By Dustin Garret Rhodes

I have seen the slogan “Adopt Don’t Shop” in so many places, on social media and beyond, I assumed it was now gauche to buy an animal from a breeder. I was surprised when I posted a photo of the dog I was about to adopt, Turtle, on my Facebook page, and scrolled down my feed only to find that a friend of mine was also getting a dog, on the same day…but from a breeder.

Because I work at an animal rights organization that has a nearly 60-year history working to eliminate pet overpopulation and systemic shelter killing, the choice to adopt isn’t a choice at all: I see it as my responsibility—a moral imperative. I wish everyone else did, too, because it’s hard for me to fathom that people know that three million dogs and cats are killed every year in “shelters” in this country.

I have learned, though, from my work here at Friends of Animals—from personal experience and from member feedback—that there are misconceptions about adopting animals from shelters, both positive and negative, and a great deal of misinformation that I take for granted. While I am frustrated that my friend purchased a pure-breed dog from a breeder, the reason it occurred—“I wanted this breed of dog”—is not all that unusual, sadly. 

I started my most recent adoption process at Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in Asheville, N.C.—our local no-kill shelter. I filled out a somewhat extensive application and submitted it electronically. We had to give a couple of references, but the process was pain-free and simple. We were approved within only a couple of days.

I had ideas in my head about the kind of dog I wanted: a chihuahua (it’s one of the most abandoned breeds of dog) and because I love chihuahuas, middle-aged or older, who got along with other dogs, cats and children. I already know intimately the trials of living with a dog who is aggressive and I didn’t want to repeat it. For those of you considering adoption, I suggest you really consider your own “deal-breakers” and communicate them clearly to rescue groups and shelters you might adopt from. They will help you, but only if you communicate your needs.

I began perusing Brother Wolf’s website for dogs that were already in foster care. I applied for two different chihuahuas that sounded perfect—on paper. One foster caregiver did not bother to respond; the other did immediately, telling me that the dog could not be around men and had a multitude of behavioral issues—a completely different story than was advertised on the website (in the foster home’s defense: She admitted that it was her responsibility to update the “story” on the website, and she apologized profusely that the ad was misleading and out-of-date). Impressively, though, she informed me that the dog was working with a professional trainer twice a week, and that they hoped to make progress. I was surprised and impressed with how much training and attention this dog was getting. I was disappointed, too, as I was prematurely obsessed with the idea that this dog was perfect for our home.

Meet and greet
I really wanted this whole adoption process to mostly happen online, because I cannot handle going to shelters. I want to take home all the dogs and cats with me, and I find the experience to be profoundly depressing. But Brother Wolf called me on the phone about a week after my application and approval, and I shared my experience with trying to adopt from their foster network; they convinced me I should come meet animals at the shelter—in person. I knew they were right.

Through my work and in my personal life, I have been to quite a few shelters—some of which have been horrifying—either because of over-crowding, cleanliness or lack thereof, the condition of the animals themselves or all of the above. So walking into Brother Wolf was an unexpected experience—it was exceptionally clean, organized, efficient, filled with staff, volunteers and people there to peruse the dogs and cats. I was allowed to look around freely, and immediately found myself drawn to certain dogs (none of which were chihuahuas). I was even allowed to take some of the dogs for walks, and spend time in a private room with others—an opportunity to get to know them, one on one. One of the staff members introduced me to various dogs and answered questions; she also told me about various behavior issues they were aware of.

Are you ready for commitment?
Denise Bitz, the founder of Brother Wolf Animal rescue, told me, “Most animals end up in a shelter due to no fault of their own. Most animals end up in shelters because of humans relocating, human death/divorce or frankly, because people are too lazy to address a small problem because we live in a society where folks want immediate results without putting any work into something. I have seen it with something as simple as house-training a dog.”

From the many calls we receive at Friends of Animals, I knew she was right. I also know that many people aren’t prepared for veterinary emergencies; they don’t have a savings account for their pet—which they should. My veterinarian recommends that everyone have $1,000 set aside for emergencies. In truth, that amount of money won’t cover many serious issues, but it will easily cover unexpected minor ones.

Animal rescues and shelters put a lot of work into assessing the behavior of animals, for reasons of marketing, compatibility and the desire to match each cat and dog up with its forever home. By no means am I suggesting that anyone makes things up, but it’s not in your best interest to assume that what they tell you will end up being completely factual. That’s not the fault of the shelter, but it’s because as soon as the dog or cat ends up in your home there’s a new dynamic to maneuver for everyone, and behavior is flexible based on new stressors that shelters may not be able to predict. In other words, be prepared for what they don’t tell you; be prepared to have to work with a trainer in some cases, if that’s what it takes. Be prepared for it not working out perfectly at first. Like all relationships, it takes time to work out the kinks.

