Listen carefully. Eventually you will hear someone mention it.

You might be standing in line at the supermarket checkout, waiting for a table at your favorite restaurant or listening to the local radio station. It can happen anywhere. Sooner or later you are likely to overhear someone within earshot talking about his or her new dog. “She’s a ‘rescue,’” the person will say, followed by an emotional retelling of the lucky dog’s hard luck story.

Conversations are taking place in cities and towns all across America with self- and media-proclaimed “pet parents” introducing family, friends – and even total strangers – to their new “kids.” The storytellers often speak of their new bundles of joy with a curious mix of pity and pride, and the message in their tale is usually pretty clear: “I just saved a desperate creature from a life of unspeakable misery and certain death.”

The “rescue” dog has become the only companion of choice for many American dog lovers today. Photo © Sarah2/Dreamstime.

Make no mistake about it. America’s most popular canine companion is not the Labrador Retriever. Oh sure, the American Kennel Club may register more Labs (those most obedient ambassadors of doggie devotion), than any other purebred, but the companion of choice among a growing number of dog lovers in the U.S. may, or may not, have a pedigree.

Heck, the most popular dogs today don’t even need birthdays. The only document that matters when it comes to these dogs is, well, the receipt from their “adoption.”

“We celebrate her birthday on May 12,” you might overhear. “That’s the day we rescued her!”

Rescue dogs, also known as “shelter” dogs, have become something of a status symbol of sorts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Although it wasn’t long ago that celebrities enjoyed being photographed with pampered purebreds peering from their designer handbags, the 2005 storm that devastated the Gulf Coast presented this nation of dog lovers with contrasting images to consider. Television viewers responded to images of dogs standing on the rooftops of flooded houses, and soon our collective attention was turned from spoiled starlets to abandoned animals. The market for homeless and helpless dogs seemed to grow almost overnight.

Animal welfare organizations such as the ASPCA have been “rehoming” dogs, cats and other domestic animals for well over a century, of course. Since 1866, Americans looking for a companion have frequently found what they were looking for in the confines of this and other nonprofit organizations. Bringing a dog home from a shelter is nothing new.

However, whereas preventing cruelty may once have been the focus of welfare organizations, their promotional efforts today seem to utilize mistreatment (whether real or imagined) as the industry’s most essential marketing tool.

Post-Katrina America has witnessed a whole new market for dogs in need. Although homeless dogs may once have found homes with people who simply wanted a good pet – perhaps at a discounted price – shelter dogs have now become the only choice for many people looking for a companion of their own. The “rescue” dog, it seems, has never been in greater demand than it is today.

In a 2006 National Geographic magazine article titled, “Where Dogs Have Their Day,” several human and canine residents of San Francisco’s Marina District are introduced. In one photo, a group of people and their dogs sit at an outdoor café. The caption reads, in part: “Our dogs are our babies, we never leave them home…”

The photo may very well represent today’s typical dog person: single, childless, media-savvy and politically minded. Although it is not clear if the dogs pictured are the products of rescue organizations or responsible breeders (one appears to be a purebred), it is clear that these dogs are treated as something other than pets. Their appearance on the laps of the adults sitting around a table suggests they are, indeed, quasi-children.

“Those dogs are babied,” according to a retiree quoted in the article.

Many people today, it seems, no longer view dogs as animals. Many don’t even think of them as pets anymore. Some people have come to think of sheltered dogs as children in need and victims of abuse. Hunting dog, hound, and herder? What’s that? The only good dog, some might say, is the “rescue” dog.

The supermarket proselytizing seems to be working. More and more people, particularly those of the Marina District demographic, want to save a dog, rather than adopt one or, heaven forbid, purchase one. The most popular dogs today are those “rescued” by individuals who seem only too happy to share their stories of how they delivered salvation.

All the rescue dog needs is a hard luck story and the ability to transform an ordinary person into someone special. Pedigrees are never required during a “rescue,” and breed standards play no part in the selection process.

To illustrate this burgeoning trend, I propose the following standard for the “breed” that may very well threaten to erode the tradition of purebred dogs and the dog sport that we so love.


General Appearance
A grateful demeanor and an unreserved adoration towards its rescuer characterize the Rescue dog. Gratitude is the dog’s most marked mental characteristic. Physical features are of little or no consequence.

Size, Proportion, Substance
All sizes are acceptable. Small dogs and those with a high “cuteness coefficient” are preferred.

Size and shape of the head and muzzle will vary, however a forlorn expression is paramount. Two eyes are preferred, however one functional eye is acceptable. Blindness is optional. Ears may be of every conceivable shape and size, and the pair need not match. Ears may be cropped, however the procedure that removes all or part of the ear leather must have been performed prior to the dog entering “rescue.” Bite may be scissors, level, undershot, overshot or wry. Full dentition is optional.

Neck, Topline, Body
The neck should allow the head to be carried in a submissive manner denoting fear of strangers. Likewise, the topline is frequently arched and the croup is dropped. Tail may be natural or docked and, like the ears, the procedure that removes all or part of the tail must have been performed prior to the dog entering “rescue.” The tail is often tucked between the legs when in public, however it generally wags happily when in the company of the rescuer.

Two forelegs are preferred, however one leg is acceptable. The elbow conformation is immaterial. Pasterns may or may not be strong, and feet may be of any shape and size. Toeing in or out is acceptable as are splayed toes. Dewclaws are preferred, and nails may be of any length.

Two hind legs are preferred although, like the forelegs, one is acceptable. Strength of rear is not important, and stifle and hock joints may or may not be strong. Cow hocks and sickle hocks are not to be faulted. Rear dewclaws are acceptable, and nails may be of any length.

Unlike most other dogs, the Rescue dog may present an extraordinary array of coat types. Length, texture and pattern may combine in an endless array of possibilities. Coat condition is not to be considered in the selection process, although a clean coat is preferred. Missing hair from any body part is not to be penalized.

Color is immaterial, although personal preferences are permitted.

The Rescue dog moves with a characteristic joyfulness when in the presence of its rescuer. Any and all faults of locomotion are acceptable, including the hopping action characteristic of the three-legged varieties.

The temperament of the Rescue dog varies greatly, from happy and outgoing to fearful and suspicious. All temperaments are acceptable, and past incidents of biting are to be excused at the discretion of the rescuer. Personal preference in the selection process is of paramount importance. Above all else, gratitude defines the essence of the Rescue dog as defined by the rescuer.

Disqualifying Faults
Any deviation from the above-described dog need not be considered. The only disqualifying fault for the Rescue dog is fertility. ALL RESCUE DOGS MUST BE SURGICALLY STERILIZED.

Like so many people in the dog sport, all of us at Best In Show Daily support the work of shelters and rescue organizations in finding homes for unwanted dogs of every sort – purebred and mixed breed alike. Nonetheless, we disagree with the point of view that the rescued dog is the only dog worthy of a home.