So far this year, field officers with Pasadena Humane in California have gotten 293 loose and lost pets back to their owners without those pets ever entering the shelter.
That’s nearly 300 animals, mostly dogs, along with a handful of wayward cats, who are home snoozing on the couch—not in a kennel in a very full animal shelter.
They’ve done it with a program they call simply Return to Owner, or RTO—other organizations use the charming name Free Ride Home—through which pets found in the field are returned home, usually without the owners paying any fees. This is a simple, effective way to help reunite lost pets and families, and keep pets from being in the shelter when they don’t have to be.
But how do you get a Free Ride Home program off the ground, and how does it actually work?
To answer those questions, we spoke with Quinn Sweet, program coordinator for Washoe County Regional Animal Services in Reno, Nevada; Jamie Holeman, senior director of marketing and communications for Pasadena Humane, which provides animal care and control services for 11 cities outside of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley; and Tenille Fox, communications specialist for Orange County Animal Services in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
HASS: How does your Free Ride Home program actually work?
It’s pretty simple and straightforward, at all three of the organizations we spoke with!
Here, Jamie walked us through Pasadena Humane’s process—they’ve had a program in place for “decades,” she said—starting when field officers go out for a lost pet call:
“The first thing that they do is scan that pet for a microchip. And if the pet has a microchip, then they’ll call the chip company and get the information or look up the chip number in our system. And then if they are able to get that information, they’ll call the owner to see if they’re home and try to bring the pet back home right away.
If they call first and there’s no answer but we have an address, then they’ll go over to the house as well. And do the same for tags too. So microchips and ID tags or license tags.
If there’s a passerby near where the person called to report the stray dog, for example, they might know where the pet lives. That’ll also help us bring that pet home.”
Washoe County Regional Animal Services, meanwhile, has a one-pager detailing how their program works. You can read it in full here.
And here’s how Tenille described the procedure at OCAS:
“When in the field and encountering a stray animal, officers try to find visual identification and/or scan for a microchip (if possible) in order to contact an owner and return the animal to his/her home instead of bringing the animal to the shelter. Animal Control Officers (ACOs) take the time to research locations and a street address in our shelter’s database software, Chameleon.
This tool helps them find an address or determine if an animal matching the description is entered in Chameleon on that street.
They do have a few set rules: If no one is at home, they do not leave the animal as they cannot assure its safety when it cannot be secured. If the animal has multiple violations or is under a Dangerous Dog order, then it is impounded and investigative enforcement is applied.”
HASS: Do you waive reclaim fees, or other fees, for pets who are returned directly to their owners?
All three organizations waive fees for any pet who is returned in the field—and in some cases, even those who enter the shelter before going home.
“Sometimes, officers meet an owner at the shelter due to location or owner is at work. In this case most reclaim fees are also waived,” says Tenille.
HASS: About how many pets are returned home per year under this program?
The “average number of pets given a free ride home each year is 1,569!” says Quinn. In 2021, the last year for which data was available, 39% of lost or stray pets officers “encountered” in the field were returned home without coming into the shelter.
“If pets were not returned in the field, those pets would be transported to the shelter,” she says. After being vaccinated and dewormed, they’d be transported to a public kennel for their five day stray hold while shelter staff attempt to contact the owner. “If their owner is unable to be contacted, the pet may be transferred from our facility to a partnering rescue group to be adopted out.”
Tenille says that the Orange County shelter doesn’t yet have a way to specifically track pets given a Free Ride Home, yet—they’re working to develop a data collection process for this program—”but we can safely say that our shelter would be more crowded if return-to-owner sessions were not happening in the field.”
HASS: What are the finances of the program? Is it overall a program that costs money or saves money?
There are some costs associated with implementing a Free Ride Home program. This can include purchasing laptops and microchip scanners for field officers to carry in their vehicles, and of course the officers’ time as they research a pet’s owner, then try to reunite the pet with their owner.
But while no one we spoke with for this piece has made this specific calculation just yet, everyone told us they believe the Free Ride Home program saves more money than it costs and is an overall benefit for the shelter, pets, and people.
“Ultimately, those pets are not having to come into the shelter, which is going to save resources in terms of providing shelter, food, and veterinary care at the shelter,” says Jamie. “Certainly in terms of the mental wellbeing of the pet and reducing fear and stress for that animal, it’s worth it as well as for those officers who get the joy of bringing that pet right back home.”
WCRAS went so far as to calculate their likely savings from this program, comparing the costs of officers returning pets to their owners in the field in terms of salary and gas, with how much it would cost to house, feed, and care for the pets in the shelter.
They found an average savings of between $50,021 and $56,069 per year—with Quinn telling us this is a conservative estimate meant “to demonstrate the expected scale of savings for the program.”
Here’s a screenshot of their notes:
HASS: What are some problems or hurdles you overcame in creating or implementing this program? What would you do differently, if you were starting over today?
“If I were to start over, I would have implemented free collars and tags and heavily focused on more of a wrap-around program from the beginning,” says Quinn. “This process is simple to justify with great metrics to reflect the benefits of the program, changes in length of stay, animals returned prior to impound, etc.”
The others were similarly overwhelmingly positive, with Tenille just observing that “it’s hard to say what we might do differently if we were starting over. I think it might always be more helpful to have more team discussions about things that are working well and things that need improvement.”
HASS: What tips would you have for other organizations wanting to start their own Free Ride Home program?
Make this a team effort, that everyone’s excited about. “I think one of the most important things is to explain to the officers as well as all of the staff, what the benefits of reuniting pets with their families are rather than having those pets come to the shelter,” says Jamie. “There are so many benefits not just for the animals, but also for the pet’s guardian and the community in general. And when the officers or staff know the reason why behind what we’re doing, it becomes easier for them to do it.”
And then just try it! “There is really no reason not to consider it or at least conduct a trial period for returning animals to owners in this way,” says Tenille. “In the end, it’s a win-win situation for crowded shelters, pet owners, and animals trying to find their way home.”
HASS: What else should we know?
Quinn reminds readers to make sure their pet has a microchip, and that pet owners have updated the microchip registration information with current addresses and phone numbers.
Washoe County Regional Animal Services is also giving out “1,700 free personalized pet ID tags this year to any pet owner in our community,” she says. “We are also working to implement public microchip scanning stations in the next few months to empower the public to return pets instead of bringing them to the shelter.”
Jamie says Pasadena Humane offers “a lot of different programs and services that are geared towards strengthening the human-animal bond and keeping pets with the people who love them.” This includes a pet food bank, veterinary vouchers, emergency boarding, and an animal resource call center.
These are all aimed at “a broader effort to keep pets in their homes,” Jamie says. “And so our field Return To Owner program is just one of the many programs and services that we offer to the community to achieve that goal.”