Call Off the Dogs

The other day, I pulled into a parking spot next to a car that had one of those bone car magnets. “I [heart] My Rescue,” it said. (This was at Whole Foods, of course.) My own bone sticker, which says “I [heart] My Labradoodle,” seemed morally inferior, an admission of choosing flash and ease over The Right Thing To Do. “My husband has allergies!” I defensively wanted to assure the rescue owner, smug (I was sure) in her ethical superiority.

I am not alone in feeling defensive. In this article by Emily Yoffe, she describes how rescue groups alienate potential adopters of pets by ridiculous strictures and standards. Eventually, the adopters resort to the more easy-going process of adopting from a breeder. But many seem to worry about the moral implications. “We still really wanted a dog, so we did the wrong thing and went to a breeder,” says one adopter in the article.

But is adopting from a breeder really the wrong thing? Yes, no one wants to support puppy mills. But a reputable breeder?

Many, many millions of non-dog owners across the country have the resources necessary to adopt a rescue pet. Are each and every one of them obligated to do so? Are they all moral failures because they haven’t? That seems crazy. I think most people would agree that it is estimable for  people to adopt a rescue dog. I certainly do. But that does not mean it is morally obligatory for everyone else. Going to Tanzania to help divert clean water to a village in need is also praiseworthy, but we would be hard-pressed to say that everyone who doesn’t do so is a louche cad. (It’s what we in the philosophy biz call supererogatory: an action that is praiseworthy to perform, but not obligatory – above and beyond the moral call.)

So if no one is obligated to get a rescue dog, why does the mere act of wanting a dog suddenly make it obligatory? Why should the people who want a dog with attributes that can’t be found in a rescue dog be obligated to get a rescue? Of course, adopting a rescue is a lovely thing to do. But many people are looking for something that a rescue dog can’t provide (some degree of behavior predictability, hypoallergenicity, aesthetic properties, not having to deal with rescue groups, etc.). I don’t see how wanting a dog of any kind makes it obligatory only to get a certain kind of dog, if we are all not already bound to get a rescue dog.

(For the record, if my husband were not allergic and I didn’t have three rugrats who reliably pull dog hair, I would totally get a rescue.)

As a parallel, there are plenty of older and disabled children available for adoption who need permanent homes. But does anyone think people who either give birth or adopt healthy infants are morally deficient? Of course not. Those who adopt disabled or older children are laudable, but those who prefer not to take on that burden are not doing anything wrong. They are simply not doing the absolute best thing that they could. And, with apologies to act-utilitarians, always only doing the morally best thing that we can is a rather onerous burden. Sometimes, we want to leave the soup kitchen and kick back and watch a little TV.

Off to be kissed by a labradoodle…

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. I am reminded of the elderly aunt who inserted “thank God” at the end of any sentence that vaguely took the form “I’m glad that X”.

    “I’m pleased that the weather’s nice enough for us to eat on the porch.” “Thank God!”

    “I’m glad that the Wolverines beat Ohio!” “Thank God!”

    And so on. Sometimes it felt like gratitude but, other times, it felt like she cared mostly about communicating her piety.

    Which brings me to a friend of mine who got his daughters a puppy a year or two ago. Posted a picture of it to facebook. “Here’s a picture of the girls and Snoopy (note: not the dog’s real name), the newest member of our family!”

    Immediately, his comments were flooded with people saying “I hope that you got him from a rescue and not a puppy mill!” “Puppy mills are awful!” “You wouldn’t believe how puppies from puppy mills are treated!” “Rescue dogs are healthier genetically!”

    Dude. He was posting a picture of his girls and the dog… and everyone else jumped in like so many elderly aunts yelling “THANK GOD!!!”

  2. I’m not sure I get your drift re the bumper sticker — are you accusing its owner of pressuring you or are you accusing yourself of being defensive? To me, that particular sticker seems pretty clearly in the category of encouraging a desired behavior rather than criticizing a disfavored one.

    As for the Yoffe article, what she doesn’t mention is how the experience of animal rescue workers plays into these restrictions (full disclosure: I volunteer at a cat rescue organization). When you deal with pet abuse and abandonments on a regular basis, you naturally want to do what you can to reduce them, so you identify the patterns and discourage adoptions into similar situations. Sure, some people and organizations draw lines further out than I might, and of course there’s no way to prevent anyone from going to a less selective source, but fundamentally these organizations are making a judgment that it’s better for their animals to remain safe in the shelter than to be put in a situation that’s above a certain threshold of risk.

    • I was totally saying I get defensive. Not that that person was really smug!

