understanding the culture of adoption

At the beginning of this series of posts, I took you through some ways that we view animals and how their roles are constructed depending on our cultural values.

As with so many cultural constructs, our views shift over time. The traditional way we saw dogs as utility animals, lab animals, clothing, flesh, entertainment or companions changes as we confer new roles on dogs. One of those new roles is the role of “rescue”.

Despite the fact that across the globe, unwanted animals from a variety of species are often construed as pests, that role is changing for stray dogs, largely driven in the West by post-industrial Anglo-Saxon views.

Although some of the stereotypes about dogs persist in relation to disease and behaviour, the very large number of dogs adopted each year shows that people’s views are changing. That so many introduce their dog as a “rescue” suggests this has some social capital. Capital that presidents and prime ministers have been keen to appropriate, if Macron and Johnson are indicators of this change. Perhaps I am cynical in thinking that presidents and prime ministers rehome dogs simply to improve their image, of course. But I don’t think it’s wrong to say that it is “fashionable” to rehome a dog. It’s also part of that culture to keep referring to the dog as a “rescue”, as Graham Norton does here:

Graham Norton isn’t the only celebrity to buy in to the “rescue” moniker. Many celebrities from Ellen DeGeneres and Jennifer Aniston to George Clooney and Kaley Cuoco have dogs they’ve acquired from a shelter. That’s certainly helping the shelter agenda.

It’s so acceptable to use the “rescue” badge, in fact, that people who buy dogs may refer to them as “rescues”, and some pet shops have rebranded themselves as “rescues”. I’m a member of a few breed-specific groups on social media and it’s not that rare at all to see people write that they “adopted” their dog at 8 weeks because the breeder or puppy farm was that awful… I make no comment on that. And I read yesterday of one English kennels rebranding themselves as a rescue centre to get around the newly-introduced “Lucy’s Law” prohibiting the sale of dogs via third parties. Clearly, being a rescue means something.

We know too that the kind of dog we acquire, and where we acquire it from says something about us to people, allowing them to make a quick decision about what type of person we are. Very possibly, some of that warmth dogs evoke is something we benefit from.

But what do our rehomed dogs say about us?

That was something I asked a number of people about through a series of semi-structured interviews that I used for my final dissertation for the International School of Canine Psychology and Behaviour.

What was clear is there are many reasons why people adopt. There are many different types of adopter. This is why it’s not as easy to see “rescue” dogs as some kind of badge of honour. Those multiple reasons for adoption also mean we can’t just see adopters as a homogenous group, say for instance like Liverpool football club fans, at least for that one symbol. In reality, where there may be high levels of similarity between people who buy Christian Louboutin shoes, or between people who go to Led Zeppelin concerts, there’s no single trait that unites adopters.

It’s not, therefore, a case of signalling our virtues, or of showing how compassionate we are. Sure, though, some people do that, and I want to write about that too. I think there’s an underlying narrative for many about creating a different way than buying from a pet shop or breeder, what Donna Haraway might call the process of “autremondialisation”, creating a new paradigm than the current economic model. But I don’t think that is true for all people who acquire or rehome a pet via a shelter.

One reason I think studies about length of stay and adoptability are so contradictory is that unlike so-called pure bred dogs, dogs we rehome are not subject to the same market forces. If we are indeed constructing a new way of thinking about dogs from the moment of acquisition, there’s every reason why our choices don’t conform to economic choices.

But it’s more complicated than that.

Take for instance the fact that small, young female dogs are likely to shoot out of the shelter… why is it that bichons, maltese, lhasa apso, yorkshire terriers and shi tzu aren’t more popular registered breeds? I mean the demand we get is ridiculous, yet they are fairly low down on France’s registered breed popularity lists.

In fact, the most popular registered breeds are all fairly big dogs. Australian shepherds, malinois, staffordshire bull terriers (the smallest of them), GSD and golden retrievers top France’s most popular list. The French bulldog, cavalier and chihuahua come in at 9th, 10th and 11th place though. Yorkshire terriers flag at 13th position, and the little shi tzu at 20th. Clearly there are different market factors at work for the pedigree market and for the market to rehome pedigree dogs. Like in many shelters, the breeds we get are popular ones to buy as puppies that have little “rehome-ability” and are socially stigmatised breeds that are then hard to adopt out into the community. But there’s no accounting for why large breeds are popular as pedigree puppies and are not at all adoptable once they get into a shelter.

