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03 September 2010


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I have stopped reading some e-mail lists for pets in need because of the drama factor. I simply can not weed through dozens of daily messages with subject lines like:


What I *could* do (if there was such a list) is scroll down a list of subject lines like this:

Need foster, Female Pitbull mix, Columbia, SC

Maybe someday I will find such a list.

Gina Spadafori

"That’s because relentless negative messages make the vast majority of people shut down and avoid the negativity instead of taking a desired action. Or rather, such messages are often very effective for getting people to donate money, but are much less so in getting them to walk into a shelter and adopt a pet to live with their kids."

Interesting. So ... if those Sarah McLaughlin ads with her singing sad over pictures of caged and damaged pets raises money but doesn't place pets and the big groups have access to the same research you do ... sort of follows that the ads aren't meant to increase adoptions at all, but rather raise money.

Now, to be sure, it costs money to run programs that DO help animals, but ..

I loathe manipulative crap like that, not only the Sarah McLaughlin ad but the counterparts in the Willy Nelson ad, and the "Save the Children" ad with that former "Roseanne" actress practically weeping on camera.

None of them offer solutions to real problems beyond "send us money and we'll send you a picture of a needy pet/child." Meanwhile, they've marked you as a someone they can keep asking for money, and they'll sell your name so others can to.

Mary Murray

Am late for work, but wanted to comment on this post. While we havee been involved in one of the most horrific mill busts in Midwest history, I have tried to show the two girls I have gotten from the silo's in a bright light. While they have so many followers on our Facebook page, it gives me tremendous joy to post a short clip of them romping in the morning or evening, and they seen a post from someone saying "I was feeling down today, and then poof...there are my girls. This brightened my day and made me happy."

there is no need to feel sorry for the girls anymore. They have a new beginning and leaving the past behind is what rescue is about.


It is curious to me that "pet available for adoption" ads do not address criteria folks such as write/post here would promote as critical to consider when adding a pet to the family.

ie - temperament, size, weight, evergy level, etc.

David S. Greene

I couldn't agree with Shirley more. I'm thoroughly sick of the hysterical "save this dog before she's executed" posts I see on facebook. Christie has given us sane, reasonable, logical ideas.


Just shared this with the director of my local humane society. Thanks for writing it - hopefully people will take it to heart and more critters will find forever homes.

Erich Riesenberg

I am curious where people post pet adoption notices.

The two primary places I see ads are Craigs List and Facebook. Petfinder.com is primarily shelters but does have a slightly used classified ad section.

I added adoption notices to my Lost and Found web site. Homing a pet is a daunting task.


Amy Lorentz

I also resent the manipulation of these pleas, but I suspect that the target is not really adopters. Rescuers, as a group, are more susceptible to emotional manipulation - if they weren't they wouldn't spend so much of their time, energy and money pushing at the tide. I speak as someone who currently has 4 extra dogs on my property, although I am still able to hit 'delete' when I read "... if no one helps me by tomorrow I will be forced to euthanize him." If that's how low you've sunk, I can't help you.

Gina Spadafori

Not always true. Miz of Greater California German Shepherd Rescue writes ads with great pictures, great personality profile and an expert's assessment of the dog's suitability for any particular home:


Bu the way, if you're near Modesto tomorrow ... :)


I agree that the pity-mongering has to go. It has the effect of crying wolf, and deadening feelings, so one "HELP HELP THIS PUPPY WILL BE KILLED IF YOU DON'T SAVE HIM" ad starts looking like every other...this way lies apathy.

The local rescues run ads in the paper and they are always very honest about whether a dog gets along with kids or cats, needs extra training, has special needs etc. I think this is very important, as many people are willing to adopt a special-needs pet but tend to get upset if they bring the dog home being assured that "he loves everyone" and - surprise! - he doesn't like the cat or the kid. And it's bad publicity to become known as The Shelter Who Lies In Order To Place its Animals.

