 dogs in the shelter and nowadays it’s about 40. This is because fewer people are surrendering; and because the population is lower, animals are moving out of the shelter more quickly,” said Evans.

The process in place for Home to Home is fairly simple. When someone contacts the Panhandle Animal Shelter wanting to surrender a pet, the staff or hotline volunteers first get a proper understanding as to why this is happening. Often there are programs PAS can point pet owners towards for help covering spay/neuter, feeding costs and behavioral issues. It is always the first and foremost priority to keep the animal with its owner, however if this simply is not a reality, the Home to Home program is often the next step.

Pet owners are encouraged to register their animals on the website. Owners will fill out their contact information as well as the breed and age of their animal. A photo is uploaded and additional information on the pet or circumstance for surrender is posted. Once that photo is posted, it is also shared on the PAS Facebook page and can reach its nearly 10,000 followers.

Those looking to bring a pet into their home can click on the “Find a Pet” tab on the website where all of the pets posted on the site are located. If there is interest in an animal, the two parties agree to meet up. If it works out, the animal will find a new home without having to go through the shelter process. No money is ever exchanged and the Panhandle Animal Shelter staff does a follow-up each time to make sure everything went well on the exchange.

“There’s typically shaming involved when surrendering pets like; ‘that must be a bad person,’ or ‘they should have never gotten a pet in the first place’,” said Evans. “We are here to make sure no one is shamed, and we make the right choice for you and your pet.”

Through the first seven months of being up, 80 pets have been posted with 40 finding new adoptive homes. Just 10 of those 80 have ended up being surrendered to PAS. Without the site, it’s likely that each one would have been taken to the shelter. According to PAS, there are some very big benefits to avoiding even a few days of shelter for animals in need of adoption. Home to Home reduces stress on animals by keeping them out of the shelter. This leaves more shelter resources available to animals with no other options. The program also gives potential new owners a chance to learn more about the animals directly from the current owner.

While many of the animals are in need of permanent homes, some community members are just looking for some temporary help while dealing with sudden life changes. A sudden illness might not allow owners to take care of their pet, and immediate family might need someone to look after the animal before they can take it into their lives.

“We recently had a Coon Hound up on the site where the owner just needed someone to give their pet a home for three months. Incredibly, we found a foster home for the animal in just three days,” said Evans.

With the initial success of the website, Evans is reaching out to other shelters to share the program and some of the early figures. Her twin sister operates a shelter in California and the two are working on setting up a partner shelter system.

“I was really surprised at the success of it, and this is really making a huge difference in our community,” said Evans. With an upcoming attempt to bring the program into the national spotlight, a bigger website presence is being funded through a private foundation. Locals can also directly support both the mission of Home to Home and the Panhandle Animal Shelter with donations through the website or by volunteering.

The Panhandle Animal Shelter hopes that seeing more pets on the site and sharing these animals through their social media platforms will continue to reduce the number of direct surrenders at the shelter. Early indications show that this is entirely possible, and Evans is excited to see how the program continues to grow on both a local and national level.

“I’m really excited to report back to the grant and share the success we’ve had thanks to that program,” she said.

It’s never easy making the decision to part ways with a pet. People might feel ashamed, but reaching out to PAS you will not be shamed and might even find ways of keeping your pet you hadn’t thought of before. If your animal does need a new home, it is comforting to know there is a platform locally where you can find another passionate member in your own community, meet them and know that your beloved pet is going to a home where it will be loved and cared for.

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