Remember when you were a kid and you wore a pair of goggles into a swimming pool or a lake for the first time? And you were fascinated by how, if you floated juuuust right and your eyeline was EXACTLY at the surface of the water, you could simultaneously see both underwater and out-of-the-water at the same time?
That is how I've felt in thinking about the issue of dog rescue from both the perspective of the people who work in dog rescue--and the people who have to deal with the people who work in dog rescue.
If you've ever tried to adopt a dog from a rescue, chances are good you may have been a little surprised (to put it kindly) by the adoption process. It can be rigorous--a hefty adoption fee, a home check by a rescue worker, and an application that writer (and attempted adopter) Emily Yoffe refers to as an "inquisition" in her piece for Slate called "No Pet For You." You may have even actually gotten through the application, only to be rejected in the end--and I bet (like Yoffe) you're pretty pissed about that.
My own experience with adopting my dog Chance was remarkably easy--I filled out an application at a booth at a big adoption event, handed over $350, and left with a puppy. The hardest part was the frantically hushed argument with my then-boyfriend as we attempted to answer the question, "How much do you expect to spend on your dog in any given year?" I thought I was low-balling with $2,000, but my then-boyfriend was horrified and said he expected more like $600. (Long story short--I was right, he dumped me six months later, and I'm happier with Chance than I ever was with Then-Boyfriend.) So we're proof that sometimes you don't need to be background-checked like a child-care worker in order to be a successful rescue story.
But if you talk to someone who works in rescue, you'll find an explanation for almost everything you find objectionable. For example, that application is the very best tool a rescue organization has to make sure the dog they adopt out never ends up homeless again. Now, in an article for The Dodo ("I Rejected the Perfect Pet Adoption Family for the Wrong Reasons"), writer and rescue worker Julie LeRoy acknowledges being in the wrong as a rescuer, explaining that she now feels the adoption process she followed "unintentionally narrow[ed] the chances for animals to find a home." But many people who work in dog rescue will stand by their adoption standards to the bitter end--and I think it would benefit potential adopters to understand why.
To use my story as an example again--Chance is not an easy dog. I was prepared to spend $2,000 per year on his care. In the first six months of his life with us, he needed both expensive healthcare and a lot of training. If Chance had gone to an adopter who expected to spend only $600 on him in a year...? He would have been abandoned by now, no longer a cute squirmy easily-adopted tabula rasa puppy, but a gangly stubborn high-energy teenager with bad manners and health problems.
You see where I'm going with this.
I firmly believe that a lot of unnecessary antipathy on both sides could be cleared up with just a little bit more understanding and empathy. LeRoy's piece makes a great case for what rescuers can do to be more open-minded in their approach to adoption applications, and I think there can always be more work in that direction. However, I hope to make the case for why everyone should be a little be more understanding of people who work in rescue and the choices they make for the dogs they're trying to rehome--regardless of whether you agree with their particular standards. Rescuers, in general, work tirelessly to save dogs from horrible fates, and like an artist who reserves the right to decide who buys their artwork, a dog rescuer invests themselves emotionally and financially in the dogs they make adoptable and we shouldn't castigate them for choosing the home that makes them feel the most comfortable.
Consider this a behind-the-scenes peek into the world of dog rescue...you'll probably wish you hadn't looked.
"Rescues" Aren't "Shelters"
Let's begin by clearing up this enormous misconception.
Shelters are part of the public animal control program, funded by the government, and operated by individual counties. Los Angeles County, for example, has a system of shelters that is separate from, say, San Bernardino County. Pasadena is somewhat unique, in that the City of Pasadena has contracted with a non-profit rescue, the Pasadena Humane Society, for its animal control program.
You pay for county animal control services with your tax dollars. Even so, they do charge individuals wanting to adopt dogs--in LA County, the fee is $125, but in SB County, it's $85-95. Medical care offered to the dogs is minimal; in LA County, they cover the cost of spaying/neutering (required by law in order for the animal to be adopted), microchipping, "initial" vaccines, and a voucher to a participating vet for one visit.
