The Romance of Rescue


I must say, we humans love a good rescue story, fact or fiction.

The princess in the castle tower. The baby in the well.

Old Yeller saving Travis from the wild boars, and he in turn saving Old Yeller from the circling vultures.

33 Chilean miners rescued after 70 days underground.

Richard Gere rescuing Julia Roberts from life on the streets. Captain Phillips rescued from the hijackers. Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone rescuing the good guys from the bad guys again and again until we lose track of who’s who.

For those of us concerned with the welfare of pit bull type dogs, there is perhaps no more defining rescue than that of the Vicktory Dogs. But here’s what’s really interesting about that particular rescue. What ultimately made us all so enamored with the rescue of those dogs wasn’t the fact that they were rescued, but rather the quality of care provided to them AFTER most of the cameras stopped rolling. And this is where I believe that the singular idea of the rescue story has led many “rescue” groups astray, and why I believe that many folks are now inappropriately equating involvement in rescue with efficacy in animal welfare.


Recently I wrote a guest post for Your Pit Bull & You in which I posed the following questions:

Has “pit bull rescue” become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Have rescue groups unintentionally limited their ability to serve the dog welfare community by labeling themselves “rescues”?

There are an infinite number of reasons for posing such questions in relation to dog rescue. But here’s the primary one for me: We have too many groups focusing on RESCUE, and too few focusing on WELFARE.

Rescue is sexy. Whereas Welfare is offensively practical, and oftentimes dressed in a terry cloth robe and house slippers. 

Buster Brown says, "Hey baby, come rescue me and I'll make it worth your while."

Buster Brown says, “Hey baby, come rescue me and I’ll make it worth your while.”

But, the real powerhouse rescue groups are as successful as they are because they know how to make welfare sexy. And coincidentally they do it without ever having to flash the term rescue. Best Friends Animal Society. Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls (BAD RAP). These are the primary groups responsible for rescuing, rehabbing and rehoming the Vicktory Dogs. And although their involvement in the “rescue” process was certainly well-publicized (I personally was infatuated with the story of BAD RAP driving a motor home full of pit bulls across country incognito), the welfare provided for these dogs after the rescue was the real main event.

And yet again and again I see well-intentioned “rescue groups” reproducing the rescue part of that equation very successfully, while stumbling around in the dark with the remaining pieces of the puzzle.

I also see “rescues” engaging in rescue when educationoutreach and/or support would have been more appropriate responses. But engaging in those activities requires actual thought, planning and knowledge, none of which are as fun to think about as the endless positive feedback loop provided through the act of rescue. Who Rescued Who? makes a pretty bitchin’ bumper sticker. Who provided Outreach, Education and Resources for Who? . . . Hmm, not so much. Especially since it should technically read for Whom?, not for Who?


Imagine if, in the closing scene of Pretty Woman, Richard Gere climbed up the fire escape only to discover a relaxed, confident Julia Roberts, sitting on her couch with a representative from a local women’s advocacy center. Julia Roberts turns to her “rescuer” and says, “Oh no worries, dude, it’s cool. Gloria here got me set up with some classes and a job at the local junior college, and to be honest, I’m really looking forward to living independently and taking a break from dating for a while.” Well that’s no fun. And it’s certainly not going to win you an Oscar nomination.

And yet that’s exactly what we should be pushing for in the dog welfare community: No rescue needed, because other options that provide great welfare for dog and owner are available. I feel like BAD RAP has been saying this until they’re blue in the face lately. From a recent post on their Facebook page:

Want to save lives? Bless you! Keep your eye on the prize and stay stubborn about the need for proactive, community-based dog owner support programs in your town. Keeping them HOME will save more dogs than the best efforts from of all of the rescue groups combined.

But the romantic notion of the “rescue group” persists. Why? For a number of reasons, three of which are as follows:

  1. We are creatures of habit, and habits are really hard to change
  2. We are a hopelessly reactive society, rather than a proactive one . . . God forbid we plan for shit ahead of time once in a while
  3. Our egos are our guiding stars, and we continue to take everything personally even though none of our welfare work should have anything to do with us

Be passionate, sure. Be emotionally invested, fabulous. But don’t take it personally.


I believe that when you decide to start your own rescue group because you want to help “pit bulls” you are in essence putting the cart before the horse. You shouldn’t be rescuing before you’re prepared to provide welfare.*

Be prepared to evaluate your current habits and your most entrenched beliefs, and seek out help in objectively assessing whether or not change and additional resources are needed in order to accomplish your goals.

I’ve said this in relation to “pit bull” advocacy, and it is as equally important for “pit bull” rescue: Be proactive, not reactive. Don’t constantly post “Urgent! Foster Homes Needed!” requests after you rescue a dog. Proactively recruit, train and manage a network of appropriate foster homes that are prepared to take in rescued dogs when they arrive. And make sure that whoever is doing the recruiting, training and managing actually possesses some basic level of professional knowledge about dog behavior and training.

