dr. john sessa on adopting during a pandemic
We sat down with Vanderpump Dog Foundation’s Dr. John Sessa to learn how rescues are facing the pandemic head-on and how you can help their cause.
The recent pandemic has changed life for all of us. How has your team overcome the unprecedented new challenges?
I really give credit to my employees. They’re on the front lines. They show up for work with a positive attitude and wear the necessary protective gear. We are a not-for-profit so we know they aren’t in this industry for the pay; they’re in it for the passion. With shelters shutting down, our rescuers have really stepped up. They have not missed a beat when it comes to maneuvering the day-to-day.
As far as our operations, we open for essential business. We’ve made the necessary adjustments to keep the safety of our employees and customers a top priority. Social distancing has required that we cut down our grooming staff and change pick and drop off operations. Our furry clients get picked up in the back and all the transactions are done over the phone, so there is no interaction. We’re also looking to expand our efforts by picking up and dropping off clients for the families who can’t leave their home.
Your core mission is to save dogs from kill shelters and find the perfect, forever home. Can you discuss how you’ve had to change your adoption process to accommodate during the stay-at-home orders?
We have noticed that our adoption numbers have doubled or tripled since the stay at home orders were put into place. Normally, people don’t have the time needed to get a new pet acclimated – whether it’s their first or even second companion. Now they do.
Additionally, we used to get a lot of foot traffic – people who just really wanted to shop or play with the pups, which is wonderful. However, with the COVID-19 situation, we now have to see families by appointment only. These families have already filled out the forms and completed a home check virtually.
Our maximum capacity used to be anywhere from 24 to 27 dogs. When the stay at home orders went into effect, I knew we would need to sustainably decrease the amount of pups in our care. Luckily, within the first 72 hours, most of our dogs were adopted! Now, we maintain 7 to 10 dogs and they are living like kings with plenty of room to run and play!
The foundation also allows people to foster. Have you seen an increase in applications with everyone at home and in need of a companion?
Fortunately, 90% of our recent fosters are what we call ‘foster fails,’ when the families fall in love and end up adopting the pup. I think a large part of that is due to building an emotional bond, especially given the stressful times. We’re all experiencing something very new and strange; these pets are helping us get through it all so it makes sense.
I’m curious to hear about how you got in the industry. How did you become so passionate about pups?
I grew up on a farm in Indiana. I’ve always loved animals – in fact, my first best friend was a cow. With the Vanderpump Dog Foundation, it all happened organically; I never thought I would become an animal advocate.
I was doing financial analyses, looking at numbers all day and I thought, ‘why don’t I start my own company?’ I met Lisa and Ken [Vanderpump] and a collar and leash company was suggested. That’s how I first got involved in the pet industry, but then we decided to dive into the nonprofit side of things. We first started saving dogs in China and we thought that we can’t ignore what was going on in our own background, so we opened the rescue center here in Southern California.
To date, we’ve saved 1,500 dogs domestically and have over 500 dogs in our two shelters in China. We’ve accomplished quite a bit since our start. We now have 47 employees worldwide, we’ve passed two bills to Congress, and in the near future, we plan to take on puppy mills. At the end of the day, it is all for the dogs. We want to save as many lives as possible.
Your team is great about getting the community involved. Do you have anything in the works to virtually connect the community of dog lovers?
We’re launching a weekly online series soon. It’ll keep us social and give us a purpose while we’re isolating at home. Each week will be different, reservations to attend are free with a suggested donation and you’ll be helping us raise money for dogs in need. You may even see Lisa come in for a cooking or wine lesson.
Vanderpump Dog Foundation is a well-known name in the industry. What ultimately made you chose to partner with Petplan?
We have a few partners we work with: an emergency animal specialty hospital, food vendors for our rescues, a pet insurance provider, and so on. The goal is to offer our residents and adoptees everything they need for a happy and healthy life. We only move forward with a partner if they meet three important criteria. First, their missions must align with ours. Second, the partner must be malleable and able to come up with innovative ideas and ways to save more lives. Third, it’s the people at the end of the day. With Petplan, we just seemed to hit it off! They want to go the extra mile to fulfill their mission and that’s what we want, as well.