      I thought Yoffe did mention that (i.e., that rescue workers experience of abuse makes them skittish).

      • OK, just making sure — not that I have a bumper sticker like that, but I figured I’d mount a pre-emptive defense just in case. 🙂

        She probably did make a nod in that direction, but the tone of the article — “look at these silly restrictions these people are enforcing, don’t they realize that just drives people elsewhere?” — annoyed me. Of course these folks know that there are less restrictive places to get animals — it’s a good bet that most of the animals they take in have come from those other places.

        • Yes, I can see that. I wasn’t meaning to defend Yoffe, or criticize rescue groups. I’ve never had that kind of unpleasant experience that she describes. In fact, I think you guys do great work, and hats off to you! I was just trying to address the question of whether it is morally wrong to get a dog from a breeder. There exists a belief that it is morally wrong – I (obviously) disagree.

          • Sorry, didn’t mean to side-track from the main point of the post — no argument from me there. Rescues aren’t for everyone, and there are many ways to help the cause besides adopting, if one is so inclined.

            FWIW, the adoption policy where I work is pretty restrictive, and it’s the subject of frequent (and occasionally fierce) debate. Every few years we see an exodus of volunteers due to disagreement with the particular decisions that are made (not just re adoptions, but also how best to deal with ferals, when to start turning cats away, how aggressive to be with removing cats from bad home situations, etc.).

    • I understand the mentality of the rescuers, too — they do what they do for an ethical reason and I for one would not ask them to compromise their ethics.

      With that said, I see no reason for a rescue owner to feel morally superior to one who acquires a pet through some other legitimate means. As Rose points out in the OP some people have particular needs that a rescue may not be able to meet; some may have a desire or need to raise the animal from puppy/kitten/chick age for any number of reasons; and so on.

      Legitimate breeders deserve and need support too. Not every breeder is a puppy mill. A caring, thoughtful breeder ought to be able to offer pets to appropriate homes because these are the sorts of people we want putting pets on offer.

  3. It’s sort of a thin line between feeling like you did a good thing by going to the shelter and believing that those who didn’t go to a shelter did a bad thing. In the latter case, there are often specific reasons why you get a certified pup and won’t get a mutt from the pound such as allergies (not a concern for the wife and I) and shedding (definitely a concern).

    We went to the local pound to get our dog. I feel good about having done so. I feel good about getting a 5 year old dog instead of a saught-after pup. At the same time, we got the nicest, most well-tempered dog we could find. And no shedding! A dog that, had we not adopted her, almost certainly would have found a home.

    If I were really sincere, I would have gotten the most foul-tempered, problematic dog they had. The kind of dog that wouldn’t have gotten a home otherwise. I suppose I am not that sincere.

    • If every dog that’s easy moves in 2 days and not twenty, they’ve got many more slots for the problem dogs.

      • Fair point. The other thought that crossed my mind: the week before we got Lisby, we were going to get another dog. That dog was snatched up, so we had to look around some more and found Lisby. Someone who might have snatched Lisby up may have ended up getting another one. And so on. A cascading effect of quicker turnaround.

        • Also, if some of the dogs can get more intensive care… they may be rehabilitatable.

          Call me selfish, but I’d go shelter dog simply because I won’t have a pet that isn’t paper-trained.

          • Call me selfish, but I’d go shelter dog simply because I won’t have a pet that isn’t paper-trained.

            I have my own selfish reasons. I’m a mutt-lover and always have been. So even leaving out all moral dimensions, I’d be disinclined to go with a breeder or rescue outfit.

      • Kim, that was one of the reasons I adopted cats from the local shelter; I figured that, in addition to giving two of them a home, that meant there were two more cats who got to be in the shelter.

  4. “Yes, no one wants to support puppy mills. But a reputable breeder?”

    According to some people, there is no such thing as a reputable breeder.

    “I defensively wanted to assure the rescue owner, smug (I was sure) in her ethical superiority.”

    See, I read this sentence and I want very badly to interpret it as a cynical joke, but I’m having trouble. Please reassure me that it’s a cynical joke and that you aren’t honestly declaring that you’re basing your concept of another person from a combination of a bumper sticker and prejudicial stereotype.

    • You’ve never seen bumper stickers that struck you as something that only someone smug would put on their car?

      You need to go to Whole Foods more often.

