The Allure of Adopting a Dog “As Seen on TV”

You may have heard about the recent case of the wolfdog (a.k.a. wolf hybrid) who carried the family infant off into the woods, crushing its tiny skull and ribs in the process. The wolfdog was impounded and, fortunately, the baby is fine. Now, after spending over a month at the shelter, the wolfdog, Dakota, has been adopted into a new home (hopefully a childless one). Interestingly, during her stay, the shelter received hundreds of calls asking to adopt Dakota. Sure, she was by all accounts a sweet dog who simply had the strong prey drive associated with wolfdogs, and never belonged in a home with an infant to begin with. But subtract the national headlines from the incident and…well, good luck finding a home for a wolfdog who’s severely injured a child.

We’ve seen it over and over, this media effect. A stray dog falls into a well or a rushing river. We hold our collective breath as crews work tirelessly to rescue the poor pooch. Finally, there’s public rejoicing—along with countless offers to adopt the dog. Never mind the dog’s temperament, history, or suitability for a particular home; the story captures our hearts and we want that dog!

It’s not so different with dogs who appear on adoption segments of talk shows or newscasts. Those dogs, as you might imagine, have a very high adoption rate. Naturally, shelter personnel choose candidates they think will entice viewers. They also pick dogs who are having a difficult time being adopted at the shelter; it’s a great opportunity for the dogs. I know this because I spent much of the 90s as a volunteer, volunteer coordinator, and then Animal Care Technician (kennel staff) for the L.A. city shelters, and my duties included choosing dogs for outside adoption events.

Due to the nature of televised adoption segments, there aren’t dozens of dogs to choose from. It’s not, “Which would be the appropriate dog for our home?” but rather, “Aww, look at that dog pawing at the host’s leg, he’s adorable!” The playing field is narrowed and a multiple choice question is turned into to a simple yes or no answer. And let’s face it, sitting in your easy chair and being presented with a potential adoptee is way easier physically and emotionally than going down to the local shelter, rescue, or humane society. But is it really the best way to choose a new family member?

What exactly is it about dogs in the media that causes us to bypass reason and instantly commit? Is it our celebrity culture, which has trained us to be impressed by something or someone simply because they are televised? Perhaps. It’s also an emotional response. In the case of a dog who’s been injured or rescued from a bad situation, that maternal (or paternal) genes fire, prompting us to want to care for the unfortunate creature. And hey, it makes for a great story when friends ask how you got your dog: “I was sitting on the couch one night watching television, and suddenly there was this dog on the news. He’d fallen into the river and they rescued him!” Pretty dramatic stuff.

There’s nothing wrong with adopting a dog you see on television, assuming it is the right fit for your home. But for every dog the station receives a slew of calls about, there are hundreds of others awaiting euthanization in shelters across the country. Why choose the dog on live tv when you could choose one on death row? Although their plight isn’t televised, there are an incredible number of adorable, well-behaved, affectionate dogs who are put down every day because people aren’t even aware of their existence. Sure, I know how hard it is to walk into a shelter, and I’m aware that many people avoid it completely. That’s where outside adoption events come in, such as the ones held at pet stores on weekends. These events are wonderful for getting dogs out in the community where they can be seen by folks who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them.

The next time you have a knee-jerk reaction to that adorable homeless dog on television, think of it this way: that dog’s got plenty of offers. Why not go a step further and seek out one who doesn’t have a public advocate? Those shelter/rescue/humane society dogs may not be tv personalities, but they’re sure to be stars in your life.

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2 Responses to The Allure of Adopting a Dog “As Seen on TV”

  1. Thanks for a great article!

    I think the human behavior you describe reflects an underlying assumption that all dogs are more or less the same. Well, all except those bad breeds. Those are scary and bad. Nice dogs are all nice, and any good dog will be a perfect fit in any good home.

    I deeply hate when a good dog and a good home just don’t match and they both end up looking bad. =(

  2. ari_1965 says:

    When I worked at the local humane society, twice a week I would escort an adoptable dog or cat to the various news stations. 8 times of out 10, I’d get back to the shelter parking lot, take the dog out of the car, and a potential adopter would rush over to us–they’d seen the dog or cat on TV and hopped in the car to race to the shelter. This happened even with large black lab mixes that all visitors to the shelter had ignored for weeks.

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