Guest post written by Stephanie Filer, Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, Animal Rescue League of Iowa.
A young newlywed recently asked us for help. She wanted to surprise her husband with a new dog for his birthday. Excited to assist, we created a gift that included a dog application with the words “APPROVED” on it and some dog toys. After she surprised him with the gift, they would come in to the shelter together to choose their first dog and new family member.
A few weeks later I ran into her with her husband. They were at the shelter meeting a dog that they had both fallen in love with online: Shaggy.
Sadly for them, they weren’t the only ones who fell in love with Shaggy! They were 4th in line to adopt him. The woman told me she cried when she found out that they might be too late to adopt Shaggy.
He was the perfect size, the perfect look, the perfect personality…but because three other families thought the same thing too, they might not be the ones to take Shaggy home.
She told me they had arrived at the shelter 30 minutes before we opened to make sure they’d be first in line to adopt Shaggy, not realizing that three other families had already applied.
What kind of dog inspires waiting in line? Or crying at the thought of missing out on adopting him?
What kind of dog do you imagine Shaggy might be?
Here are some hints:
He’s not a puppy.
He’s not a small dog.
He’s not a designer mutt.
He’s not famous or from a high profile rescue case and has never been on the news.
Shaggy is an adult “pit bull” dog.
Shaggy is a dog that has been labeled a “pit bull” in an area where some of the communities we serve still have Breed Specific Legislation which means many of our adopters, including this couple, unfortunately need to navigate extra barriers to legally bring dogs like Shaggy home.
And yet, he flew out our doors.
The narrative we so often hear in our industry is that “no one wants to adopt pit bulls,” but that’s no longer our experience at ARL.
Shaggy’s story illustrates just how popular “pit bull” dogs actually are (5th most popular in Iowa and in the top 10 in 48 states). Most importantly, it reminds us how dogs who are labeled “pit bulls” are just DOGS.
People don’t adopt labels. They adopt the dogs that are the right fit for them.
Shaggy was the perfect size, the perfect look, the perfect personality. For multiple families, he was the perfect dog, just the right fit for their lifestyle.
That’s what matters most to this new family, to the other 3 families who applied to adopt him, and to the thousands of families who adopt dogs from us each year.
Everyone has their own idea of what “perfect” is in terms of size, look, and personality – and every dog is different – that’s what makes dogs so cool! That’s also what makes it so fun to help families find their perfect dog.
But if we want to help families and make great matches, then we also need to check our assumptions about what kind of dogs we perceive that the public does or does not want to adopt.
In 2010 we had 7 “pit bull” adoptions all year.
In 2016 we have multiple applications and people in tears when they miss out on a adopting dogs that are labeled “pit bulls.”
“Pit bull” dogs are flying out our front doors.
The dogs didn’t change.
We changed as an organization in terms of how we talk about dogs: instead of talking about their breed label or where they came from, we talk about who they are as an individual dog and what kind of family lifestyle they would prefer.
Shaggy is not an exception. This happens all the time.
A few days ago I took a dog on TV for our weekly feature. Twilight is a year old, walked like a dream on a leash, was shy at first but warmed up quickly, and was very curious about the action in the studio.
Because she needed a family who could give her patience and a calm environment to let her settle into her new life, we had restricted her adoption to families with either teenage kids or no kids. This makes her a little tougher to place since we were eliminating many families right off the bat, but it was the home we identified that Twilight would need to thrive.
She laid nicely next to me as I talked with the host about her ideal family and the other upcoming events we had going on at the shelter. By the time we got back to the shelter (after stopping at a drive thru for a cheeseburger for her), she already had two pending adoption applications.
As you have probably guessed, Twilight was labeled as a “pit bull.” And despite her limited adoption audience (no small kids), Twilight was popular! She had applications on her when other dogs who were younger, smaller, and without children restrictions, didn’t.
Over and over, we experience this at ARL.
The families who adopt are as diverse as the dogs in our shelter. The perfect dog for me (big, a little ornery, good with cats) and my child-free home is different from the next person, and the person after that.
And guess who decided that Twilight was the perfect fit for their family? The newlyweds!
After missing out on Shaggy, they were introduced to Twilight and fell in love. They were, once again, one of many families that were in line to adopt an adult “pit bull” dog.
When we asked them what they thought about that, they replied, “We just want a nice dog who fits our lifestyle.”
Simply put, that’s what it’s all about.
When we focus on who the dog is, what they need, and what the family wants, we can talk about things that matter: helping families find the perfect dog for them and setting them up for a lifetime of happiness together.
Stephanie Filer is the Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, overseeing the fundraising and marketing team for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa – the state’s largest animal shelter. In addition to her love for animals, she shares a passion for helping people through volunteering for the local homeless youth shelter and serving as a mentor to kids in need.