      • That reminds me of an incident in that same Whole Foods parking lot. Back when the CEO of Whole Foods wrote an op-ed criticizing the ACA, some people in our town tried to organize a boycott of Whole Foods, handing out flyers, etc. It was wildly unsuccessful. One of the protesters wrote an article for a local paper describing her failure to get anyone not to go into the doors. It said something like, “I was shocked at the number of cars that had Obama/Biden stickers on it in the parking lot as people walked in.” As if it were a) perfectly obvious that anyone who voted for Obama would be compelled to agree that the CEO’s political opinion was horribly wrong (I mean, I disagree with him, but it’s not like he advocated female infanticide or something), and b) that the appropriate means to address that one man’s opinion was a boycott of a regional store. Anyone who went inside must of course have been a hypocrite.

    • There have got to be reputable breeders out there! Sumun down south surely still breeds hounds for the hunt — and I’m certain they don’t have patience for “perfect” dogs, ready to fall over at the least bit of wind. And some people still breed dogs for sheepherding (rather have a canny dog than a pretty one, surely?)

      • Lots and lots of workdogs out where I’m from (even the local shelter has two separate classes for dogs, companion dogs and workdogs). Notably, a lot of the breeders up here don’t go for the purebreads. They’ll specifically mix Border Collie and Corgi, for example, or other sheperding animals. Keep the skills, but lose some of the frailty

    • The joke was meant to be on me for being so defensive. I do indeed believe that someone could completely sincerely and non-judgmentally have that car magnet.

  5. I think all this talk about the morality of buying from a breeder vs. adopting from a shelter misses the greater issue here:

    The profound immorality of those bumper stickers.

  6. I’ve been lucky – I’m picky, I don’t like puppies, and I have nice furniture. I’ve had 2 Airedales from Airedale rescue who were perfectly tuned for apartment living – and I got to give them a good home for 4 or 5 years, with a few big bills there at the end. But unless someone could promise me a puppy who wouldn’t dig into carpets, chew, or need a 10 mile run every day, I’ll stick with my ol’ lady dogs.

    No morality issues though – get the dog you want! I’m thinking about Portuguese Water Dogs lately, and they seem to be breeder dogs!

  7. Rose, the question of supererogation and obligation is interesting. Now, presumably it is morally better to get a rescue dog than a breeder dog. If some morally positive things are obligatory and some are supererogatory, there must be some line we draw which says beyond this is just extra. However, there doesnt seem to be any non-arbitrary way to go about drawing this line. How do you go about drawing it?

    • In reality, the line doesn’t exist. Society allows someone to take three samples from the station at Costco. But doing this too much gets you labeled as an abuser.

      So the real line, the obligatory thing, is to give enough that people don’t mind what you take. There will always be benefit of the doubt– until there’s not.

    • It is indeed a fraught question. I am agreed that getting a rescue is morally superior to getting a bred dog. But to me, it actually counts against traditional act-utilitarianism that one must always maximize the good (not so much recent utilitariansim, which has addressed this issue). Supererogation is such a prima facie obvious moral category that it is worth preserving unless there is good reason to ignore it.

      Clearly there are duties. But it seems just as clear to me that there are reasons to do something that can be outweighed by other reasons – i.e., non-binding reasons.

      The line I arrive at I get through reflective equilibrium. In this case, it does not seem to be that one with enough resources is always obligated to adopt children and dogs in need. That seems intuitively counter to my moral instincts. It also seems intuitive that those who do are doing something morally admirable.

      I’m okay with reflective equilibrium, but were I to systemize it, I’d say something like: we have duties of self-sacrifice to those with whom we have a special relationship (parents, siblings, spouses, children, students, friends), with a lesser degree of duties the more distant the relationship. We also have duties of at least some degree of self-sacrifice to a stranger when we are the only one who can help (so I ought (bindingly) to go into a pond to save a drowning child if I am the only one there). Self-sacrifice becomes less of a duty and more of a supererogatory act when you are talking about strangers and you are not the only one available to help.

      The better person does more supererogatory acts. And there seems something morally blank about a person who never does ANY supererogatory acts.

      • In my informed opinion, you still retain the duty of helping a stranger, unless you can pass it off to someone Specific.
        Otherwise, you get the “guy breaks his leg beside the escalator” problem, where it takes Hours to get the poor guy help, because it’s always someone else’s problem.
        (I feel far less strongly about property crimes. if you see someone breaking into a car, it’s not a duty to phone the police nor stop them.)

        • So you have more of an obligation to help the guy you walk right by, than you do a guy in another country. Obvious to me that you ahve to help someone you walk right by, less obvious that you have to donate your income until you live at just above poverty level to help everyone who needs help internationally.

          • Point made. Although I do have to say that if it’s $2 to help a kid not go blind, and you aren’t saving at least ten kids… really?
            Malnutrition: it’s the disease you CAN fight! And Cheaply!

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