Puppy Puffery: Decoding Dog Adoption Descriptions

Puppy in coat chewing on a stick

Wow, you must have written a good description for me. I got adopted in 1 day!

Shelters and rescue organizations walk a fine line.

They present dogs needing homes in a positive light. But they don’t want to mislead prospective adopters about the dog’s real characteristics.

What adoptive dog descriptions really mean

If you’re considering adopting a dog, here’s what to expect from the following descriptions:

A great running partner

Plan on running the Badwater Ultramarathon with your dog every day or face the destruction of your home.

Shy at first but friendly once she gets to know you

The only time you’ll see your dog is during your semi-annual extinction of dust bunnies under the bed.

 Has a curious nose

Expect to bolt the trash can to the wall and chain the lid down. It’s the only way you’ll keep your garbagey treasures away from that nose.

Is food motivated

You’ll have no need to put a napkin on your lap when you sit down to dine. That place of honor will be taken by your new pup.

Loves to play

You’d better have good health insurance. You’ll need it for the rotator cuff surgery required to repair your body after playing endless games of fetch.

Soft and fuzzy

You’ll need a weed whacker to clear a path to the front door through all the dog hair.

Golden Retriever puppy sleeping in crate

The Mom says my breeder called me a Low Energy Dog. I wonder what that means....

Likes cuddling

Get used to having a 90 pound lap dog. Hopefully you’re not too attached to blood circulating through your legs.

Will be your best friend forever

Will be your best friend forever.

What did you learn about your dog from his adoption description?

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  1. Linda Szymoniak says:

    LOL! I do love how rescues get creative with descriptions, but your take on the subject is great!

    • Thanks, Linda.

      Rescues are in a very tough spot. I remember being grilled by the Golden Retriever rescue.

      On one hand, they’re crazy in love with the breed. On the other hand, they don’t want to let a dog go home with someone who has no understanding of the real responsibilities involved. It makes communication an exercise in creative writing.

  2. LOL. If I remember correctly, Shiva’s description (she was then named “Tessa” – the most misleading name in history) talked about her high trainability. It also mentioned she would be best in a home with no young children. That should have been our first clue. But honestly? I didn’t spend much time reading it. In fact, for all I know it said in bold letters “This dog is insane.”

    We wanted to meet her because of her unique appearance, younger age, and smaller size. We decided to take her home because I am a sucker. The description didn’t deter us from that. If it had been too honest, if it had said “has separation anxiety, is nervous around strangers, likes to bark at garden gnomes, will probably eat your house” I probably wouldn’t have agreed to take her home. And that would have been pretty bloody awful.

    • Such a great comment, Kristine.

      It shows how bringing the right dog home takes a mix of delusion and commitment. :)

      I do, however, think they were right on the mark with high trainability. You’ve succeeded in teaching Shiva some great tricks. The hard part was probably just getting her attention to begin with.

  3. LOL’s at what Kristine said!!

    I love “chooses her friends carefully” – wuh-oh! Prepare for some uber slow socialization and introduction to other animals (if you ever get to that point).

    There’s also “looking for active family”, which means the same as your “makes a great running partner” and “just needs someone to teach her about life” = has zero training…for a reason.

    • Good additions, Eryka.

      I wonder what the balance is between giving people the information they need to make a smart decision for their family without sending them running for the hills?

      • Good question! I wonder if something like a “Doggy Translator” would be cute enough to not deter people. Maybe having a paper at the rescue/shelter that says “I would make a great running partner…that means I need to be able to run at least 30 minutes each day!” and “I love cuddling, so expect this lovey girl to never leave your side…”

        Because, as people have mentioned, the phrasing can be misleading but it can also be what sells a dog to us. If I hear that a dog is a jumper, I don’t care. That’s not on my “do not adopt if..” list. But if I see the words “chooses her friends carefully…” it makes me wonder…

        It would be nice if dogs came with a disclaimer checklist: Chases cats: YES. Chews expensive things: YES. Pees in the house until trained otherwise: DEFINITELY. But we all love to see past those things when we fall in love with a dog 😉

  4. It’s rare that this happens, but I actually have a protest about this post. I’ve used many of these phrases in my own foster dogs’ profiles, and have rarely meant the worst-case scenario you have described. For example, many of my dogs have been great running partners, but few have had truly boundless energy.

    I know that this post is lighthearted and playful, but there are a lot of people out there walking a fine line between, say, wanting to adopt a dog and deciding to go to a breeder or pet store to purchase a puppy — these ideas in the hands of one of those fine liners could influence a decision — and not necessarily in a positive way.

