For the Love of Pets: Marin Humane’s Matchmaking and Counseling for Animal Companions Helps Create Lasting Relationships

The Gentle Barn

When 16-year-old Yogi passed away in October, the Yokoi family in San Rafael deeply mourned the loss of their beloved pit bull. They also knew it would not be long before they welcomed a new canine into their lives.

“Our home is not a home without a dog,” explains Alex Yokoi, 31. Before Yogi, he and parents Bobby and Kirsten Yokoi had shared their lives with Charlie, a rescue from Wisconsin, and Barney, from Marin Humane. His earliest pet memories are of Sam and Jackson, who both died when Yokoi was 7.

“For me personally, it’s very important to have a dog,” Yokoi says. “It brings a completeness to me — it’s nice to have something to care about and worry about. It’s a joy to take them on walks and to the dog park, and to see them happy makes me happy.”

But just as with love stories between humans, creating a happily-ever-after scenario for adopted pets and their human companions can take a little effort. Luckily, the experts at Marin Humane can offer tools for forging unbreakable bonds.

Meet smart vs. meet cute

Photo: Courtesy of Amy Perl

When people come to Marin Humane’s main Novato campus or its satellite cat adoption center, the Kitty Corner, in San Anselmo, often smitten by a pet’s photo, the matchmaking process begins with an “open dialogue,” according to Keri Fennell, vice president of shelter operations.

“You want to have a conversation with someone, so we don’t put out a form with a lot of questions,” she notes. “We don’t use the word no, but we redirect people to what may be a more appropriate choice, and people appreciate that. We all have certain things that we can’t deal with, but other people can, and vice versa.”

If someone is thinking of adding a second cat to their family, for example, Fennell says she might ask, “Has he ever been with another cat? Can you do the introduction slowly? Have you thought about fostering first?” If a prospective adopter is pregnant and wants to adopt a puppy, “I’ll say, ‘More power if you can handle it, but I had two kids and I just could not,’” Fennell notes. “It’s not coming in with an attitude that I know everything, which turns people off. I just really try to be more realistic and open and talk about my experiences.”

Marin Humane’s foster-to-adopt program for longer-stay and older animals, called Take a Chance on Me, and a policy of allowing any adopted animal to be returned also relieve some of the pressure to make what could be a 20-year commitment on essentially the first date, according to Fennell. In most cases foster pets turn into adopted ones. In a recent case where she had misgivings about a family’s choice of a very active dog, whom they returned at the end of the day, “I saw it as a win,” Fennell says. “We got the dog out of the shelter for the day.”

Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Grenough

Starting out on the right paw

For some, it’s tempting to love-bomb their new pet right away, but Jane Aten, Marin Humane’s canine behavior and training volunteer coordinator, typically advocates a chill protocol.

“Give your new cat, dog, or whoever some space,” she advises. “Your animal is like, ‘What is going on? I was just living in a shelter that was super weird. Now I’m in a car and now these strangers want to touch me all the time.’ Some dogs do want to be touched all the time, but sometimes the dog needs to decompress. Just sit down on the couch and watch Netflix and let them sit next to you, or if you’re a book person, read a book and hang out.”

Marin Humane’s staff make follow-up calls to see how the transition is going and can provide phone, video or even in-person consultations if the relationship is struggling. “This morning we had a dog who was really fearful, and the adopter has cats. I gave her my card, and said, ‘If you’re concerned about behavior, you can just text me and I can help you remotely.’ We’re here to help people feel confident in adding their new family member.”

Unleashing the love

Photo: Courtesy of Marin Humane

Once the new pets have settled in, guardians can safely shower them with affection, but expressing love means more than giving cuddles and treats. It’s also being attuned to their emotional and physical health, according to Nancy McKenney, Marin Humane’s chief executive officer.

“Learn something new about their behavior or their needs,” she says. “You can take a dog through scenting or agility classes, or a flyball class, and by doing something different and doing it together, you can learn something fun or a new trick or if your dog really likes a sport.”

Classes offered at Marin Humane’s Novato campus, webinars and “reputable dog training classes” can also teach humans about their animal companions’ mental health and wellbeing, McKenney says. “If animals get too stressed, they get sick,” she notes. “They’re members of the family, but we do need to make sure we take care of them and be aware of their unique habits and needs.”

For example, a cat or dog that starts to hide or act differently may be stressed “because there are cats outside the window, or it’s not feeling well,” McKenney says. For cats, putting up a vertical cat tree or giving it a crate to hide in or protecting it from the noise of the environment may reduce stress, while a dog may just need more time on walks outside.

“Just be more aware of what they do need,” she says. “And if nothing else, keep up with their regular checkups with their veterinarian and keep current on their vaccinations. Make sure that they’re spayed or neutered, licensed and microchipped.”

In case they get out by accident, ensure their microchip registration and collar tag IDs are up to date, and plan ahead for disasters, McKenney urges. “Think about who could take care of your animals if you had to go into the hospital, even if just temporarily.”

Serial pet monogamy

Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Grenough

For experienced dog lovers like the Yokois, the relationship-building process may naturally speed up. They recently adopted another pit bull mix, Opihi, now 17 months old. One of a group of 10 dogs transferred from Maui Humane Society to Marin Humane after the Lahaina fire, Opihi lived first with an inmate at San Quentin as part of the prison’s Pen Pals dog training program, then spent time at Happy Hound in Oakland, where the Yokois went to meet him on a Friday.