Shelters are housed in government-run buildings--I emphasize "government-run" because you should be aware that operating costs for these facilities aren't dependent on adoption fees. These shelters aren't nice places--generally concrete kennels punctuated by chainlink fencing. In San Bernardino, the shelters are outdoors, exposing animals to sometimes-freezing temperatures at night. These places are meant to keep the homeless animal population from infringing on the human population. Dogs end up here when animal control officers pick them up off the street or an owner surrenders them. The dog is then either made available for adoption or classified as rescue-only because of behavioral issues or other special needs (which means only an approved rescue organization can take control of the dog). There is no requirement on how long a dog must be housed before being euthanized.
You can adopt a shelter dog at any time. Walk in, do some paperwork, hand over the fee, and walk out with the dog. No application to be judged, no home check to suffer through.
I didn't do a bad cropping job on the bottom, by the way. A489572 has no story.
When a rescue, on the other hand, posts a dog on Petfinder, it looks more like this:
You can see why most potential adopters, idly browsing Petfinder for their new best friend, more readily fall in love with the rescue dog than the shelter dog. And if they don't understand the difference between a "rescue" and a "shelter," they may be more than slightly miffed to discover that a rescue doesn't operate like a shelter at all.
So How Is a Rescue Different?
A rescue is a private organization (which may or may not have filed for non-profit status) that funds itself. While there are some larger groups like the Much Love or Best Friends LA, the VAST majority of rescues are usually run by a very small group of people--or even just one person.
Rescues take in strays, owner-surrenders, and also pull from shelters. That means that they go to the same shelters I was talking about before, and "pull" the dog out. They pay a slightly lower fee than the full adoption fee, and they are responsible for getting the dog spayed/neutered before adopting it out.
I'm going to use Forever Fido Rescue, run by Elina Kaufman, as an example because I've been volunteering there and I'm most intimately aware of that rescue's process; I would like to emphasize, however, that FFR is a particularly well-run rescue.
So when FFR first takes on a dog, the dog goes straight to a veterinarian. While many vets do offer discounts on medical services to rescues, they do not work for free. The rescue pays for ANY medical aid the dog is determined to need. It could be as little as spaying/neutering and a bath; it also could be as extensive as bladder stone removal and dental work (like what they just did on a little dog named Kiro, whose medical expenses at this point stand at more than $3,000).
Medical services at shelters are hit-or-miss. If a dog in a shelter has a broken leg, there's no guarantee that dog will get treatment. If the shelter has the time and resources available that day, they may be able to; otherwise, that dog may have to sit there in pain for awhile.
A rescue, on the other hand, will take that dog to a vet and pay for it to be treated immediately before making it available for adoption.
This means that when you adopt a dog from most rescues, chances are good that most obvious medical issues have already been taken care of. This is important for two reasons: 1) you can spend the first few weeks with your new pet bonding instead of dealing with a medical emergency, and 2) you can get health insurance for your pet.
I'm not going to get into the technicalities here of how adopting from a rescue gives you a better chance of qualifying for pet health insurance than adopting from a shelter, but check out my blog post on pet health insurance and you'll figure it out.
Once a dog is medically stabilized, it moves to a foster home (unless one isn't immediately available, then dogs stay in boarding at the vet--also not free).
Because FFR doesn't have a dedicated facility, they depend on a network of fosters to open their homes temporarily to adoptable dogs. At a foster home, the dog gets to spend some time recovering from the trauma of shelter life in a caring home.
This is an important advantage that rescue dogs have over shelter dogs. The shelter environment can bring out the worst in dogs, making them less adoptable. The nurturing environment of a foster family simultaneously makes a dog more appealing to an adopter while benefiting the dog's mental and physical well-being.
Remember Kiro, the dog whose vet bill is over $3,000?
From the moment a dog is rescued by FFR, they are cared for as though they were Elina's personal pets. That means safety, comfort, and nutritional issues are all addressed. FFR dogs are outfitted with harnesses, collars, and leashes so they can safely go on walks and attend adoption events. The foster is given crates and dog beds (as necessary), as well as supplied with all medications and food. And while I don't have actual data on what kind of food is fed to the dogs in county-run shelters, I'm willing to bet it's not the quality dog food Elina orders for the FFR dogs.
