This Shelter’s Bonded Pairs Program Has Gotten 218 Pairs of Pets Into Loving Homes

This story comes out of Pima Animal Care Center in Tucson, Arizona—stay tuned to our social media for more very inspiring, very HASS-y stories about how volunteers are integrated into community-focused animal organizations! And please reach out to let us know if you have a great story to share, about awesome volunteers or anything else!

Some longtime volunteers at Pima Animal Care Center in Tucson, Arizona, kept having their hearts broken by pairs of pets who they knew came from the same home, but were separated once they arrived at the shelter.

“Growing up together and losing everything they have ever known only to lose their best friend as well,” Jo Wishnie, Charly Van Den Bergh, and Cathy Neuman said, in a joint email to HASS. “We felt we had to try and do something to keep them together.”

Bonded pairs like Bambi and Cassie are marketed on the PACC Pals Facebook page.

So two years ago, this trio brought a presentation to the then-shelter director, Kristen Hassen (who now leads the Human Animal Support Services project). They proposed creating PACC Pals, a volunteer-led program that undertakes to identify bonded pairs of animals coming into the shelter, and find them loving homes together.

The program was enthusiastically approved and launched in March 2020. 

Since then (data has been tracked since June 2020), 218 pairs of pets—that’s 436 individuals—have been adopted or rescued together: 152 dog pairs, 64 cat pairs, and 2 “mixed pairs” of pets who are two different species.

We learned about this inspiring program when Jo, Charly, and Cathy presented during a Friday Animal Welfare Leadership call—if you’re not already on these calls, sign up here!—and immediately reached out to find out more, with their lessons for other organizations that want to help more pet BFFs stick together in the shelter and well beyond.

What follows is a lightly edited Q&A, along with some extremely cute photos of some of the bonded pairs who’ve come through the PACC Pals program and into wonderful homes. Check out the PACC Pals Facebook page for even more.

HASS: How do you determine which pets are bonded? Is there a process for that? 

PACC Pals: Yes, there is definitely a process for that. Let us start by clarifying that “bonded pair” is not a term that can be defined by a single parameter or determined by a test. 

We try to be as transparent as possible about the process but it is not, and probably never will be, an exact science. There are many reasons to declare a pair bonded and many factors taken into account including information from previous homes; information from intake staff; information from volunteers who interact with the pairs; and input from staff behavior teams.

We also did develop a standardized evaluation form that is not a determining factor but an additional help and piece in the puzzle. 

Every pair is decided upon case by case as every pair is unique and different. 

Sandi and Tara, at PACC.

HASS: How do you market the bonded pairs? Do you market them differently than you would a single pet?

PACC Pals: We have a Facebook page, administered by Cathy who spends hours of absolutely wonderful work on creating and writing the most beautiful stories about the pairs. And then we share the posts everywhere we can. Cathy also sends the posts to Nikki Reck, PACC’s public information officer, who then posts them on the official PACC page.

HASS: Are the bonded pairs housed together? What’s involved with caring for them that is the same or different from how single pets are cared for?

PACC Pals: I had not looked into foster numbers but did a quick scan of our data for 2021, and in that year 15% of officially bonded pairs went into foster homes.

All pairs that come in together are kenneled together and get a flyer on their kennel that they came in together. Officially bonded pairs get a flyer that they are bonded.

Both kinds of pairs—those who are deemed officially bonded, and those who are not but came into the shelter together​​—also get a bio with a cute picture of them put on their kennel.

At PACC all dogs get separated when fed. And all kennel mates are being walked together.

HASS: Can you tell me about some of the pairs who you’ve worked with, and who’ve really stuck with you?

PACC Pals: We are especially drawn to the pairs brought in by next of kin of owners who have died. The pets have lost everything: their person, their home, their life as they knew it. All they have left is each other. 

They cling to each other as that is the only familiar piece of their life at that point. Over time in a loving home, they can build a new life with a new person but their buddy is their rock that makes it possible to go forward. Hopefully it lessens their grief. 

A good example of this is a pair named Sandi and Tara, two incredibly sweet senior gals who ended up at PACC when their person passed away. They were definitely bonded as they rarely left each other’s side and insisted on always sharing a bed. 

Tara was always more energetic than Sandi and received more interest from potential adopters; however, we were committed to keeping them together after all they had been through. After being at the shelter for over a month, Sandi lost a considerable amount of weight and the clinic discovered she had terminal cancer. 

With that news, we increased our marketing efforts and teamed up with a local rescue group, Tucson Rescue Now, to find Sandi a fospice home. We were overwhelmed with gratitude when a compassionate widow stepped up to save Sandi and Tara together. And she was not interested in fostering—she adopted them! 

She indicated she understood the pain of losing a partner and knew these two bonded pals needed a forever home and each other. Sadly, Sandi only lived nine more days, but this kind woman gave her the love and stability she needed and she was able to cross over peacefully. 

And Tara and her new mom (having shared the loss of loved ones) turned to each other for comfort and quickly bonded and became inseparable best friends. 

