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If You Really Want A Dog, You Can Get A Damn Dog

Photo: Tom Ley|

This is Ladie, a good dog from a municipal shelter.

Yesterday, New York magazine published a story about the difficulties some New York City residents have had while trying to adopt a dog over the course of the last year. It's a fun story, in the same way that most stories about intense subcultures and status-obsessed New Yorkers are fun. But it's also kind of a bummer.

If you take New York's word for it, it was next to impossible to successfully adopt a dog in New York this past year. This conclusion is supported by the testimonies of would-be adopters who had their efforts rebuffed by various rescue organizations, which are portrayed in the story as hyper-intense groups that are regularly holding potential adopters to impossibly high standards and denying them access to dogs by making the adoption process extremely competitive, unnecessarily lengthy, and fully opaque. The story's subhead reads, "How adopting a dog in the city became more competitive than getting into college." It features stories from failed adopters who sent 60 fruitless adoption applications, were put through offensively personal questioning by rescue organization staffers, and were denied dogs for reasons like not being able to commit to taking time off work following an adoption. From the story:

“The more popular the rescue is on the internet, the more clout they have,” says Molly, a writer in New York. “If you have a really good social-media presence, you can throw your weight around.” (The clout goes both ways: Posting about your rescue dog on Instagram is an indirect way of broadcasting that someone out there deemed you morally worthy enough to be chosen.) She inquired about eight dogs in six weeks from about five different rescues, only to be continually rejected. She finally got an interview with a rescue agency whose cute dogs she had seen on social media. They asked to tour her apartment over Zoom. Fine. They asked for her references. Great. But then they asked if she would pay for an expensive trainer. She asked if she could wait—not only was it during the height of COVID, but the cost of the sessions with the trainer could be close to $1,000. The person she was dealing with said over email that dogs were investments and suggested she look elsewhere. “I was like, This is so Brooklyn,” she says.

New York

This is all fun to gawk at, but the story also made me very sad. That's because it presented an extremely narrow and discouraging view of the current state of pet adoption. I couldn't stop imagining some well-meaning person who was thinking about adopting a dog reading this story and concluding that there would be no point in even trying. It would be hard to blame them for coming to that conclusion! But what New York's story failed to mention is that there is, at all times, a basically endless supply of readily adoptable dogs in cities all across America. It's just that these dogs are not being housed by social media–savvy rescue organizations with lots of Instagram followers. They are living and dying in city-run shelters.

To use New York City as an example, there are currently about 100 dogs available for adoption across the city's three municipal shelters. These dogs can be had by anyone who is willing to pay a small adoption and spay/neutering fee, and answer a few basic questions from one of the shelter's adoption coordinators. If trying to adopt a dog from a rescue organization is like trying to get into college, then getting one from the New York City Animal Care Center is like joining the chess club—they're just happy someone's even interested.

If I had to guess why the ACC was never mentioned in New York's story, I'd venture it's because none of the foiled adopters who spoke to the magazine ever considered adopting from a municipal shelter as an option. There's a misconception that the dogs in the city shelters, who are at risk of being euthanized if they aren't adopted, are for various reasons not worth the trouble. It's easy to think of these shelters as places where only dogs who are sickly, vicious, or otherwise not fit for polite society end up.

I can tell you from personal experience that this is not true. The ACC in New York is not full of irredeemable dogs who have bitten people or can't be trained, but with good, well-behaved dogs who just need homes. Some of them are brought to the shelter as strays, but many of them come from previously loving homes. Dogs get surrendered to the ACC not because they are bad, but because their owners become too sick to care for them, or were kicked out of their homes, or lost the financial stability needed to properly care for an animal. Over the last 1.5 years my wife and I have fostered six dogs, five from the NYC ACC and one that was originally surrendered to a municipal shelter in Florida, and all six of them were loving, smart, house-trained dogs who would have been a fit in just about any home. It took us months to find willing adopters for some of them.

I'll let you in on a secret: A lot of the dogs advertised by popular rescue organizations were previously surrendered to a municipal shelter. Rescues are constantly pulling dogs from shelters like ACC, often because they need a medical procedure or special training that the shelter isn't able to provide, and then later adopting those dogs out themselves. This means that a dog that might have 75 applicants fighting over it, all of which saw the same cute pic on Instagram, could have previously been had with absolutely no fuss by someone who was willing to adopt from the municipal shelter. This also explains why the rescue organizations tend to be so discerning about who they approve for adoptions; those dogs often represent sizable investments of both time and money.

I will resist to urge to end this admittedly tedious blog post by making some righteous proclamation about what someone who wants to adopt a dog should and should not do. Instead, I will make a much more basic appeal to everyone's universal desire to not be taken for a sucker. If you really want a dog, but various rescue organizations are putting you through the wringer, just go get one from your local municipal shelter. And if you can't find a dog to your liking there, just take a jaunt to a different shelter in a nearby city and see what they have. Make a fun trip out of it! You'll save a lot of money, and there's a good chance you'll end up with a nicer, healthier dog, too.

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