By the time a FFR dog is ready to meet potential adopters, they've recovered from spay/neuter and any other medical issues that have been diagnosed. They're back on a regular feeding schedule, and have been reacclimated to life with people.
Most importantly, their true personalities have come out and been assessed. FFR dogs are evaluated for suitability with other animals, other sizes of dogs, children, etc. Unlike a shelter dog, rescue dogs are more of a "known quantity," and this is entirely due to the care they receive from the moment they are pulled.
All of this work is paid for by donations, pledges made towards specific dogs, and adoption fees. Some bigger rescues, like the Pasadena Humane Society (I think), also receive government funds and/or grants. But most small rescues are labors of love, whose operators have to focus on fundraising as much as on the aforementioned care of the dogs to stay afloat. These people attempt to balance full-time jobs (that have nothing to do with rescue), human families, and their own pets with the near-constant demands of rescuing dogs.
This is why rescue adoption fees (suggested donations, actually, because technically they can't charge fees) are so much higher than shelter adoption fees. While shelter dogs are catalogued and thrown in a kennel until they're adopted or killed, rescue dogs are cared for like pets until their forever family comes along. (I would like to say that there are shelter workers who do their very best to make the experience not as horrible as it could be, but the system is not designed for animals' comfort.) Sure, not every rescue dog has had $350-400 spent on them; but their adoption fee helps offset the cost of dogs like Kiro, who would never get adopted if their fee was set to cover what the rescue had put into them ($3,000+).
As for why some rescues can offer $50 (or even waived-fee) adoption specials...well, it's like how Best Buy can handle Black Friday sales. They're big enough and generate enough business that a sale once in awhile doesn't kill them. Your friendly neighborhood artisanal television-cobbler, however, can't afford to sell his handcrafted TVs for less than what it costs to make (this metaphor may have broken down, but you get the picture).
Many rescues aren't fans of very low adoption fees anyway, as it encourages the wrong kind of adopter. In 2015 alone, Forever Fido rescued 6 dogs that had been adopted at shelters and promptly returned because the adopters couldn't afford (or didn't want to pay) $40 for antibiotics to treat the kennel cough that is rampant in shelter dogs. The thinking goes that if someone doesn't want to spend $350 to get the dog in the first place, they're probably not going to be very willing to spend money on other issues that might crop up right away--and taking care of a dog can get very expensive, very fast.
As you can see--by the time you're filling out an application, the rescuer has already invested quite a lot in your potential pup.
OK, Fine, I'll Pay the Fee. But I'm Not Michael Vick...Why Is This Application Full of Insane Questions??
That application is full of insane questions because the people who run the rescue are trying everything they can think of to make sure the dogs they adopt out never end up in a shelter, on Craigslist, or on the street again.
Why does a rescue ask if you plan on having a child in the next 10 years (a question that prompted Yoffe to indignantly declare that "your personal reproductive plans are not the business of strangers")?
Why do they ask if you plan on moving in the near future? How do I know, I can't see the future!
Do you have your landlord's permission to house a dog at your current home?
How are you prepared to exercise your new dog?
Who would care for this dog in the event something happened to you or you could no longer care for your pet?
If you have a limit on what you can spend on veterinary care for your dog, please explain what your plan is in the case that costly medical treatment is required.
Do you have any pets that are not spayed/neutered? Please explain.
A dog can live to be 15 to 20 years old. Are you able to make this long-term commitment?
You get the picture, right? I can stop now?
And all those examples are HALF of what I came up with in one lazy day of browsing through the internet. If you work in dog rescue, you see this stuff--THE SAME STUFF--in a near-constant stream, all day, every day. Honestly, if you want the slightest idea what it's like, go friend PetConnect.us on Facebook for one week. See what happens to your newsfeed.
And these re-abandoned dogs are the ones it's nearly impossible to find homes for--they're not brand-new adorable little puppies. If they wind up at the shelter, they die. If they wind up at a rescue, they drain that rescue's resources until an angel of an adopter can be found (which also takes a lot of work).
