You have your heart set on a certain breed — and you want it to be a puppy — so you go on the Internet to track down the dog of your dreams. And you find her — she’s absolutely adorable, just seven weeks old, available (but you better act fast), and, better still, comes from an organization that has the words “Humane Society” in its name. In other words, the dog you want is even a rescue animal; you’re getting exactly what you desire and saving a life in the bargain. The only hitch is that she lives 1,000 miles south and has to be shipped north. No sweat. The rescuing organization will transport the dog for you; you can pick her up near your home from a group where the dog will be dropped off. Is it a good idea?
“We recommend you don’t adopt any animal straight off the Internet,” says Emily McCobb, DVM, Director of the Shelter Medicine Program at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and Assistant Director of Tufts’s Center for Animals and Public Policy. “People fall in love with animals because of a picture. I call it pet porn. You can find a dog on the Internet,” she says. “But you have to be able to go meet the animal before making a decision; it shouldn’t be a high-pressure deal or a ‘final sale.'” In fact, she says, “reputable shelters and rescues, if you adopt and it doesn’t work out, will take the dog back, no questions asked. They want to take the dog back.” If that promise isn’t made explicitly, something is wrong.
Adds Seana Dowling-Guyer, Tufts’s Associate Director of the Center for Shelter Dogs, “a dog might be positioned online as a rescue. And a lot of people think if they see the words ‘Humane Society’ or ‘SPCA’ that means it’s a regulated place, a responsible place that cares about animals. But those terms are not legally defined; there’s no governing body. The dog could be coming from a commercial breeder, sometimes referred to as a puppy mill” — not someone who breeds two to four litters a year in their home but a dog factory, if you will, that breeds dozens, if not hundreds, of dogs possibly in deplorable conditions. And you can’t know that if you choose a dog from far away.
“I know one person who went on PetFinder.com and searched for dogs within 50 miles of her,” Ms. Dowling-Guyer says. “It wasn’t until she reached the third page that she found an actual rescue group or shelter where she could go see the dog. Sometimes, you find a dog on any one of a number of sites on the Internet, and a few pages down, you see the same dog with a different name — he’s somewhere else, with a different organization. It’s a case of bait and switch that can be very hard to trace. On the Internet, there’s often no paper trail. In this case, the person who went online did finally manage to trace a distant dog’s origins — it was a commercial puppy mill in Texas,” that is, a dog-producing, dog-selling business. Adopting such a dog, even if you don’t realize where it came from, means keeping nefarious people in that very business while dogs suffer. “Any time you’re going to do something with dogs where the goal is profit,” Ms. Dowling-Guyer says, “there’s a chance the dogs are going to suffer.”
“It’s when you set your sites on a specific breed or a specific age that you might be particularly apt to get sucked into something unsavory,” Dr. McCobb says. “You go online, and it’s like the wild wild west. It’s like Craig’s List. The tool is good, but it can be perverted for bad purposes.”
Foolproof ways to make sure you don’t get hoodwinked
The most surefire place for adopting a dog who needs a home and not having to contend with a hidden agenda is a brick-and-mortar shelter, Dr. McCobb says. “Going to a brick-and-mortar facility helps cut down on supporting the puppy mill industry,” she comments. Not only does a shelter have local dogs it has taken in, but also, if it does have dogs transported from far away, “it has a relationship with the source community,” the doctor says. “It’s going to be much better at telling you where the animal has come from. It’s going to know more about their health status, their behavioral issues,” maybe even their background, because of its ongoing dialogue with the shelter or rescue group or other organization from far away that took in the dog in the first place.
In addition, if a local shelter lists on, say, PetFinder.com, it already has the dog it is showing. It’s not promising a dog who’s currently in Arkansas and will be shipped. It knows the dog firsthand and can vouch for his health and behavioral status as well as his origins. That will always be the case at a brick-and-mortar facility.
Shelters often charge for the adoption — anywhere from a few hundred dollars to something along the lines of $750. But that’s not to make a profit.
“They’re definitely not making money,” Dr. McCobb says. “There are vaccinations, health exams, sometimes the cost of transporting the dog from somewhere else.” They also often make contributions to the source community to get at the root of overpopulation.
“It’s a case of making ends meet,” Ms. Dowling-Guyer notes. “Nobody running a legitimate shelter is getting rich. The adoption fees usually don’t even cover the cost of caring for the dog. That’s why shelters are always looking for donations, applying for grants.”
Sometimes, she says, the cost of adoption is higher than the cost of taking care of the dog. “If it’s an easy dog to adopt out — an easygoing puppy —she’s adopted before she hits the floor in some regions of the country. But at the same time, the shelter may have a dog that comes in with chronic urinary tract infections, or needs surgery. So the shelter is going to be spending thousands of dollars on that one. You win some, you lose some, and you hope it evens out, but it tends not to. Shelters struggle to meet the financial demands of caring for the dogs in their custody.”
While actual shelters are the simplest way to ensure that you’re getting your dog from a legitimate source, many rescue groups throughout the country that do not have a brick-and-mortar facility but instead rely on a network of people to foster dogs in their homes until an adopter comes along also do a terrific job. “They’re very organized, they have strict protocols, and often a contract with a facility that tends to medical care,” Ms. Dowling-Guyer comments. (Many brick-and-mortar shelters have foster homes for animals as well — dedicated people who are willing to take in some of the overflow or the challenging cases and give homeless dogs a loving environment until a family comes along.)