One thing is true though: some people certainly rehome dogs in ways that are subject to market factors. They want a young dog, a popular pedigree breed, a female, a well-behaved dog. Research about market factors certainly explains their choices.

For me, that “market” divides into two: those who want a cheap second-hand dog of a type and don’t want to pay for it, or those who like a particular breed and want to source it ethically, if you will. The same way we might want a Michael Kors handbag and buy it from ebay. We might want the “label” without the price tag. On the other hand, we might want a Michael Kors handbag but not support the disposable fashion industry (do people dispose of Michael Kors handbags? Oh to understand THAT world!) so we might have a second-hand one for our conscience.

And shelters need to understand both of these customer bases. We definitely have plenty of “second-hand dog” buyers who are looking for a cheap dog, and we definitely have plenty of people who see rescue as an ethical way of sourcing a product. Both of these motivators are likely to respond to economic factors.

Others, and I find myself among this group, tend to go for certain types of dog, or even breeds, because it speaks to something deep inside of them. One of my interviewees described how she adopted elderly female hounds and it was clear that there were factors at work about this person’s compassion and caring for vulnerable, exploited females who’ve been used up and spat out by the system.

Another spoke of adopting a series of elderly lap dogs, which were not his type at all, and then spoke of his mother’s dementia and how lost she was in a nursing home. He certainly saw the connection between lost dogs who’d been used to a certain way of living, only to find themselves cast adrift by family at the end. Part of caring for elderly lhasa apsos was a way of doing something practical in lieu of caring, which made little difference to his mother. Displacement caring, if you will.

For me, I know why I find my heart breaking over malinois. Stigmatised as “security” dogs, they work long hours, live lonely lives, are vilified by the media, seen as temperamental and highly-strung “maligators” when in fact they are sweet, obedient dogs who may be a bit gung-ho in the name of loyalty but who end up “retired” and spat out by the system that should have valued their service, their skills and their blind loyalty. I mean I’m a spaniel girl at heart, yet something about the martyrdom of the malinois in France spoke to me. Especially those elderly ones who have given their whole life to being a utility item and then are discarded when they’re inconvenient. For some of us, I’m sure certain types or breeds of dog speak to our deep-seated need to care for ourselves, care for those we love or right a wrong that is equally true of types of people as it is for types of dog.

Other people aren’t fussed about the “label” their dog comes with.

I love these adopters. No matter what their dog looked like, they all described their dogs as gorgeous, handsome or beautiful. Some, in my opinion, were fairly homely and ordinary. One was eye-bogglingly mismatched in terms of proportions and despite having no hair to speak of on their rear end, the owner still described the dog as the most handsome dog they’d ever seen.

These adopters go into adoption with their eyes wide open, knowing they are looking for that individual connection. They see past breed and see the individual dog. For me, these tend to be the adoptions that work out, as the adopters choose a dog that suits their lifestyle. They are often charmed by their dogs and I found that interviewing this type of adopter, they were less likely to comment on behavioural difficulties or problems they’d experienced. I mean everything about their dogs was ace, in their eyes, even if they bit postal workers or waiters’ ankles.

I also found these adopters also had the highest correlation between their own personalities and the dogs they adopted. Because they didn’t come wanting a particular breed or type of dog (although they sometimes adopted breeds or types) and because they were looking for a dog that matched their life the best, those tended to be the dogs that they were highly satisfied with. They may introduce their dog as a “shelter” or “rescue” dog because they know their dog is a great ambassador for adoption, and that is just wonderful. Their need for external validation was low, but they are often keen to support shelters, and thus, for them, “rescue” is not a badge but about ambassadorship. They’re not proud of their own actions, necessarily, but they’re proud of their dog.

A large number of people are also really keen to take on complicated dogs. I love this adoption group lots too. They’re often people involved in volunteering already, but not always. They’re the kind of people who turn up at a shelter explaining they have the right environment for a dog and they have the capacity and motivation to do something about it. These are the adopters who say, “who’ve you got who’s been here a while?” or ask for your oldies, your sick dogs, your maniacs or your miscreants. I would say these are the ones where, when you dig a little deeper, you find them deeply involved in lots of altruistic actions, even having made a career out of it. They’re often in public sector work, from teaching to caring, social work to police work, armed forces or nursing.

