When the Word “Rescue” is a Problem

This is going to sound surprising considering how often I use the term, but I really don’t like the use of the word “rescue” to describe a dog that was obtained via a pet welfare group or pound. Yes, groups that find homes for unwanted dogs are called “rescue” as a shorthand term, and yes, some of those dogs have literally been rescued from terrible situations. However, when I hear the term applied to an individual dog (e.g., “She’s a rescue.” or “I rescued him.”), I am uncomfortable, and here’s why:

  • Saying a dog is a rescue attaches a lot of drama to what are, most often, perfectly normal dogs. It implies that the dog went through some sort of terrible trauma before ending up in an adoptive home, and that’s simply not the case. In addition to it being misleading, though, it sends the message that dogs who aren’t purchased are more work and have more personality problems than purchased dogs. As someone who has tried to place unwanted dogs in adoptive homes, it’s the last image I want attached to the entire category. Yes, some dogs have problems and those must be explained to prospective adopters; most dogs don’t, and I want people to see their personalities and how much love they have to offer. The fact that they desperately want to find humans to love adds pathos enough.

That particular use (describing a dog as a rescue) is really more of a question of sending the right message. After all, people might just want to point out to others how many great dogs can be adopted rather than purchased. Or they are using the term they figure is most appropriate. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a red flag.

On the other hand:

  • When I hear people say that they rescued a dog, it’s often a serious warning sign about the person saying it. To me, someone who rescues a dog has literally removed the animal from a situation that is imminently life-threatening, like retrieving a stray dog from the middle of traffic. It does NOT mean they went to an organization, filled out an application, and took a dog home, even if said dog requires a lot of special care and training. It’s overdramatic and alienates people who might be ambivalent about animal rescue organizations. It’s also worth noting that I know people who actually rescued dogs during Hurricane Katrina (you continue to inspire me, Leslie and Diana), and they have only used the term rarely and in the context of a specific operation, as in, “This dog was rescued from a roof in a flooded area.” I also know several people who have dodged traffic to get stray dogs off busy highways and they never used the R-word to describe what they’ve done. In other words, people who really have saved dogs lives via time-sensitive intervention avoid using the term to describe what they’ve done.
Dog rescued from ledge
This dog is actually being rescued. (Also, please note that this is a Chow Chow. They don’t respond well to strangers, so the man who is helping him is definitely taking physical risks.) (Photo credit: Dogster)

I guess you could say it’s no skin off my nose that someone self-aggrandizes when they describe how they got their dog, and you’re right, up to a point. Unfortunately, though, I’ve noticed that some people who claim to be their dogs’ rescuers are, perhaps not surprisingly, more likely to disregard their adoption contracts concerning things like rehoming the dogs themselves, often with disastrous results (someday I’ll write an article on why exactly rehoming dogs is far more difficult than you would imagine). They are also far less likely to follow vets’ orders for treatment, even if they agreed to do so contractually.

Dog meeting prospective adopter
If this is how you met your pet, you didn’t rescue him. However, you probably saved his life, and that’s no small feat. Also, I love that dog. (Photo credit: City of Yonkers, New York)

As for the term “rescue” to describe an organization that finds home for animals, I’m not crazy about that either. In addition to being overly dramatic, rescues don’t have the best reputations with people who want to adopt a pet. However, it’s the term people use, so I use it most of the time in these articles. In individual conversations, I prefer calling it a “pet adoption group.” (Then, when people look at me blankly, I’ll say “rescue.”)

I don’t want to shame people who are using the R-word to describe their dogs. It’s possible that they are of the school of thought that more people need to be aware of the circumstances some dogs are in prior to finding loving homes. It’s also possible they thought that this was the term that people use. It’s nearly a semantic issue. However, when they say “I rescued my dog,” it’s a red flag for me, and I imagine for a lot of others who find homes for dogs.

Note: This article was inspired by an Amy Schumer* sketch that is making the rounds on the Internet. It’s painfully accurate about the competitive nature of some dog adopters and shows why people who emphasize the drama of their dogs’ previous circumstances alienate a lot of people. It’s also hilarious. (*Yes, I know she’s problematic.)

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Moretta is a caring nurturer, a member of several 12-step programs, but not a licensed therapist. Her Twitter is

3 thoughts on “When the Word “Rescue” is a Problem”

  1. Right? I wish I had the right words to describe how I got mine, because whenever I say, “She’s a rescue,” people always go, “Oh, was she abused?!” and “I mean, she’s clearly got issues, but I think those are more of a result of benign neglect during her socialization period…” is way more info than people want. There has got to be a better way to say, “Somebody didn’t want this dog and I did,” that doesn’t lend itself to histrionics.

    1. I hear you on that. I’ve noticed that some people describe their dogs as pound pups, or they’ll say that they got their dog through a specific organization. As for the behavior, I’ve often said that dogs like yours needed to get used to: being indoor dogs/having regular meals/being cared for, but that they are sweet, smart dogs.

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