Stop using recycled catch phrases like “Saving one dog won’t change the world, but for that one dog the world will surely change,” and “It’s all about the dogs.” Honestly, if that’s really the case, then you shouldn’t need to say either of those things. Using clichés like these as evidence for your success is like showing someone a stock photograph of some vegetables while you claim to be an expert organic farmer. The proof is in the pudding, not the tired one-liner.


Years after the Vicktory dogs’ rescue, BAD RAP, Best Friends and Hector the Pit Bull continue to show us great welfare on behalf of the rescued dogs in their care. And that is possible because those groups and individuals were in it for the long game.

Consider the previously mentioned story of the Chilean miners and how riveted the world was listening to that ordeal and celebrating that long-awaited rescue. Where are they now and how are they doing? In 2011, a year after the event, those “rescued” found themselves in a myriad of challenging situations, largely because the outpouring of love and charity was there for the heroic rescue, but was short-lived and replaced by a complete lack of resources and support for their rehabilitation and return to society. One reporter writes,

One year after their globally televised rescue, after the worldwide spotlight faded and the trips and offers have dwindled, the miners say that most of them are unemployed and that many are poorer than before.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us certainly entered the “pit bull rescue” arena compelled by passion and emotion, not organizational acumen or rational thought. And that’s okay, because that’s how we discover the things that matter to us. And as individual dog owners and good samaritans, we should feel free to continue to be driven by our passions.

But once we decide to go further, to step up and say, “I want to do something for pit bull type dogs and I think starting my own non-profit will be the way to do that,” you now have a responsibility to stop being driven by your heart and your ego, and start making objective, thoughtful, evidence-based decisions that will help you accomplish your goals in the long-term. Because, after all, as so many rescues like to say, isn’t this supposed to be “all about the dogs?”


*It is important to note here that when I refer to “rescue” in this post, I am referring specifically to organized groups and registered non-profits who claim to be engaged in the work of “rescue.” I am not referring to the individual good samaritan exercising her altruistic right to rescue and rehome one dog at a time, which coincidentally is what many of the existing “rescue groups” should probably be doing instead.



About emily douglas

Emily Douglas authors The Unexamined Dog blog and writes regularly about "pit bull" advocacy, humane education and the parallels between the education field and the dog world. Emily and her dog, Peaches volunteer as a registered therapy dog team in the Southeast Michigan area, where their visits are affectionately known as Peach Therapy.
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12 Responses to The Romance of Rescue

  1. Renée says:

    Do you happen to know Rumpy Dog, and the blog of Jen about dogs and cats and animal welfare. She wrote a very interesting piece about rescue just recently! Love your blog too! Very interesting. Especially for one in the Netherlands, with hardly no pitties at all. Which is a shame as well.

    • Thank you so much for mentioning Rumpy Dog. I wasn’t familiar with it and am just now looking at some of the posts on the site, specifically the two “meaning of rescue” ones. Fabulous! I’ll definitely be sharing these, thanks for the great referral!

  2. Kristine says:

    Really insightful and important post that I hope more people take to heart. I used to work for a large animal welfare organisation and learned before long that many well intentioned people very easily get in over their heads. The animals usually suffer as a result and it is a shame. I especially like your footnote and I wish I could have put that on the wall somewhere at my old shelter. Anyway, great post. I will certainly be sharing it.

    • Thanks so much, Kristine. I really appreciate it. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s all those great intentions and our love for the dogs that keep causing us to bite off more than we can chew, ultimately undermining everything we’re trying to accomplish. And then we’re forced to convince ourselves that all is well and embrace a certain state of denial in order to keep things moving. There are always going to be dogs in need, so we might as well take the time to slow down, educate ourselves and do right by those we choose to help. Because after all, we never gave them a choice!

  3. rumpydog says:

    I must also add that some of these folks that claim to be rescues are actually hoarders in disguise. Rescue should never be about what’s in it for me. It should always be what’s in it for the animal.

    Excellent post! I have shared.

  4. Really nice post, All that you mentionened above happens here in Mexico. I think it’s time for us to start thinking and planning ahead and when we are ready help those in need.

  5. kim murphy says:

    Because I am the mom to a rescued pit bull (among other four-legged friends) I am trying to become as well-informed as possible about the breed, and to be an advocate for them when I speak to friends and others who ask me why I adopted a pit as opposed to another kind of dog. There really wasn’t a considered reason–she was at the dog park with her foster mom and she was a darling little thing, and well, you know…

    It could have been a disaster. Bonnie was abused and left to freeze to death in a dumpster at ten months. She has major fear aggression, and apparently wears an invisible “kick me” sign, because a third of the dogs she comes in contact with try to attack her, including my Rottweiler, who had to be re-homed with one of my adult children as a result. She cannot go to dog parks but does very well at daycare–go figure. She loves her lab/greyhound sister and doesn’t make a move without insuring that Hailey is with her. In spite of all that has happened to her, she will let me reach down her throat to retrieve things she has picked up without batting an eye, and she will let the vet do anything she wants without a curled lip. Amazing.

    She has to be seriously exercised every day. In addition to walks, she runs two miles on the treadmill, which means that I stand there and talk her through a half hour of running nearly every day. She must have that, and mind games, and an enormous amount of physical affection; clearly she was removed from her mother at far too early an age.