The nicest part about talking to people like this is how matter of fact they are. Some are a little unprepared for whatever problems come up, but I never got a sense from talking to these adopters that they were doing it to be noble or to draw attention to themselves. Often, and if you are part of a shelter you’ll know this, these are the dogs who are rehomed and you barely hear from the new family again. They just get on with it. That makes it hard for us to know that things are okay, but what I found for these adopters is that their need for external validation was really low. These adopters may send you private messages because they know you had a long relationship with the dog, but you can see also how much work they’ve put in. They just get on with it.

The best thing about these adopters is that all they need from you when adopting is honesty about your dogs. Both those who choose a dog who matches their temperament (and may or may not be a “problem” dog) and those who take on more challenging companion animals, they aren’t phased by the “imperfections” of the dog.

I think all this has a vital and strong message for shelters.

You WILL have those adopters who want perfect pedigree pets, who are really just after a second-hand dog. They’ll be the ones who can’t tolerate problems and may return them straight away, just like they would with shoes that didn’t fit. And you may have dogs who’d fit their needs. Probably, the dogs you’ll have that’ll fit their needs won’t LOOK right for them, and they may go away empty handed. They’ll crack for a particular physique and return the dog when it doesn’t fit in with their life. But if you have a steady stream of young, small pedigree pups without specific needs, then good for you.

You’ll also have adopters who choose a dog who’s right for them, who may or may not be a breed or type, but who are looking for an adult dog because they want a dog who they can see fits into their lifestyle, even if that’s with a little work.

You’ll have, no doubt, those great adopters who will take on your tough-to-rehome dogs. I never fail to be astonished by (and a lot in love with) those people who fall in love with dogs that I feel are going to be impossible to rehome. These are the dogs I despair of ever finding a home for, and all the adopter wants to do is “something good”. Eyes wide open, purely for the joy of doing it.

The worst thing I think shelters can do is to try and force those tough-to-rehome dogs on people whose temperament and lifestyle doesn’t match the dog’s, or to let dogs go to a home when their temperaments don’t match, but the family have cracked for a particular physique. There is no point, from a shelter perspective, trying to make every dog marketable. That way, you end up with a series of impossible tests to weed out all but the most sociable, most well-adjusted dogs. And then what do you do with the rest?

It’s important for shelters as well to share flaws as well as virtues of their dogs, stopping thinking they’re “unadoptable”. There are lots of people happy to take on the odds and sods in life. Who relish the odds and sods. Who look forward to giving a little something back to a dog.

The hardest group of adopters for me are the ones who want to adopt as an ethical choice. That’s worse still when they want to make a badge out of the word “rescue”. One issue I have with this is that the owners never let the dog lose its “rescue” or “shelter” tag – if they lost that, then that would lose all the dog’s power as a symbol for them. For these people who may find themselves out of their depth with a truly difficult dog, the word “rescue” can become an excuse for problem behaviours that they don’t have the skill to deal with. For others who want the “rescue” label but end up simply rehoming a dog without any problems, there’s a certain sense that they have to work even harder for the social capital that they wanted their “rescue” dog to gain. That can give false impressions to people who do take on more challenging dogs.

“Oh, my rescue settled in straight away!”

Often, their dog is really just a dog in a second home. It can lead to other people then thinking it’s really easy to adopt certain dogs or certain types of dog. I know I spoke at length about adopting oldies with one participant and we laughed about the whole “oh, old dogs are so easy!” myth. I mean, they can be. Ralf was a dreamboat, as was Tobby. But bloody hell if you’re not prepared for what is essentially being a canine care home… pee, shit, vomit everywhere and dogs that seem to find a second childhood or won’t settle because they’re disoriented in a new home and they’re in pain.

