The ad is well-intentioned, as are my friends who share it on Facebook. “Adopt a less adoptable pet!” the ad urges, with examples of “less adoptable” traits such as old, blind, Pit Bull (really?…), or just different. “Don’t hate me because I’m less adoptable,” the ad pleads, “adopt me because I need you.”
Now, my friends could tell you stories about my love for dogs who fit into some of these categories. I adore senior dogs, and when I put the word out that I was looking for a dog before I adopted Dobby, a friend joked that she would keep her eyes open for a three-legged, fearful, crotchety senior Pit Bull for me. I agreed that such a dog sounded lovely before I realized that she was pulling my leg.
I adore many of the “less adoptable” dogs, but I think this ad campaign is abhorrent. In fact, I would urge you never to adopt a dog because he needs you. Don’t adopt a dog because you feel sorry for him. Don’t adopt a dog because of his appearance. Don’t adopt a dog because his story made you cry. Don’t adopt a dog because he looks sad or acts like he was abused. Don’t even adopt a dog because he’ll die otherwise. Adopt a dog because he’s a good match and because you’ll make one another happy. Anything less is unfair to both of you.
I understand the pull to help animals. My first day working at a local pet shop as a fifteen-year-old, I brought home a three-legged, mite-infested guinea pig that was being kept in back to be sold for snake food. My first paycheck didn’t even cover the cost of her vet bills, cage, food, and other essentials. Lucky the guinea pig later became a beloved nursery school pet, and I never regretted my decision to buy her.
However, every week I work with clients whose rescue stories don’t end so happily. Love alone is not enough for every dog. While it may feel good to save the life of that terrified, shivering dog who has pressed herself into the back corner of her kennel, bringing her home to a busy household with lots of visitors isn’t doing her any favors. In some cases, it’s merely prolonging the torture. Remember, dogs live in the moment, and every moment that your new dog spends plastered behind the sofa or barking frantically in the back room because yet another friend has stopped by to visit is painful to her. Emotional pain is every bit as cruel as physical pain. Not causing it doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to neglect to address it. And quite honestly, that bouncy, social dog in the kennel next to her (the one who would be a really great fit for your social lifestyle) needs you every bit as much.
Understand that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t adopt a dog who needs a little extra. Maybe you’re really good with shy dogs, and you don’t ever have any visitors, and you are a naturally patient person. In your case, that terrified dog could be a wonderful fit for your household. You’ll enjoy helping that dog blossom, and that dog will have a safe and caring environment in which to become the wonderful pet she wants to be. The important consideration here isn’t whether your potential dog is perfect, but whether you and she are perfect for one another.
There are thousands of wonderful dogs who would thrive in a home just like yours, and your job as an adopter is to find them. Working with a responsible rescue will help, but even before you get to that point, you need to take a moment to think about what you need. What traits does your ideal dog possess? Is he active or sedentary? Goofy or serious? Does he need to get along with children, visitors, cats, other dogs, livestock? Are you open to housetraining and teaching him basic obedience, or would you rather he already understand such things? Be honest about what will make you happy. Your ideal dog is someone else’s nightmare, so go find that dog and save his life, even if his situation may not have appeared as desperate as another dog’s.
If you work in a shelter or rescue, stop with the sob stories and emotional blackmail. If the only way you can save that dog is through suckering some soft-hearted person into taking them on, then I have some serious concerns. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make your adopters feel like heroes. They are! However, you and I both know that most homeless dogs aren’t broken, merely unlucky. Let’s focus on their good traits, those things that will make them wonderful pets. Let’s focus on that ideal home and talk about why that home will be so incredibly lucky to have this great dog. Let’s do everything we can to make sure that the next home this dog winds up in is his last. Let’s make such solid, perfect matches that our adopters would do anything to keep that dog for the rest of his days, such solid matches that those people come back to you ten or fifteen years down the line when they are ready for another dog.
Don’t adopt a dog because he needs you. Adopt a dog because you need him. Adopt a dog because you will make one another happy. Adopt a dog because you can’t imagine your life without him. There is no better feeling in the world, and no more heroic thing you can do.