    • Thanks for sharing your protest, Aleksandra. You make a very good point. And it’s one I’ve thought about. Which is why I posted it here (where I know my audience) and not in a more general place like Squidoo.

      I believe passionately that we need to rage against the fantasy that dogs (or children or romantic partners or houses) can be perfect. So yes, this is a lighthearted post, but it’s informed by a passionate concern about the millions who get fantasy dogs just to turn them into shelters when they, pick one, (pee in the house, shed, counter surf, need exercise, bark, etc.).

      When I spoke to the folks at the Golden Retriever rescue, they spent half an hour telling me all the worst characteristics of a Golden Retriever. They wanted to make sure I knew I wasn’t looking for a movie star dog and knew that my dog would shed, need exercise, bite, chew things, and do all the other stuff that Goldens typically do.

      That’s why the language in many adoption descriptions is a code. Part of it is to scare off the people who made a resolution to exercise more but are really couch potatoes so they don’t adopt a too-active dog. And part of it is to make great dogs (who aren’t any more perfect than humans are) attractive to prospective homes.

      And yes, of course it’s exaggerated for humorous effect. Once again, it’s a matter of knowing your audience. :)

      • I agree that your regular readers will assume that this is meant to be somewhat humorous, like much of your witty writing. But what about the people who stumble upon the post with a simple web search? Say, by looking for “should I adopt a dog”?

        Just thinking.

  5. Aw… Bella definitely fits the soft and fuzzy category! You know, I can’t remember exactly what her adoption ad said. It was so long ago… I think my memory is slipping.

    I love this post… the descriptions used when describing adoptable dogs sometimes reminds me of the terms you see when looking at real estate listings. :)

    • I got the idea when I wrote a very similar post for Hands on Home Buyer on real estate listings.

      The good thing about real estate listings is that you can visit the house and see what it’s actually like without just relying on the description.

      Unfortunately, it’s hard to know a dog that well when you’re considering adoption at a shelter. Sometimes you just have to rely on the code language and take a leap of faith. :)

  6. Great post! People who adopt a dog should be prepared for all of this because a best friend forever is worth it. Dogs are not like Disney movies show them and people need to be prepared for the reality that is DOG.

    • Thank you, Jan. You put that so succinctly.

      I find it as insidious that people think a dog who looks like a movie star (like a Golden Retriever) are going to be perfect without training and effort as people thinking a dog that looks like a pit mix is going to be vicious.

      In both cases, it ends badly for the dog.

  7. I love this 😉 I’m sure you had fun writing it!!

  8. Echoing Aleksandra above — I’ve used similar phrases to describe my fosters too, and they’ve all been AWESOME dogs (way better dogs than my own fear-aggressive basketcase), and in none of those cases was I using the description as a euphemism for serious behavioral issues or bad manners. To the contrary: my fosters are pretty much CGC candidates by the time I’m ready to adopt them out.

    But last week I was rereading Sue Sternberg’s _Successful Dog Adoption_ (the section where she “decodes” Petfinder.com descriptions by putting the worst possible interpretation on all the descriptions — and does so seriously! with great earnestness!) and was like “oh god.” I hadn’t read that section since I was adopting my own furry little nutjob (and yet somehow I ended up with a nutjob anyway) but revisiting it now, on the other side of the equation, I had to reflect on how incredibly difficult it is to communicate clearly in dog adoption.

    How DO you say “this is a super awesome dog with great manners, but she licks her lips, averts her eyes, and backs away politely when approached by grabby 3-year-olds. She should therefore not go to a home with young children because, even though she’s GREAT, I can’t promise she’ll be 100% reliable with toddlers in all situations forever” in ten words or less, and not sound like you’re trying to pawn off a mini-Cujo on some unsuspecting family?

    • Merciel this is such a great point. And yes, “should not go to a home with small children” just doesn’t communicate enough.

      I’ve been kicking an idea around in my mind–a live (not virtual) community to support people who adopt animals. Online we can get a lot of support when we have questions. But wouldn’t it be great if someone who decides to bring a dog into their home with children could get regular interactions with someone more experienced who could teach the whole family, in their home, about the best way to deal with issues?

      Your comment also speaks to the difference between a dog living in a good foster situation compared to a dog in a shelter with limited resources. I love that your “fosters are pretty much CGC candidates” by the time they go to their new homes. :)

      I know that’s the case with many foster families I’ve met.