Honesty and a light touch seem to be what works best. Also people seem to respond to happy "before and after" stories. As in, "Jake was found wandering the streets. He blossomed with some vet care and basic training. Then he found a forever home with David and Jennifer of Somewheresville, and this pit-Lab mix now lives a happy life romping with their twin daughters and two cats." (cue pics of happy Jake)

Nancy Freedman-Smith

I had an interesting conversation with a local rescue recently. They told me that the nice pups languish in rescue, and the ones who were (here comes a close quote) "thrown our of a pick up truck on fire with 3 broken ribs" have people beating down the door. I am not disagreeing with your Christie, but there are a large amount of people who go for that high drama pet. I have written a fair amount of dog bios over the years, and what people appreciate is the truth. If the dog is dog aggro and can't live with other dogs, putting something like "wants to be your only love bug" is just wrong. I always tell it like it is.

H. Houlahan

#1, Great descriptions on the GCGSR website.

#2, I like the numerical rating system, especially for a higher-volume rescue

#3, Curse you for linking to this and making me covet. I will be adopting Bart, Dexter, Stella Dee, and Skylar. That is all.

H. Houlahan

If the dog is dog aggro and can’t live with other dogs, putting something like “wants to be your only love bug” is just wrong. I always tell it like it is.

It is the shelter/rescue equivalent of real-estate code: cozy, handyman's special, charming, motivated seller.

Though maybe what we need to do in rescue is ironically adopt those exact euphemisms.

I've got a handyman's special out in the kennel right now ... trying to flip her.

Erich Riesenberg

The problem I have with facebook postings is it is impossible to know when they were placed, if they are still active, and often where the animal is located.

People need to map out an accurate strategy to coordinate activities. I would be happy to foster several dogs, but each group wants a separate application, and I could care less about what type of dog. I just like most of them.


Christie, in case no one has told you before, YOU ROCK! Great post. Perfect message. If dog texts were written by the guys and gals who wrote for the old J. Peterman catalogue, what would it read like? Answer: BETTER.

For those who do not know J. Peterman (a real company made famous by Seinfeld), see >> http://www.jpeterman.com/


Christie Keith

I do think that telling a compelling story of tragedy motivates many adopters -- dogs like Oreo in recent history, or Sido decades ago, always get hundreds or thousands of potential adopters beating down the door.

But that's not a sustainable adoption promotion program. It's a one-off. It's like you can get people to give to the Red Cross during Hurricane Katrina, but it doesn't mean they'll give every single time there's a small, local disaster.

And I also agree that many of those "Will die by heart-stick at dawn if you don't get her now" messages are aimed at rescuers rather than Jane Q. Public, and may well work with that audience. The problem is, they get shared very widely and serve only to reinforce Jane's worries that shelters are hellholes and shelter pets are neurotic messes with PTSD.

Last, I absolutely believe in being honest about a pet's issues, medical or behavioral. I'm just saying: Lead with the stuff that makes this animal him or herself. It's fine to then move into the "issues." But do you have any idea how many Petfinder listings BEGIN with: Hates men, dogs, kids. Has severe allergies. Was found wandering the highway flea-infested and lame. Now recovering from the trauma and waiting for his forever home.

We can't get all our shelter pets out into homes until we accept that most people want the getting of a new pet to be a positive and happy experience. I'm not saying to lie or sugar coat or euphemize anything. I'm saying, use what we know about how people fall in love and make decisions in how we present -- MARKET -- our adoptable pets.

Ingrid King

I've been waiting for this post since you hinted at it in one of your Facebook updates or comments, can't recall which. I always wonder whether these dire pleas to save a pet on social media sites really work to save animals' lives. This is great information, and it makes so much sense. I've actually felt guilty for not looking at these negative posts because I'm just too much of a softie and they really upset me, which I guess puts me in the majority of people who just shut down instead of taking action. Yes, I suppose guilt can be a motivator, but at best, it would make me throw some money at the problem.

I love the approach of describing these pets as the unique individuals they are. And I hope Lita the Rock Chick Pup finds a special home soon.

