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America’s Most Popular Dog Is the ‘Rescue’

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.

Written by

Dan Sayers started “in dogs” through a chance encounter with a Springer Spaniel in 1980. A student of dogs ever since, he’s shown Spaniels and Hounds in the conformation ring and breeds Irish Water Spaniels under the Quiet Storm prefix. A dog lover with a passion for the creative arts, Dan has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator for many years. His feature articles and columns have appeared in Dogs in Review, Dog World and the AKC Gazette, and his design work has appeared in dozens of publications in North America and abroad. An interest in all things “dog” brought Dan to Best In Show Daily, where he gets to work with the most dynamic group of fanciers every day. He lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his partner, Rudy Raya, Irish Water Spaniel, Kurre, and the memory of Oscar, a once-in-a-lifetime Sussex Spaniel.
  • Larkin Vonalt July 19, 2013 at 8:48 AM

    Brilliant, Dan and an essential message especially for those of us who care about purebred dogs. I’d just like to add that rescue stories are often significantly embellished and exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated from whole cloth. The shelter industry has recognized that the hard-luck story is the best selling tool they have in their arsenal. I’m not sure what it says about human beings that their egos have to be propped up with so much of a “savior complex.”

  • Beth Adams
    badams007 July 19, 2013 at 8:53 AM

    I agree that the term “rescue” is used to glamorize many dogs whose past may or may not be all that bad. A dog who loses his home due to divorce, humans moving or owner entering an institution is rarely what I consider “rescue” as they have never lived in the fetid squalor of the dogs I have helped rescue (I’m going to use a term that most reputable breeders can live with) who have been breeding stock from “sub-standard” breeders.

    A dog who has had home-performed c-sections using fishing line, those who have never set foot on grass (ever), those who’s coats are matted so tight as to be pulling their skin apart, and those who’s mental status is so altered they cannot enjoy a human touch even years later – Now *that’s* a rescue dog. And the people who take those dogs are deserving of some extra credit…. (and while one may think these descriptions are anecdotal, they do comprise a stiff % of the purebred dogs entering any of the rescues – compared to shelters)

    But, those dogs should not be taken by just anyone – the average dog owner just does not have the expertise to work with many of these dogs…. Just as many dog owners buy dogs at pet stores and have no idea about the breed’s general temperament or standards.

    There’s a dog out there for everyone who should have one. Some people appreciate the intense research, care, planning and money involved in having a stunning purebred dog of a certain breed, or just having the piece of mind that they received a high quality “product”…

  • Collin July 20, 2013 at 9:02 AM

    Let’s not disparage the rescue dog while trying to defend our purebreds. There’s room in the world for all dogs, mixed or pure-bred. I agree that those “marketing” the idea of rescuing instead of purchasing a dog have learned to very effectively pull at the heartstrings of people looking for pets. To me that just means that those of us with purebred dogs need to learn to more heartily (and perhaps convincingly) sing the praises of our own unique and valuable breeds… that is, if we want them to be as in demand as rescue dogs.
    Let’s not complain about rescues. Instead let’s talk about why purebred dogs have value!

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