    In short, she’s a little broken.

    We are fortunate. We got Bonnie figured out BEFORE she killed something or somebody and before she was killed (the Rott attack did seriously hurt her). I am lucky enough that I can afford a trainer/behaviorist, and we will work with him until Bonnie can walk by another dog without interest, and until her only reason for living is to figure out what I want from her. I work at home so she is crated about four hours per week when I have to go somewhere without her. She could never be crated for a normal workday; she is too borderline neurotic. If I travel, it’s with the dogs.

    The thing is, nobody from the rescue told me any of this. Maybe I was supposed to know all about pitties before I adopted one, but as far as I knew a dog was a dog was a dog. I have adopted all of my dogs and apparently live a charmed life because it has been one sweetheart after another, even Bella (Rott), at least until she met Bonnie.

    They are special, special dogs. I follow some rescue pages on Facebook and I am so tired of reading, “Oh, my pittie would never hurt anyone,” and seeing photos that some idiot has put up with a baby lying on a pitbull. I think, “Boy, I hope you’re right, because if you’re not, your sweet baby can do a world of damage with that big doofy head filled with that massive jaw and those enormous teeth.” I read, “The Lost Dogs” and marveled at the evaluation and testing that the Vick dogs got before anybody decided whether each dog could manage a sanctuary or home. Your article is brilliant–we need fewer rescues and more support for the rescued. New owners need help and information; Bonnie’s early days with me would have been easier for both of us if anyone from the rescue would have said, “Hey, here are some of the issues you may deal with, whether with other dogs, or even other owners.”

    I hope to always have at least one pitbull for the rest of my life. I have never been as loved as I am by my Bonnie, and I will see that she has all that she needs for as long as she needs it, no matter how many little wires are crossed in that loving little brain. I think that pits are a noble, handsome and forgiving breed of dog, and the butt wiggle kills me. Their greatest chance comes from the power of positive behavior and that cannot happen without the education and support which extends beyond the paperwork of a rescue/adoption.

    Thank you for your article.

  6. Emily – Thank you for this article, for your incredibly encouraging mentions, and for opening with an excuse to pull up Richard Gere’s image. Now THAT’S a great lead-in. Love the graph. Love your observations.

    The romance of rescue is a seductive beast — There’s nothing more gratifying than feeling like you’ve cheated death. It’s easy to get addicted to and also easy to over commit as part of that addiction. Even though you’ve kindly used BR as one example of balance, we acknowledge that we could slide into a state of over commitment at any time. Years in, and Tim and I are constantly checking ourselves, our (human) resources, our brain space to make sure we haven’t over done it – again. We get tired; we get cranky, we pull back, we readjust. After their third year in this work, most new rescue groups are one breath away from burning out and folding. It doesn’t help that the bar in animal welfare world has gone higher and asks rescuers to do more, save more (‘save them all’). Now we are asking them to embrace keeping dogs in their home as an added focus – a much trickier focus that’s fraught with the frustrations that come from dipping into human dramas. Holy crap. To use another Hollywood example (Monty Python), it’s the after dinner mint that will understandably blow even the best man to bits.

    That said, the wins that come from keeping a dog in his home can be even more invigorating than pulling dog after dog after dog from the shelter. We don’t just beat death when we succeed, we beat THE SYSTEM, and if we beat the system enough times, we might even start to change it. That’s an incredibly sexy prize for the rebels in this work.

    Here is my lead-in for the Rescue Jam (pardon my shameless promotion). Rescuers – pit bull rescuers especially – are road kill if we don’t have support, and there’s no better support than other rescues who get how freaking hard this work is. We came together last year in part because we wanted newer rescues to succeed, but also because we were starting to burn out. Putting on the Jam was one of the smartest things we could’ve done for our group and I believe many others benefitted too. This work is HARD; it takes every brain cell we have to get it right. We can’t do it in isolation. Please come to the Rescue Jam and let us figure it out together. This invite goes straight to you too, Emily! As you can imagine, much of what you’ve pointed out in your post will be on our itinerary. And now we even have a neat graphic to help us out. Thank you.

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  8. Chris Tisdale says:

    Fantastic reading! This should be required reading or at least posted in every Rescue Group in the country!!! “We have too many groups focusing on RESCUE, and too few focusing on WELFARE.” That is my new mantra!!!!!

  9. I LOVE THIS!.. Two years ago I thought I could start a rescue and jumped in feet first. Pits and mixes are my true love so naturally I found out real fast it is hard (especially in the south) to find a proper home for a bully breed. After taking in a pregnant pit mix, I ended up with 28 dogs including that litter. I made sure the dogs had basic care but my bills weren’t getting paid (electric got shut off), my health was fading from stress (I ended up on depression/anxiety meds) and my husband was threatening to leave me from the stress. I had to learn the lesson the hard way and two years later I STILL have one of the dogs because I can’t find him a proper home. Now I volunteer, foster and advocate. I simply can’t run a proper rescue (being with training, marketing, exercising etc.). I wish more people would realize the same. Now I work to EDUCATE my community so that more animals get altered and owners understand proper pet management.

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