Cindy Steinle

Receiving the general inquiries emails for my pibble rescue, you can only imagine how many of these I get a day. Bios are hard to write properly but to do it right they move the dog! I have found both writing in the "dogs voice" and the fosters voice can be helpful. With our dogs, it is not uncommon that we have dog aggro dogs. Does not play well with others is always fairly forthcoming.

David S. Greene

The J Peterman catalog is such a classic.


Oh, geez! I just had to sneak a peek before riding off for an adventure with a good friend of mine (initials G.S.), and saw this post about our German Shepherd rescue. Thank you, thank you, Gina! I so feel the same way about the blatantly manipulative pity party stuff, that I try very hard to keep it off our website.

Ah, Heather - what time should I expect you? :)

You guys have just made my day a whole bunch better, and it was pretty good already.


May every single one of our well-intentioned Facebook friends read your post, Christie.

Terry Albert

I've found picking great names helps dogs get adopted, hence some of my fosters were named Zorro, Mudpie, Bo Wiggly, Charlie Whiskers (Labs) and Frosty Five Collies (He needed significant grooming!). Four chocolate labs: Dutch, Fudge and Java were good, but we changed Chaos to Chip.


I got schooled by readers recently when I blogged about an abandoned mama dog with a litter of pups in my neighborhood. I had said something like "The mama isn't much to look at and the pups look like her - generic blah dog types and I imagine their only hope is to get adopted while they're little and cute. Hopefully by the time that wears off, the new owners will be attached."

heh, thankfully the suggestions I received for how to word my descriptions were very kind.

(All pups now safe at no kill shelter btw so they are not subject to my lack of tact.)


I totally agree with your post. It is important that dogs in shelters are highlighted in a positive way. Showing off their personality, their name, and the things they like, in my opinion, would certainly bring more attention to those pets. People love stories and great stories about pets really warms people's hearts. You've given some great tips...thanks again for the post!


"I also resent the manipulation of these pleas, but I suspect that the target is not really adopters. Rescuers, as a group, are more susceptible to emotional manipulation - if they weren’t they wouldn’t spend so much of their time, energy and money pushing at the tide."

Thank you Amy and Christie, this discussion helps to connect some dots for me. It may explain why many who are involved in rescue cling to "support this law or the dogs and cats will die!!!!" emotional pleas for supporting mandatory spay-neuter laws, and are impervious to facts that say otherwise.

Great post Christie.


That 2nd photo of you and Lita snuggling is a classic.


Thank you, Gina.

Good example of what I was thinking. Better than what I could come up with.



I think that rescuers are essentially trapped in an abusive relationship with the destructive animal 'sheltering' system we have right now. Recent events have got me thinking about a sort of widespread Stockholm Syndrome in animal rescue:


It actually explains so many things that don't otherwise make sense that it is almost eerie.


I've had great success with ads that are both honest but open with what is special and unique about the rescue animal.

"Bereaved Kitty: Face-Nuzzler, Body-Slammer" -- This was an 8-year-old black cat pulled from the NYCACC. I found a lovely adopter for her within 10 days with that ad.

"Bereaved" did pull at heart strings, but it also indicated something wonderful about this kitty. That she had been a loyal companion right up until her last owner passed away...in other words, an ideal and proven pet. And just in case you weren't sold on her, she was also a face nuzzler and body slammer, individual quirky habits that a prospective adopter would love to have. A kitty who will nuzzle your face and flop her bod into you and let you rub her belly! What more could you ask for!

Adult black cats are notoriously hard to move, but by emphasizing was was unique and wonderful about this middle-aged gal, her furever Mama showed up right away.


I have been looking to adopt and get turned off by ads that list a rare breed or rare breed mix when the animal is a known stray and clearly no such thing. The ad should represent the animal honestly and should not use breed name dropping as a hook.


"Body Slammer"

That right there would have sold me. Or "likes to head butt."