Keep an open mind
I was not looking for a pure-breed dog necessarily, but many—like my friend who purchased from a breeder—are. According to The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) 25 percent of dogs that enter shelters are purebred. As Bitz reminded me: Shelters and rescues often take animals directly from breeding operations, sometimes even small kittens and puppies, so don’t assume you can’t find a particular breed at a local shelter. And even if you can’t, there are breed-specific rescue groups throughout North America. If that’s the route you choose to go, be forewarned: Rescue groups have a tendency to have the most difficult adoption process, which some find frustrating. Adoption fees are likely to be high because they are privately funded and application processes are often lengthy. Expect home visits, delays and some surprises along the way, as they are usually staffed completely by a network of volunteers. While the work they do is admirable, there are numerous circumstances that can make the experience lengthy and frustrating. Be prepared for that. And most importantly of all: Challenge yourself in terms of the kind of animal you are willing to adopt.

You might find the love of your life in another breed, or mix of breeds—as I did. I might sound over overly critical of breed specific rescues, but I am not. I am just pointing out a somewhat common experience. Lastly, the biggest case against adopting a pure-breed dog is cost: Many breeds of dogs are susceptible to diseases and problems that might be extraordinarily expensive to treat. Are you prepared for that?

Expect the unexpected
Alas, I didn’t end up adopting from Brother Wolf, but not because they weren’t wonderful. At the time I went, the dogs I was interested in were not ideal for being around other dogs, cats and/or children, and thank goodness they were honest with me. I ended up adopting a dog that a friend brought to my attention—a four-year-old pug mix named Turtle Dove, whom I fell instantly, head-over-heels in love with.

I was told that Turtle was great with other dogs, but that he’d need some work with leash training, as he wasn’t really walked because the family he was living with had a large, fenced in backyard. When he came to live with us, we got to know a Turtle Dove that was both recognizable and foreign from the stories we’d be told. While he is definitely pretty much perfect around other dogs, it turns out that he’s so terrified of people he doesn’t know that he has full-blown panic attacks; he starts shaking and drooling profusely when he encounters a stranger on the street; he tries desperately to flee. Taking him for a simple walk is a stress-inducing chore for everyone involved—save for the times we simply take him to the woods where he won’t encounter humans. I love Turtle ridiculously—psychological meltdowns and all. And we are completely committed to him, forever, but he’s been full of surprises. It’s best to expect them when adopting a new cat or dog.

Some people say that it’s prohibitively expensive to adopt from a rescue or shelter these days, too—often costing as much as a breeder. Sometimes that’s true, depending on the breed of dog. But Denise Bitz reminded me that the animals “have way more vet care than any animal you will ever purchase from a breeder. Also, a lot of our animals are in foster care so we know a lot about the animals’ personality and our foster homes even work on basic training and housebreaking, etc. I don’t think you will find a lot of breeders who do that. Sadly, the majority of breeders out there are all about the profit, and will compromise even the most basic medical care to turn a larger profit on selling the animal.”

Happily ever after
I asked Bitz whether many animals are returned to Brother Wolf, and if so why. Of course I wondered if it’s because of how animals can be unpredictable in a new situation or with a new family. She told me that their return rate is very low, but offered a new perspective, too: “We used to look at returns as a failure on us BUT we have changed our perception on this as we have grown and evolved. We look at returns as a way to gather more information about a particular animal that we may not have known previously, and hopefully use this information to find them the best next home possible. Essentially, it sounds all ‘warm and fuzzy’ to say that we want to find each animal his or her ‘forever home’ but unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes people have to surrender their animal or they choose to, either way…we just hope that each home an animal goes to for whatever time they spend there is a home that is filled with love and happiness, even if it isn’t for the lifetime of the animal. Returns aren’t a reflection that you have done something poorly—we just look at them as an opportunity to help an animal again.”

And what happens if you adopt a “damaged” dog? This lesson has already struck me in a profound way, and I am sure that those of you who live with quirky rescued animals know exactly what I am talking about: It’s those very quirks that might make you fall madly in love with them. My friend Frank, who worked at Brother Wolf before he retired and has lived with five rescue dogs, said something that really struck a chord: “When you form a bond with an animal who has emotional scars, you get to experience true unconditional love. My dogs have taught me everything about life and living that I know.” I couldn’t agree more.

Adopt don’t shop. Spay and neuter. Be prepared and committed and, most of all, patient. The rewards are indescribable.

Development Director Dustin Rhodes is in charge of fundraising for Friends of Animals and is a contributing writer for Action Line. He resides in Asheville, North Carolina — a progressive, animal-loving community in the Blue Ridge mountains