If you had the option of sharing the two photos in the header image separately, which one would you choose? 99% of the people, including me, would choose the one on the left, Petra. Now how is that a problem in dog rescue and what is this article about? Well, here’s the thing: about a month ago, Petra’s rescue story was shared by an Australian media page, and as usual, I read all 576 comments below. Among all the “God bless you” and the “I can’t believe it’s the same dog” there was one comment that has been on my mind since then, and for which I did not have a quick answer – in a way I still don’t. So here is what a woman commented: “Weird how people will move mountains to bring a dog like this back to health but then the average stray dog gets put to sleep after a week or two in the pound unnoticed. Spread the love people. Average can be awesome too.”
Average can be awesome too. Average can be awesome too. Average can be awesome too. I keep repeating it since then like a mantra, trying to figure out what can I possibly do to help the average dog. First of all, Save a Greek Stray, the shelter I volunteer at that rescued Petra, is a no-kill one, and so are most shelters in Greece. All rescued dogs, no matter how average, cute or awe- inspiring they are, receive the same treatment and remain in the shelter’s care until they are adopted. So euthanasia is not an issue, at least for us.
But average is. It is a huge issue. Greece is a country of millions of strays, so most rescues are mix breed dogs. Whether a puppy or an adult, the average mix breeds we rescue every day barely get few “shares” and “likes” and no matter how heartbreaking their past is, it all comes down to appearance. You may not have realized it, but in rescue, all books are judged by their cover.
In order for a rescue dog to exceed the average number of “people reached” in a Facebook post, it needs to either be extremely cute and purebred or the exact opposite, aka visibly moribund, like Petra. But the story does not end here. Dogs on the brink of death, like Billy, Petra and a lot more are bound to go viral. Their stories keep being shared over and over again, even years after they have been rescued, but do they get adopted? Well, eventually they do. They are never the average person’s first choice, but after having reached hundreds of thousands of people through social media, eventually they find their forever home.
Does an average looking dog, with no awe-inspiring before after transformation ever get this far? No, never. Unless it can do something shareable enough, despite its boring looks, like rock climbing or skateboarding. The average dog might even have a horrible story to tell, but if it’s not obvious that it’s been through hell, the story is simply not shareable enough – its photo, not matter how professional, simply never catches the eye. And what does not catch the eye does not make the index hit the share button either.
Does the average dog get adopted? Well…if it’s lucky enough. The competition is disappointing. Our black and brown, mix breed, adult, medium sized rescue babies have to compete against a ridiculously large number of other black and brown, mix breed, adult and medium sized rescued dogs that keep waiting in shelter kennels for someone to come forward and pick an average looking dog. They might have the kindest soul, be amazing companions and perfect future pets that will love you like you’ve never been loved before, but still, their looks betray them.
So what can we rescuers do in order to help the average dog be noticed? I have no idea. I already told you that I don’t have an answer for it. What I’ve been trying to do with my foster dogs is basic training – it helped my beloved Sahara get adopted for example. Her video barely hit a thousand views, but at least it was what made her, an average looking, black, mix breed, adult dog find a home. Another thing is observing the average dog, observing it every day, looking for something it does or likes, a habit or a funny routine, something that will be shareable enough to break the spell of only a few hundred “people reached” in a Facebook post. Either way, the average dog has to try hard – a lot harder than a dog like Petra. I’m not saying that Petra did not deserve to go viral – she most definitely did! But yet, it seems unfair.
What can you do to help? I’m not sure. If you’re looking for a dog to adopt, just visit a shelter and ask the volunteers which are the dogs that everyone overlooks. Choose one and take it for a walk. Feel its fur tickling your leg while he or she walks beside you. Look into its eyes and observe how that makes you feel. Ask the shelter workers to tell you the dog’s story – it definitely has one. It might be a story that never went viral, but for that particular dog alone, this barely shareable story is his whole life. Then forget about it. Dogs, as trainers say, have no past. They only have a present and a future. You are looking for a friend – that’s the reason you visited the shelter in the first place anyway. You’re looking for someone to share lazy afternoons on the couch and walks on the beach, someone to greet you every time you come home with a wagging tail and to wake you up in the morning with a wet nose and a smelly breath. The average dog you just took for a walk will do all that. And that is awesome. Adopt him.