I have thought about and idea and for over three years pitched this idea to investor groups without much success thus far (... still working on it and will do so as long as needed) an idea start a rescue/ shelter program where not only is the animal's breed, age, personality description, special needs, and of course photo and name included in their Internet marketing - but also a 1 to 2 minute video of the dog or cat.

I've dreamed of this as a stand alone website portal or, and this is an easier way: just a guideline to help shelters implement the program.

Petfinder started adding video upload options for the shelter/ rescues recently and I note more and more sites have this feature. These inroads are fabulous and I would like to see more and more videos of adoptable animals out there. Andrea- this would work so well for the BBD or black cats. Photos just do not market black colored animals very well. A video would greatly help give the prospective owner a chance to 'bond' with the animal. This in turn can be the one thign that 'tips the scales' and makes that viewer go into the shelter to meet the pet.

Given the ease of video and inexpensive options I believe all animal internet posts should include some video.

People connect with video and are more likely to watch than read.

A short video can not replace a shelter manager's or foster home pet care giver's insight on the animal. Obviously they spend more time with the animal and a short video may not be able to showcase everything needed about a pet. The written word is needed and easier to streamline into primary search results.

A big problem of course, in this video of every pet idea is that rescues, large private shelters or county animal services they have limited resources such as time available for staff, cost of equipment, and understanding of taking/uploading video (it is so easy to take and edit video nowadays but many people may not realize it.)

This is one area I see as a 'window of opportunity' for volunteers. Often volunteers want to help but many end up really just wanting to pet the animals (sorry to seem harsh but after 15 years working with volunteers it is what it is.) "Petting the animals, a.k.a. socializing" is needed but doesn't cut it. 20% of the volunteers end up doing the real (dirty, consistent, thankless, behind the scenes) work needed, as we all know. This video 'job' could be the answer for the 80% of volunteers. P.S. Don't get me wrong, I love that volunteers want to help and I know their hearts are good.

Maybe companies such as Flip camcorders would like to donate video camera to this program/cause?!

H. Houlahan

I didn't even connect -- my last blog post trolling for the *right* adopter for a puppy netted an ideal home in a couple of HOURS. (She's flying out tomorrow to pick up her new pup!)

Granted, I was describing a pup with none of what we usually call "issues." But I was also stating, in almost as many words, "Chances are, Dear Reader, that you do not deserve this puppy, so full of potential is she. Are you willing to risk being found unworthy?" Her foster human had already turned down a couple of applicants who were looking for a "play with the kids in the yard" pet. For which I thank her, because I hate doing the behavior counseling six months later on those.

But the interesting thing is, the several serious inquiries we got on the day we "marketed" young Belle as Premium Limited Edition Signed and Numbered Rescue Pup were all from people who were probably already aware that NESR had some nice puppies in foster. They just hadn't been thinking in terms of "Next working partner. Me. Right now."

So it's about hitting the right note with the right person, converting a general knowledge that "there are animals that need homes" to a specific "this animal would be a good fit for my home, right now."

This post and ensuing discussion is giving me much to cogitate on.

H. Houlahan

I also resent the manipulation of these pleas, but I suspect that the target is not really adopters. Rescuers, as a group, are more susceptible to emotional manipulation - if they weren’t they wouldn’t spend so much of their time, energy and money pushing at the tide.”

Thank you Amy and Christie, this discussion helps to connect some dots for me. It may explain why many who are involved in rescue cling to “support this law or the dogs and cats will die!!!!” emotional pleas for supporting mandatory spay-neuter laws, and are impervious to facts that say otherwise.

Great post Christie.

Comment by LauraS


That loud bonging sound you hear is the bells in my head finally going off.

Shit. Yes. Got it.

Now what to do with it?


Heather, if the emotional manipulation was limited to the rescue/shelter folks who lobby for bad dog legislation, it would not be a big problem.

The scary thing is the extent to which legislators utilize identical "dead dogs piled up in barrels" and "dogs being led to the death chamber" manipulation with their colleagues as well. During debate in the California state Assembly and state Senate, elected officials have resorted to that manipulation. Remarkably, and sadly, it actually works with a number of them.