People who work in rescue make their applications intense by design. If you're the kind of person who thinks filling out paperwork is too much effort in order to get a dog...that rescue PROBABLY DOESN'T WANT TO GIVE YOU THEIR DOGS. Which brings me to my final point...
UNNNNNGH FINE. I'll Pay the Fee. I'll Fill Out the Application. But Still...Rescue People Are Crazy.
Here's the thing--I feel for you. I do. You're trying to do a good thing. You want to give an unwanted dog a loving home, and it seems like these people who work in rescue are trying to make that as hard as possible.
But the truth is, once they've made it to a rescue? That dog is no longer unwanted! Chances are, everyone who works with that rescue wants only the very best for that dog. After all the work that has gone into it, they're invested--emotionally as well as financially.
Sometimes, this investment can manifest in a certain measure of overprotectiveness. Elina, who I mentioned above and is the founder of Forever Fido Rescue, is the first to say she disagrees with some of the restrictions other rescues place on their adopters. Some, for example, won't adopt to families who have children in the house, or to people who live in apartments. Neither of those situations are dealbreakers for her--if the right dog is matched to the right situation.
However, each rescuer has its own ideal "perfect home" for its dogs, and I've started to really empathize with the overprotective impulse. Honestly, the longer I work with dog rescues, the more I realize that there are A LOT OF BAD PEOPLE out there. Dogs, though? My opinion of dogs just gets better and better. No matter what you throw at them, they usually bounce back with love and gratitude. So you start to feel an overwhelming responsibility to do right by this innocent creature in your care...and less responsibility for the feelings of those applying to take over that care.
Most rescuers are not, as Yoffe suggests, borderline pathological animal hoarders, jealously guarding their animals and enjoying the self-righteous power of rejecting potential adopters. They just have come to really, really value dogs. As much or more, in some cases, than humans.
What Is the Value of a Dog?
You will never be able to empathize with or understand someone who works in rescue if you have ever made the statement, "Well, it's just a dog."
- Dog rescue people think that if your landlord says you can't have a dog, you move to a place that allows dogs.
- Dog rescue people think that if your dog needs healthcare, you pay for it. You probably should have gotten insurance, but if you didn't, you beg, borrow, or GoFundMe until you can cover the cost.
- Dog rescue people think you should never walk your dog off-leash or leave him unattended in the backyard. You wouldn't take your 4-year-old to Griffith Park and let him run off into the brush, nor would you let him wander around the mall--vulnerable to predators--by himself.
- Dog rescue people think you shouldn't leave your dog alone in the house for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. That's a recipe for boredom-fueled behavioral issues, as well as just plain not fun for the dog.
- Dog rescue people think you need to feed your dog high-quality, grain-free, made-in-the-USA dog food--and (almost) never table scraps.
(These statements are gross generalizations about "dog rescue people" and are intended for effect only.)
If this list sounds like it's referring more to a child than a dog...yeah. That's pretty much how dog rescue people value dogs.
Is that list appropriate? Is a dog as valuable as a human? Not for me to say. And probably not for you to say, either. But it's this valuation that prompts rescue people to dedicate every spare second of their lives--and usually every spare cent in their pockets--to rescuing dogs, so you should probably give them a break. Also, it's a free country, man.
But That Rescue Lied to Me/Is Super-Disorganized/Wouldn't Even Tell Me Why I Got Rejected
Let's face it--dog rescues are the most non-profity non-profits that ever non-profited. Most people who volunteer for dog rescues have no background in non-profit administration, aren't even dog experts (medical, behavioral, or otherwise), and aren't any better at dealing with people than the general population. They're just dog lovers who couldn't handle the constant stream of abandoned dogs on Facebook and had to do something.
If you expect your friendly neighborhood dog rescue to provide all the customer support of Apple, you're gonna be sorely disappointed.
