How millennials turned owning a rescue dog into a social cause

When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston late last August, Nicole Simone was devastated by stories of dogs swimming in flooded streets.


When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston late last August, Nicole Simone was devastated by stories of dogs swimming in flooded streets and reports of mass euthanasia.

To help the overwhelmed shelters, Simone decided to arrange a van to bring back 10 dogs to re-home in Toronto. Her GoFundMe campaign for the trip went viral and Simone raised enough money to make four trips down to Houston. Since early September, over 120 of the hurricane dogs have found homes here through her rescue organization, Redemption Paws.

Purebred pups from breeders were once the norm, but take a stroll through any dog park downtown and youre bound to encounter just as many rescue dogs. Over the past five years, dozens of new rescue groups like Redemption Paws have cropped up, specializing in every niche imaginable: dogs saved from the South Korean meat trade black dogs, which are less likely to get adopted small breeds or ones from countries with stray dog epidemics like Mexico, Dominican Republic and Greece.

Driven by social media, young, passionate volunteers and trendy marketing, the new breed of rescue is also attracting a new generation of pet owners: millennials.

The perception of rescue dogs has changed tremendously thanks to millennials, says Simone, who owns two rescue dogs: Charlie, a 14-year-old Jack Russell Shih Tzu mix, and Irwin, an 11-year-old Blue Heeler originally from Kentucky.

Although Simone founded Redemption Paws in reaction to Hurricane Harvey, the 32-year-old has been working in dog rescue for over a decade. She first started volunteering at a kill shelter in Aurora, where she had the difficult task of finding homes for dogs destined for euthanasia.

Back then, when you tried to get someone to rescue a dog, theyd say, Why would I want someone elses problem? Thats a damaged dog, says Simone. In 2018, its like if you dont get a rescue dog, what are you even doing with your life? Its been totally flipped on its head.

Unlike the baby boomer generation, with its penchant for poodle mixes and Disney-movie-approved golden retrievers, Simone says millennials dont stigmatize pound dogs.

Im not a baby boomer, but Ive always had a soft spot for purebreds. Like many suburban families, I grew up with a happy-go-lucky golden retriever. For years, Ive praised the breeds gentle temperament, loving disposition and adorable perma-smile, proclaiming that one day when Im older, I will get my own golden retriever puppy.

And yet, an internal moral dilemma arises when I think of the global homeless dog population or see viral photos of a pup cowering in a shelter.

Is it unethical to get a breeder dog which, in some rescue social circles, is practically a derogatory term when so many other dogs are desperate for a second chance?

DO-GOODER DOG OWNER

Three years ago, 29-year-old Jen Brailsford drove 13 hours to New Hampshire to pick up her rescue, Pond, a retired sled dog. She found Pond on Petfinder, which she jokingly calls the Amazon of dogs because it amalgamates the listings of various shelters and rescue groups and then sorts them by breed, age and location.

When Brailsford adopted Pond, the husky was eight. She decided on a senior because older dogs tend to have a harder time finding homes and she didnt want to deal with potty training or a puppy chewing up her shoes. Shed also decided that taking in a rescue was the morally responsible thing to do.

It doesnt make a lot of sense to be breeding dogs when there are so many dogs that need homes, says Brailsford, who grew up with family dogs adopted from the humane society.

For many millennials like Brailsford, choosing to adopt from a rescue organization rather than buying from a breeder or an independent seller on Kijiji is an ethical stance. Theres been a growing awareness regarding the horrific conditions of puppy mills and the health consequences of inbreeding pedigree pooches.

In 2011, city council banned pet stores from selling dogs and cats unless the animals come from the Toronto Humane Society or a registered rescue group. For a generation passionate about causes like eating locally produced foods and supporting sustainable fashion, it makes sense millennials would approach pet ownership with a similar social-justice zeal.

Were at this point in our lives where we dont want or cant afford to have kids, but we might have these maternal or paternal instincts, says John Semley, a 32-year-old writer and former NOW online editor who recently wrote an article in Toronto Life about making the hard decision to give up his rescue dog. We might be struggling with how to do things in the world that feel ethical or moral, and adopting a dog seems like a good thing to do.

THE SOCIAL INFLUENCE

Dog rescue isnt a new concept, but the new wave of rescue organizations uses social media to attract potential adopters.

Save Our Scruff (SOS), one of the citys biggest dog rescues, relies heavily on Instagram and Facebook to share photos of available dogs, find potential adopters and fosters and solicit donations to cover expensive vetting.

Founded in 2014 by 29-year-old Laura Bye, SOS now has over 25,000 Instagram followers. Our rescue does so well specifically because of social media, says Bye in her Davisville apartment, where dog crates double as side tables and SOSs mascot, a big mutt named Micke, rests his head in her lap.