I'm an engineer. On a number of occasions I have traveled to the California state Capitol with my K9 SAR colleague Angie Niles, who is a nuclear physicist. Between the two of us, Angie and I have done much of the analysis of California shelter stats that show that MSN backfires.

During one such visit, a legislator's staff member remarked that supporters of AB 1634 seem to love animals more than we opponents do. Angie and I were speechless.

My SAR dog goes with me almost everywhere, including on our vacations. He sleeps on my bed. I love him dearly. We do lots of things together, not the least of which is a fabulous game of hide-and-go-seek in the woods. He is my working partner. He has a great life.

Angie's SAR dog has all that, and more. In addition to SAR, he gets regular training in hunt test and field trial work, which he loves. He's a titled Master Hunter. He gets to fly in the small plane that Angie & Alex own. He goes with them to their mountain cabin, and on backcountry hikes. I can't imagine a better life for a field trial bred Labrador Retriever.

But I do not think that any of those things are relevant to whether or not the state of California should pass a law pertaining to dogs.

H. Houlahan

Okay, something I read on the "Free-Range Children" blog recently comes to mind.

A parent was at the PTA as school transport issues were being discussed. I believe it was one of those "We have to forbid the children from walking to school, our little angels will all be snatched by molesters" things.*

This parent presented statistical evidence that children were FAR safer walking to school than riding in cars or buses the same distance.

She (I think it was a she) was shouted down by angry, horrified Mommies and Daddies, all claiming that "times have changed." (Except, they haven't -- stranger abductions are as vanishingly rare now as they have ever been, probably more so.) One frothing Mommy proclaimed, to loud applause, "Statistics mean nothing when it comes to MY children's safety!"

*As an aside, a friend recently moved to the safe, boring suburb where I lived in the 4th and 5th grades. His daughter is in middle school. He lives about half the distance from the schools as I did in the 1970's. I walked to school every day. His daughter is forbidden to do so -- school policy, all children must be dropped off by car by a parent. WTF?

H. Houlahan

The other thing that comes to mind is the injunction to give one's alms in private.

Screaming in the lobby of a legislator's office about how much more you LOVE someone than those other guys do suggests, I don't know -- showboating?

Methinks she dost protest too much.

Jennifer Fearing

Christie -

Lita says THANK YOU for highlighting her bad-ass-rocker-chick adorableness!

I've been doing rescue for ten years and have always tried to use creative, positive marketing. You're right - it works!

I think SO much inspiration comes from the pups themselves and then their names drive the campaign... I named my first batch, four-week olds left sans mom at the Sacramento city shelter, after Star Wars characters (Leia, Chewie, Luke, etc.) and ended up keeping Yoda! Their poster led with "May this force be with you?"

There was Simon and Simon and Peter, Paul & Mary. And the little pup left on my doorstep the night of the Emmys, who became, uh, Emmy. Her poster led with "Will the Emmy go to... you?"

Seems to come down to this: if you love a dog and can express creatively why you do, someone is going to want in on that scene.

Little Lita's brother Charlie has found a great new home and soon they'll go their separate ways. If you know anyone looking for their world to be ROCKED, you know how to reach me.

Gina Spadafori

I drove to and back from Fresno today, picking up Miz of Greater California German Shepherd Rescue at the half-way point for some company on the ride.

We had both commented on this thread before we had to leave it, and we talked on the long drive about how to get pets into new home, the challenges of finding foster families, helping new owners and pets through the new beginnings and more.

No surprise that I am not impressed with the rich drama queens who throw their money and weight around to get politicians to carry out their personal vendettas, even when good animals groups (including, it's worth noting, Jennifer's employer, the HSUS) do NOT support their dysfunctional, completely disproven vision of "hate to success."

Miz's group last year pulled almost 100 dogs out of the shelters in MODESTO alone, which is Ground Zero for the nation's foreclosure crisis. They work with a large, intelligent and often not-for-beginners breed, and they get those dogs new names,good health and forever homes.