      • I do try to offer real-world support to adoptive families (and let them know that I am always, ALWAYS available to discuss training or behavioral issues with the fosters), but so far only one of them has ever taken me up on it. I just pretend that’s because my fosters have been 100% perfect and problem-free (riiiiight)…

        It’s a very fine line between being helpful and being off-puttingly pushy. A lot of people get turned off rescue because they think adoption applications are too intrusive, or rescue volunteers are unreasonably demanding, or any number of other things. And a lot of people are unwilling to seek help until something that started as a very minor issue blows up into a severe behavioral problem expressed via long-practiced habits — i.e., a problem that gives headaches to the pros. On the one occasion where I tried to broach the subject with a first-time dog owner in my neighborhood whose Corgi was beginning to show some leash reactivity, I got rebuffed pretty soundly. Quite possibly I just botched that interaction, but I don’t know that people would generally be receptive to being told “here’s how you should handle your dog.”

        I think the best you can do is put the information out there where people can find it (go bloggers go!!) and let them seek it out for themselves if they’re interested. And lead by example — I’ve never had any luck proselytizing, but when people see my dogs being exceptionally well-behaved (on the rare occasions this actually happens) or doing training exercises in public, THAT’S what gets them to ask “so, how do you do that?”

  9. I definitely got the last one! We’ve snickered to ourselves reading a few descriptions and then talking about what to read between the lines. Adopting our Greyhounds has always been a rewarding experience, but we did face a few challenges, especially with Hawk.

    • The Greyhound Rescue programs are so strong now that I bet they do a great job educating folks about what to expect. That probably wasn’t the case not long ago. :)

      • Actually, Greyhound adoption is one of the oldest and best organized of breed rescues. Before Greyhound adoption, Greyhounds were a disposable commodity that were simply destroyed when they no longer had use. People who used them for profit made no attempt to find homes for them. In the early 1980’s, people began to be aware of what happened to Greyhounds when they could no longer race, and that they make fantastic pets. The Greyhound adoption community is one of the largest networks, if not the largest, in the country, and maybe even the world. There are something like 20,000 NGA Greyhounds born every year, versus less than 200 AKC Greyhounds (this is going off the last I’ve read, and it’s not guaranteed exactly accurate, but it’s a ball park statistic for comparison) and that’s a lot of NGA Greyhounds that are going to need homes. They have to be organized, good at reading potential adopters and good at knowing their dogs to get them placed.

  10. I have to agree with Alexsandra. I, too, am aware that this is meant to be funny, but I find myself actually a tad bit offended by it. I’m pro-adoption all the way, and, like Alexsandra said, messages like the ones above can lead to huge misconceptions about adoptable dogs by the public.

    • I’m sorry you were offended Ximena. I think all dogs are wonderful. But I don’t think we benefit them by hiding the realities of living with them. And I doubt you do either.

      It’s a balancing act to show how awesome an adoptable dog can be while communicating enough to their potential families to let them know what might be in store for them.

  11. I would use a lot of these descriptions to describe Koly! He *is* a great running partner. He keeps me going when I need him to, but then he’s happy to veg ourt in my lap after. And that “food motivated” is a little weak if you ask me. Anyone who asks is told outright that Mr. Koly is a food wh*re and he’ll do anything to get into your plate. For us, the challengfes we faced when we adopted Felix didn’t even come up when we talked about him to his previous family…talk about surprises!

    • For all you know, t he issues you had with Felix weren’t a problem for his previous family. Or they were keeping deliberate secrets. :)

  12. All dogs are wonderful but we shouldn’t hide the realities of living with them? Why does this entire post target only the adoptable dogs then? Surely you know that there are tons of adoptable animals in shelters are, conceivably, purebred. That would indicate that there are people out there who are not prepared for DOG, not just ADOPTABLE dog. And people who buy purebreds as puppies have several sources of information (many of which adoptable dogs don’t), all of which need to be decoded in the same way an adoptable dog’s description does.

  13. I’ve always thought that we needed a glossary to decode such statements, including things like “needs to be in an only-dog household” or “best for a family without small children.”

  14. I thought this was funny!

    Bella had no description at the humane society. I would have put something like “would prefer a quiet home” to mean “anything above a whisper will scare this dog into hiding and trembling for four hours”.

    Daisy was in a foster home but her description was so vague and general I didn’t even notice her or have her on my short list. When the dog I wanted was already adopted, the coordinator steered me towards her and it has truly been a perfect fit.

  15. this is great and so funny and so true!

    we learned absolutely nothing from desmond’s adoption listing–because he totally ignored it once we met him. we ignored the fact that it basically told us he was needy and whiny and high energy and ravenous. we totally pretended not to see any of that, but i’m so glad we did.

  16. LOL! These are great and so true! Leroy’s breeder told us he was the outgoing one of the litter, which I guess meant that he has no problem expressing himself whenever and however he wants!