“It was love at first sight, of course,” Alex Yokoi says. “We were going to wait till Monday to adopt him officially, but by Friday or Saturday we decided we all wanted him. On the first day we were already getting him dog toys and different things… We give him tons of love. He’s definitely a member of the family. If we’re doing something, we’re going to make him part of it.”

Gretchen Sandstrom, 83, of Terra Linda adopted her first cat from Marin Humane back in 1991, a little part-Maine coon kitten named Rooney whom cancer claimed at 21. “I’ve never had a cat so fun and just delightful, and when we had to put him down, I told myself I’m never getting another cat,” she recalls. But after a few years, she and husband Ken Sandstrom adopted 5-year-old Dominique, “a beautiful calico” from a shelter near Sacramento and enjoyed seven years with her before also losing her to cancer last fall. “We were so sad,” Gretchen Sandstrom says. “I wasn’t doing so well, and I told my husband there are cats that need a home and that would help me.”

Enter Milky Way, a 6-year-old, nearly 21-pound bluish-gray cat with a cream pattern on her chest that inspired her name. Another family had adopted Milky Way from Marin Humane four years ago, and then returned her, ostensibly due to litter box issues after another cat joined the family. “I took one look at her and said, ‘You’re coming with me,’” Sandstrom says. Marin Humane has called to follow up, she adds, but there have been no problems.

“We’re very happy with her, and I’m just delighted that I was able to get her,” Sandstrom says. “We love her so much.”

Fennell hopes all Marin Humane clients can experience the “unconditional love” that animals bring to our lives. “I was going through an illness with my father, who subsequently passed away, and I had a Yorkie who would just sit on his lap while he was undergoing chemo,” she recalls. “I want others to have that comfort… That’s why we do what we do at Marin Humane to keep animals and people together, and we want to create and help with that bond.”

Marin Humane Staff Packs

Whether it’s a professional hazard or an office perk, adopting their own shelter animals comes naturally to the staff at Marin Humane Society. Here’s a peek at three of their packs:

Up until a couple of years ago, the household of chief executive officer Nancy McKenney numbered two cats and a dog. Leo and Fiona, whom she and husband Jim had adopted as 8-week-old kittens from a shelter in Tacoma, Wash., eventually succumbed to cancer as seniors. Goldendoodle Brody, a puppy when he left the Marin shelter a decade ago, “was the joy of our lives and had all these antics, because he was just a clown and a character,” McKenney reminisces.

But after developing “a lot of issues and seizures,” Brody passed away two years ago. “We were just crushed and needed time to grieve,” McKenney says.

Four months later, Daisy came into the picture, literally, when the shelter vets sent McKenney a photo of the 8-month-old mix of Old English sheepdog, poodle and German Shepherd Dog. A note with it asked, “‘We don’t know if you and Jim are ready, but Daisy just came in for surgery, what do you think?’” McKenney recalls. “I gave my husband the excuse, ‘Hey, she’s recovering from surgery, why don’t we just foster her for the weekend?’”

When she came home on a Friday night, the McKenneys quickly unearthed some of Brody’s toys they hadn’t been able to part with. Daisy proved herself “very sweet and endearing,” McKenney says. “She was playing with Brody’s toys in a different way than he did, playing by herself. She was really just so sweet and calming, and at the same time afraid of everything. One thing led to another, and we decided to adopt her in May.”

Jane Aten, the shelter’s canine behavior coordinator, says she has “come close” to adopting Marin Humane Society animals since joining the team four years ago, but for now is sticking to fostering. That’s because in pet poker terms, she already has a full house: three cats and two dogs.

Carolyn, 7, and Elias, 8, are brown tabbies; Henry, also about 8, is a blue cream domestic medium hair. Rugby, a 3.5-year-old mix of Boston terrier and Cairn terrier, “looks like a tiny pit bull,” according to Aten, while her new puppy Cricket, “a sweet border collie mix,” is about 3 to 4 months old. 

Keri Fennell, vice president of shelter operations, has three small dogs at her home in Sonoma, all adopted from the Marin shelter. She notes Rosie, Lola and Chiquita — a Shih-Tzu, Maltese and terrier-Shih-Tzu mix, respectively — require grooming, “which  costs about $150 every two months, since I’m not great about brushing their hair.”

But it’s an experience she puts to good use at work. “I’ll tell people who want to adopt a poodle, ‘Hey, I didn’t realize that if a dog gets a mat, it’s really painful,’” Fennell says. “I talk about what I’ve learned.”

Marin Humane, 171 Bel Marin Keys Blvd, Novato, 415.883.4621


Jeane Cooper

Travel and features writer Jeanne Cooper fell in love with Marin and the Bay Area as a graduate student at Stanford University. After 20 years as an editor and writer for the Washington Post, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle, she began a freelance career that has taken her from the Austral Islands to Zimbabwe, with many visits to Hawaii in between. Her stories have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines, including Hemispheres, Sunset, San Francisco and Nob Hill Gazette, as well as Marin and Local Getaways. The author of several Frommer’s guidebooks, she now lives on the Big Island, where she’s active in animal rescue. She still enjoys exploring Northern California with her husband and friends.