The difference with some rescue groups, especially if they are new to the field, is that, for instance, “the people involved might not know about distemper. They’re not sure what to do if a dog gets sick,” she says. “They may not be aware of rabies vaccine requirements.” They may also not know a dog’s origins — whether or not it’s part of a commercial dog breeding operation.
“It’s not that the people in grassroots rescue aren’t all about saving canine lives,” Dr. McCobb emphasizes. “It’s largely that if you go to a building, a shelter, you will know for sure that the group understands state regulations and has followed them. The building can be inspected, for example.”
In addition, it’s easier for a puppy mill operation to pose as a rescue. It’s harder to pose as a brick-and-mortar shelter; you have to have a real address at an actual building in which dogs are living and potential adopters can come see them. But, as we pointed out earlier, it’s all too easy for a commercial dog breeder — a puppy mill — to make their social media and other online marketing make it look as if they are running a rescue.
Variations on the theme
“None of this is a black-and-white issue,” Dr. McCobb says. “The whole picture is very complicated, and people in legitimate dog rescue are definitely motivated to save lives. In their good-heartedness, they just might not always be aware of the impact they are making,” either because they don’t know that a dog is part of the puppy mill industry or are not aware of health requirements that include inoculations, wellness exams, and the like.
If you do adopt a dog from a rescue group, Dr. McCobb recommends only going through one that will let you go to where the dog is being kept — usually someone’s home — and will let you meet with the dog several times before making a decision. That’s what a shelter would do.
In addition, she says, ask your liaison at the rescue group if they will take the dog back at any point if the adoption doesn’t work out. If the answer is no, you should seriously consider getting a dog from another group — the tugging on your heartstrings notwithstanding.
Both Dr. McCobb and Ms. Dowling-Guyer take pains to point out that there are many, many excellent shelters and fantastic rescues that do their jobs really well, always simply trying to save canine lives and keeping the dogs’ best interests front and center. “They’re driven by their hearts,” Dr. McCobb says. There are also organizations that have their hearts in the right place but aren’t aware of all the regulations about health screenings, the record keeping — and also not always aware of sleight-of-hand practices engaged in by some puppy mill operations. And yes, there are organizations that try to intentionally fool dog lovers into thinking they’re reputable when dogs are just a commodity to them, not living, feeling creatures. They are all about profit rather than dogs. “We don’t believe the hoodwinking is very widespread,” Dr. McCobb says. “I think it’s just a small phenomenon. But there are apples and oranges in the mix.”
The guidelines here — not hard and fast rules, just guidelines (although pretty failsafe ones) — should help you avoid the bad apples.
If You Have Your Heart Set On a Particular Breed, and Also Want a Puppy
A lot of first-time dog adopters decide they want a particular breed of dog, and want to get it as a puppy, but look to find a homeless one at a shelter or through a rescue group rather than buy from a breeder in an effort not to contribute to the overpopulation of dogs that can lead to unnecessary euthanasias.
But if you have your heart set on a particular breed as a young puppy, says Emily McCobb, DVM, the Director of the Shelter Medicine Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, going to a reputable breeder is probably the best route to take. A young, purebred puppy of a certain breed that you find online or at a pet store is the dog most likely to be coming from a puppy mill, meaning that it is being treated like stock on a store shelf rather than like a sentient being.
Legitimate breed enthusiasts, on the other hand, are breeding because they love that type of dog. And “hobby breeders are not contributing to overpopulation,” Dr. McCobb says. Only two to four litters are being born at their house each year, as opposed to hundreds of dogs at commercial breeding establishments, aka puppy mills.
Nor are legitimate small breeders whose dogs are born in their homes doing it for the money. “They’re not getting rich doing this,” Dr. McCobb says. “It’s hard work to be a legitimate breeder and expensive to do it right. The puppy has to have good veterinary care and be all up to date with shots, and the breeder needs to make sure the line is good, both health-wise and with respect to behavioral tendencies.” It takes a lot of not breeding as well as breeding.
In other words, Dr. McCobb says, “people shouldn’t feel bad for buying a dog” if it comes from a responsible, small-scale breeder who takes good care and also treats the animal lovingly, as part of their family, so that the puppy comes to you well adjusted. Indeed, it’s in the first weeks of life that a dog learns whether the world is a good or a bad place and gets a strong message imprinted about how to behave. Dogs who spend their first couple of months in a warm, supportive environment right in someone’s home have the best chance of growing up to be the pet you want in your own home without your having to intervene to help them out of maladjustment resulting from a start in the school of hard knocks.
That does not mean there aren’t lovely adult dogs waiting to be adopted into a forever home at local shelters, Dr. McCobb says. There are, and she strongly advocates checking out that option, as you may be surprised at the degree to which you fall in love. But sometimes, the dogs available simply might not be the best fit for every family, and a young puppy raised by a compassionate breeder is the way to go.
If the puppy you locate at a breeder’s is more expensive than what you would pay at a shelter, a legitimate breeder is “simply trying to recoup costs,” Dr. McCobb says. In some cases, she says, “a breeder might be adding a little to the family income, but it’s a very small amount after you subtract what they have to put into good care.”
As with a shelter or rescue group, you should be allowed to go see the puppy on which you have set your sights right where she’s being raised, and you should be able to do so multiple times (maybe it’s not the breed you want after all even though the photos you have seen are so beguiling). And the breeder should be clear that if the adoption doesn’t work out, she or he will take the dog back. In other words, a good breeder will operate much as a good shelter, making the dog’s welfare tantamount to money and convenience.