They do it on a shoestring, with creative marketing and by building their own little no-kill community for shepherds, a network of foster homes and foster-to-adopts that give these dogs a place to land and sometimes a place to heal while they get some basic manners. And then they market those dogs honestly and work with the adopters -- and keep working with them, even if they have to take a dog back.

I know that last, because I had to give a dog back to Miz. That dog, wonderful Pip, is happy and safe in a home where he fits perfectly.

And I am so impressed with not being "the bad guy" in it all that I'm now on stand-by as one of Miz's foster moms.


And by the way, speaking of that "shoestring": I can vouch 150 percent for Miz's group. If you have a few dollars, they'd sure appreciate it. :)

Nancy Freedman-Smith CPDT

Theresa, It was recently explained to me that Petfinder allows you to list 2 breeds. The rescue told me that when in doubt, they pick breeds that will generate the most hits. Still doesn't explain all those Basenjis.

H. Houlahan

Generic pariah-type dog = Basenji. Or now, Shiba Inu.

Makes perfect sense to me.


Heather - Or German Spitz!

Even if you assume we have 100% more unregistered dogs that have come in as pets with various people, there STILL are not more than 400 in the country!

Barbara Saunders

Gina's comment suggests something really disturbing. Unlike the small shelters and rescues without marketing departments and maybe without staff who are professional or sophisticated marketers, a group that can afford Sarah McLaughlin certainly uses marketers who know - scientifically. by testing and measuring. - exactly which ad has what effect.

Gina Spadafori

I would guess Ms. McLaughlin donated her song for the ad.

Erich Riesenberg

Ericka, using videos is a very good idea.

With the cost of cloud computing I don't think it would cost very much at all for a web site to host one or two minute clips.

Will definitely be adding it to mine.

This entire thread is great.

BJ Smith


Thank you SO much for this article. The timing of it was such a gift to me. Although we've always done fostering for shelters/rescues, we are now (for the 1st time-YIKES!) needing to find homes for 2 dogs that we have rescued and it's difficult being "the ones" who decide the fate of these guys. Both of them have their own "sad" story but I decided to use them as a "look how much I've overcome/anytime you're down I'll be there to remind you that you can get through anything w/determination & a good friend like me (the dog) who has faith in you".

Many of the things mentioned I've done and reading this has boosted my confidence level that I CAN DO THIS!

I agree with the importance of naming and take time to find one that "fits". And IMO it is extremely important to let people know what makes that animal endearing to me, my husband and even the kids. I think that helps it become a "pet" in their mind, rather than a charity case or as having too many past issues. I then hope they'll fall in love for the same reasons we do and then any "issues" become less scary (as it was with a "Family" therefore it's viewed as a "Family Pet"!).

Wish me luck in this journey ~ We need to place these guys soon, yet are not willing to give them to anyone (1 application denied already). As a long time shelter volunteer I have to feel the match is a good one for both the people & the pet.

Thanks Again, BJ

David S. Greene

Now how freakin' cool is that?

Jennifer Fearing

A Lita update... please think good thoughts as it looks like Lita has found her new family, thanks to none other than Pet Connection's Gina Spadafori, who described her to someone she met yesterday. More soon, but home visit is Friday night and everything is looking good so far!


I've followed a photographer, Michael Kloth Photography, on Facebook who photographs rescues. He brought up that photos also make a difference in appealing to adopters, ie a dog looking scared or depressed tied in a corner vs the dog jumping & playing. He also previously mentioned a group of photographers collaborating on this issue http://www.heartsspeak.org/ You'll all love his photographs!

Gina Spadafori


Erich Riesenberg

I want to second BJ. It would help if there were discussion about how to place pets.

Where I live, it is common for fosters to try to place pets, and I have no idea how to do it. I am fostering my first dog and am inclined to keep her, and she is a great dog, though she is a puppy and I am predisposed towards a special needs senior.

I could probably find a better fit, but not sure how to do it.

This adoption ad post is very important to a lot of us. Thanks for it.

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