Bodhi and Leah

Another pair that sticks with us is a pair that we were actually unable to determine if they were bonded or not. Bodhi and Leah, a pair of big, goofy, energetic dogs who came to PACC when their former family could no longer care for them. 

The family indicated they were attached but would occasionally get into fights when the children in the home fed them or played with toys. We were uncertain whether to bond them based on possible resource guarding tendencies. In addition, they did not appear to rely on each other in the shelter; both were confident, people-oriented dogs who also did well in playgroups with other dogs. 

We spent weeks and weeks evaluating them, observing them, and soliciting feedback from staff and volunteers who knew them well only to continue to receive mixed feelings about whether they were bonded or not. 

Eventually, Bodhi ended up being adopted without Leah and he was quickly returned to PACC by the adopter because he was whining all the time and showed no interest in his new home. PACC staff suggested to him that since Bodhi is pals with Leah, he may want to adopt Leah and take her home with Bodhi to see if the situation would improve. 

It worked like a charm! We followed up with him a few days later and both dogs were extremely happy to be reunited and are fitting in great in their new home together. 

HASS: Do you find that the bonded pairs take longer to get adopted, take less time—is there any difference in their lengths of stay, than for the singles? 

PACC Pals: Our data over 19 months show that length of stay for pairs is comparable to that of single dogs. If pairs got separated the “left behind” dog actually had a longer length of stay than anybody else, single dogs or pairs. 

This sheet breaks down and compares average length of stays for pairs adopted together, pairs who were split up and adopted separately, and single dogs. 

HASS: What’s involved with making this program work? How does the work get divided up between volunteers and staff?

PACC Pals: The program is run by volunteers. And we do almost all of the work, with great support by PACC management.

It is teamwork with continuing communication channels going on for both sides, between volunteers and staff. We keep management posted with detailed weekly updates about all the pairs currently in the shelter, pairs who left, and which dogs are left behind from a separated pair. 

The three of us complement each other in a very efficient way: Cathy administers our PACC Pals page on Facebook and does all the marketing with photos and bios on social media and in the shelter. Charly keeps track of the data collection and evaluations; enters memos; and coordinates follow-up emails. Jo handles the customer service side; liaises with staff; and keeps us focused. 

Posts like this one serve an important marketing goal: they help other potential adopters and fosters picture what it would be like (i.e., great!) to bring a bonded pair into their home.

Hard work, perseverance, dedication, and compassion. Seriously, this program works because we are dedicated to it and we have the unwavering support of other volunteers, PACC staff, and the community. A robust support system is critical. 

While we oversee, manage and run the program, it is impossible to do all the functions ourselves. We basically got started right as the pandemic kicked in. Management thought we were dead in the water and would have to put it on hold because we could not physically be there. 

But we had so many volunteers who were there who believed in our mission. They became our eyes, ears, and boots on the ground when we could not be there. We actually nicknamed them our “underground army.”

Between all three of us, we are now there at least 4-5 days per week but we continue to include these volunteers in the program. They love to be part of the success. Our TOP Dogs team of certified trainers have also become a critical component in the program. They provide evaluations and additional knowledge and insight we may not otherwise have. 

It doesn’t happen overnight but little by little the parts and pieces come together and we become a well-oiled successful team. 

Yeti and Big Foot came to PACC in early March when the family’s landlord said they could no longer keep them. “In the shelter, staff members say that Big Foot often places his body in front of Yeti to protect and comfort her, but they are usually seen cuddling,” PACC Pals said in a Facebook post about the two. “Big Foot can be somewhat stoic and uneasy but his behavior becomes much more relaxed when Yeti is present and he is able to be handled.  Yeti is also shy but she’s a little more receptive than Big Foot and she’s easily held and appreciates affection.” They were soon adopted together.

HASS: What would you advise to other organizations that want to develop a similar program? What should they start with? What basics should they get in place? Are there any mistakes you can help them avoid? 

PACC Pals: Starting a program like this can be overwhelming, confusing, and sometimes outright chaotic! But remember: the rewards will be overwhelming and heartwarming and purposeful. 

There are two basics that absolutely need to be in place: 

1. A group of volunteers who are willing to dedicate themselves to the program daily.

2. Solid and unwavering support from management and staff. If management is not 100% behind trying this out and excited to have a program like this and seeing it through—then it won’t work. 

If these two things are in place, whoever wants to start a program like this should probably first find a way to identify all the pairs coming in together, keep track of them and decide what “bonded” means to them. 

Common mistake we’ve learned over the years: Thinking you can save them ALL from being separated. You can only try your best. You won’t be able to keep them all together but focus on those you did get out together because without you there would not be any!


Anybody interested can contact us at paccpals@gmail.com and we will send them a step-by-step guide to how we are doing it.

Volunteers can and should be part of every area of operation at a community-focused animal organization! Check out the Human Animal Support Services Volunteer Integration toolkit to learn more.

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