- No one knows what breed that dog is. OK, in rare cases, paperwork exists or the person who actually bred the puppies can shed some light on the situation. But when the rescue advertises a certain dog, they're making their best guess at the breed situation. I was told Chance was a Dalmatian/cattle dog mix--a statement I took as Actual Fact. Why? I don't know. I'm a pretty rational person, if I'd stopped and thought about it for one second I would have realized that of course a small non-profit dog rescue didn't run a $80-200 DNA test on my mutt, and how else could they possibly know? I ran my own DNA test, and he's NEITHER Dalmatian nor cattle dog. Not even a little. Breed "diagnoses" should be taken with a grain of salt. The rescue people are probably making a semi-educated guess, based on their experiences with many dogs over the years, but if you're similarly experienced, your guess is just as good. And honestly, I think there's room here for rescues to be a liiiiiittle more upfront about this.
- If you're adopting a puppy, there's no real way to tell how big they are going to get. Chance was 21 pounds when I adopted him, and I was told that "he would stay about that size." Even the first vet I took him to said that!! He's finally leveled off at 60 pounds. If size of the dog is really important to you, adopt a dog that's 1-2 years old already.
- Your dog's records (and even backstory) may be a little scattershot. Obviously, if a rescue can't provide you with a spay/neuter certificate and a vaccination record, they're seriously failing. But other than that... It's not like there's an easy records-keeping system that is freely available on the internet for dog rescues. They kind of cobble together a bunch of different systems, based on what volunteer knows how to use what program. Take what you can get, and move on.
- They're not going to tell you why you got rejected. Do you enjoy telling people exactly why you don't want to go on a date with them? I bet you tell them you're busy. Or you ghost them. That's what happens with rescues. Look, they found something in your application they didn't like. It would be super-nice if they explained what, so that you can explain why you still deserve the dog. Maybe if you press the issue, someone will get back to you. And, as LeRoy argues in her article, I do believe there's room for rescues to be a little less stringent sometimes. But at the end of the day, you can't do anything about it.
- A lot of rescues are bad at long-term customer relationships, and that's on them. You would THINK that rescues would bend over backwards to cultivate a donor pool that has already expressed interest, donated, and most likely won't be donating to (adopting from) a "competitor" in the near future. Buuuut...in most cases, you'd be mistaken. Because dog rescues generally aren't run like businesses. They're run more like refugee camps (not that I know what that's like, but I'm going out on a limb here). Once a dog is no longer in danger and/or draining a rescue's resources, a rescue can refocus on the dogs that ARE still in need. Lucky are the rescues that have a plan in place to maintain relationships with adopters. And I hope you adopt from one. But don't get upset if no one ever calls you again.
The bottom line is that rescues are gonna keep rescuin', and they will forever be subject to the personalities of the people who run them.
My advice to you, dear reader, is to have a little empathy for the poor souls who are throwing themselves into the trenches of dog rescue every day. Instead of saving up for a vacation for their family, they're probably trying to pay off their debt at the vet. They're "crazy" about matching their dogs with the right home because nothing means more in the world to them. As for bad apples, I'm sure they exist. As with any time you encounter a bad apple in life--you're best advised to just move on.
And if you simply can't deal with the hoops you have to jump through to adopt a dog from a rescue, the solution is not, as Yoffe would have you believe, to go buy from a breeder. That's insane.
GO TO A SHELTER!!
Walk in, pick your dog, fill out a form, throw down some cash, and walk out. Go to this Facebook page to see the constantly-revolving dogs that populate the "urgent" (about-to-be-killed) list at the San Bernardino County Animal Shelter at any given time. It's riskier than adopting a dog from a rescue, but I'm sure it won't take you very long to find your new best friend--and maybe, once you've plucked a terrified furball from death row and nurtured him back to a tongue-flopping ear-cocking tail-wagging little nugget, you won't think rescuers are so crazy anymore.
Thanks for listening. I'm gonna go snuggle Chance now.
Have you worked in dog rescue? Have you recently adopted from a rescue? We'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below (very bottom of the page) or join the discussion in the patchwork dogs facebook group!
Carrie Wiita is an actor, blogger, cheap-wine enthusiast, and dog-parent to Chance, a two-year-old rescue. Every time she sees a dog that looks vaguely like Chance being networked by a rescuer, she gets dangerously close to jumping in the car with a spare leash and a bag of chicken jerky.