Before Instagram, rescues [relied] on word of mouth, but now were constantly promoting dogs online. Rescue is way more in your face now, says Lauras sister, 26-year-old Jenna Bye, who runs SOSs social media accounts.

Larysa Struk, who co-founded TEAM Dog Rescue in 2012, notes that while the old guard of rescue groups has its loyal, long-time set of adopters and fosters, these platforms have been a boon for newer organizations.

Social media has become an accessible way to learn whats happening in animal welfare. Its something that people started to follow and people started thinking about how they could help, Struk says. We learned that in order for us to get attention, we had to find a way to get through to people in a fun, informative way.

Like dating profiles, theres an art to writing a dogs rescue bio: too dull and it wont elicit an emotional response. Too impassioned and youll come off as preachy. Successful rescues like SOS, Redemption Paws (2,797 Instagram followers) and TEAM Dog (44,000 followers on Facebook) have perfected how to tell a dogs story, which is critical to adoption.

Even after a dog is in its new home, storytelling plays an intrinsic role. Some owners happily regale their dogs history like its a status symbol. They see it as prime fodder for conversations at house parties or at dog parks when strangers ask, Is your dog a rescue?

Semley says the renegade appeal adds to a rescue dogs charm. With a purebred dog, you can get certificates and trace their genealogy. Rescue dogs have a mysterious past, like the guy with no name who blows into town in a western movie.

Im guilty of this, too. When Im walking my friends rescue dog, Tulip, a sweet cocker-spaniel-border-collie mix, Ill tell anyone who asks about her early days living on the streets of Cancun, begging for enchiladas.

Youll talk to someone and theyll proudly say, My dogs from Chile or My dog survived being chained up or He was once a fighting dog, says Simone. The downside to that is the dogs who arent interesting or dont have sad stories get ignored.

Take Redemption Paws Carson, an affable white shepherd and golden retriever mix with a goofy grin and pointy ears. Rescued from Houston, hes completely healthy and well adjusted to life in Toronto, but there havent been any applications to adopt him.

We had a dog who had no eyes and everyone wanted him because he had no eyeballs, says Simone. You come across two types of rescuers: those who want to make an impact in the global homeless dog population and those who just want to show their friends and colleagues what a great person they are.

RESCUERS GONE WILD

Social media has also created an unexpected by-product: guerrilla rescuers, aka people who re-home dogs without the assistance of a reputable agency. Struk recalls seeing someone on Bunz Pet Zone an offshoot of the popular Facebook bartering group ask for advice about bringing back a puppy they found on a beach while on vacation, to which someone else suggested getting falsified vaccine documents to ease the process.

Everyone is trying to play the part of the rescuer now, says Struk. Its not just something someone else does. Its something you can do, too.

She worries these guerrilla rescuers could accidentally bring back unvaccinated dogs with diseases that could infect the local dog population or cause Canada to tighten rules on importing dogs from foreign countries.

Its important people understand that short-sighted, well-intentioned action could actually create more harm, says Struk. Thats the downside of rescue becoming so mainstream people dont always understand the consequences.

Indeed, galvanized by the rallying cry Adopt, Dont Shop, the dog rescue movement has entered the mainstream. Simone sells stylish pro-rescue merch like Mutts are Limited Edition T-shirts and Senior Dogs Snuggle Better mugs. On the most recent season of This Is Us, an emotional turning point revolved around adopting a dog. In nearby King City, there is a festival this August celebrating all things rescue dogs. DNA research companies, like local outfit DNA My Dog, are becoming popular with owners eager to know the origins of their pooch. Even Meghan Markle has a rescue dog, acquired from A Dogs Dream Rescue in Oakville.

There will always be pet owners who gravitate toward the breed du jour the adorable French bulldogs, the Cavalier King Charles spaniel made famous by Sex And The City or those who have a weakness for specific breeds.

Lucky for us in the latter group, it turns out you can have a golden retriever and a clear conscience. Organizations like SOS frequently take in purebred dogs, and Ontario boasts a plethora of rescues that focus on specific breeds, like pugs, dachshunds, chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Cavalier King Charles spaniels and, yes, even golden retrievers.

And while 2018 feels acutely like the year of the rescue dog, these pooches represent the future, too.

Once youve rescued a dog and youve seen the reward, youll want to rescue another one, says Struk. Rescues have taken hold as a culture, and theyre here to stay.

Don’t miss the rest of our dog issue:

Finding Dexter: how a stray dog was rescued in Toronto

Isle Of Dogs is a glorious, layered stop-motion classic

Canadians can help stop the South Korean dog meat industry

samanthae@nowtoronto.com | @SamEdwardsTO

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