It’s all very well to present adopting an oldie as noble, but it’s going to be profoundly difficult when you realise you’re a burning martyr for a cause you don’t truly understand. One of my poor clients had 7 months of sleepless nights and endless vet visits without so much as a whisper of support from the shelter for a dog who screamed most of the night. Nobility goes right out of the window when you’ve got a senior like that. If you want people to think, “Look how good they are”, you’re going to find that isn’t enough to keep you going at 4am when you’ve got a pensioner who has been pacing for 3 hours. But for many of my lovely friends who’ve taken on seniors, they’re at least prepared for a sleepless night. And you know what? A lot of them spend their nights on the sofa with the dogs, because they know how much they are prepared to adapt.

Of course, most adoptions are not like that, either. Despite the misconception that surrendered dogs or shelter dogs are badly behaved or have baggage (can we stop touting this myth please?) most dogs, in the right environment with people who understand them, settle really quickly.

Neither is it helpful for people to keep using the “rescue” label to talk about their dog when really they’ve just rehomed a very easy family companion. Sadly, because some people who use the “rescue” label are in need of external validation, they often post on social media and mythologise about their dogs’ histories, often inventing trauma narratives for them about how they lived, or making up reasons for current behaviour based on unknown assumptions of abuse or neglect.

I see this sometimes on social media – dogs whose stays are gradually exaggerated or owners who profess miracles have occurred. There are even rescue associations who make a meal out of the neglect and abuse cases, or who are using your anger to feed their ego. These adopters often befriend shelter staff on social media, tagging them in all their public posts, and from my experience, it can be very hard not to interfere with the narrative they create for the dog. For instance, for one dog, his stay went from 3 months to 2 years over a period of weeks as his new family discussed him, and I could see allegations of neglect and abuse alongside lots of mythologising about how bad the shelter must have been.

Luckily, these adopters are few and far between. Sadly, it can go another way and end up as animal collecting, hoarding or even Munchausen’s by proxy.

Even at its most mild, those who continually signal their ethics and virtues by way of public posts about their dogs can also have a detrimental effect on the adoption community too. #AdoptDontShop is one example of this behaviour at its worst. Taking on a dog – any dog, from any source – should be a responsible decision. When “rescue” is used as a label for virtue signalling, a badge of honour, it harms both the dogs and the adopters.

I mean I read this great article about why Adopt Don’t Shop is harmful, and as you can imagine, the comments on social media were eye-popping. Now, I am fully on board with stopping the exploitation of dogs. I think mixing up money with dogs has caused us all kinds of issues related to status, exploitation and oppression, but I think these are issues no different from a number of other issues in our relationships with animals, and unless we’re going to live a kind of wild and free life alongside dogs, and unless we accept that many dogs don’t really fit into an urban, motorised, restricted family life, we’re moving to a world in which we’ll be conservationists of wild dog populations rather than having dogs in homes. I’m not supporting puppy farming if I say that well-adjusted, healthy family dogs have to come from somewhere. I think Adopt Don’t Shop is so conflated by contradictory aims and behaviours that to use “rescue” as a way of guilting people into where they get a dog from is counter-productive and leads to more problems than it solves. I want the right dogs in the right homes, and with the best will in the world, if all dog owners in the west went “rescue”, there’d be a huge deficit of dogs within a year or so. And a very large number of people engaged in making round dogs fit in square peg lives. I don’t want anyone arriving at the shelter having been guilted into adoption. Come, sure, knowing that we no doubt have a dog for you somewhere, but don’t come because Sharon on Facebook made you feel that other ways of acquiring a dog were not ethical.

Ultimately, I think it’s impossible to group people who adopt together as being united by one belief system. There seem to be many reasons why people acquire shelter pets, and to dismiss it as virtue signalling or a kind of cult is to misunderstand human actions completely. But I think this is why, particularly in Northern and Western Europe, we need to step away from studies about adoptability based on economic models, because that isn’t what’s driving a lot of people to adopt. There’s still so much to be learned about our motivations to adopt a dog rather than buy one, but then there’s still a lot to be learned about why we like hanging around with other species full stop.

But for shelters thinking all dogs need to be perfect or trying to run shelters like shoe shops, I think that this runs the risk of misunderstanding the best clients of all: those who choose an individual dog who is right for them, regardless of age, gender, size or fur, and those who adopt because giving something back or putting right wrongs are part of who they are as people.

Next week I’m back to the real dog stuff and I’ll be looking at constraint, consent and choice.