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Who Gets The Dog?:
Is This Show Humane?

By Mary Elizabeth Ladd

Before Julie and I signed on to participate in the Animal Planet show Who Gets the Dog?, Julie googled to see if there was any internet chatter out there about the show. She found maybe three or four discussions on pure breed dog message boards. There were a smattering of angry posts by folks who had heard about this new reality show in production where dogs were taken from shelters and videotaped in three different homes, after which they would be placed in the home supposedly of their own choosing, or rather, the home that was deemed best for them by a panel of as-yet-un-named experts.

That’s all anybody knew about a show they had not yet seen. But they were in a state of outrage about it already.

These forum posters basically had two main concerns: (1) that dogs were being exploited to sell TV entertainment; and (2), that the contestants might turn out to be unscrupulous fame-seekers who would try to win a dog they had no intention of keeping or treating well. Let me just say, in my opinion these are very valid concerns. We should be concerned about the types of people these poor homeless dogs might end up with. Haven’t they already been through enough, with the homelessness and all?

Because I participated in this show, I feel I have a valid perspective on the way the dog we “got”, Hugs (pictured above) was treated and how we, as applicants/contestants, were treated, and about the philosophy of the show as a whole.

Now I haven’t seen every show on Animal Planet, but most of the shows I’ve seen have been either informative/educational, consciousness-raising (reality shows on animal abuse), or hapless entertainment (pratfall pet videos, star pets, or stupid pet tricks). Would this change with the addition of the Who Gets the Dog? series? Reality shows already have a stigma of self-promotion. But this isn’t entirely a reality show; it’s a little bit of a game show, too. But should a dog be considered a prize award? The show’s director and producers were adamant not to use “winning/losing” terminology during filming. Their focus, they said, was on finding the best home for the homeless dog. But although they never referred to their show directly as a game show, we signed what they told us were standard game show contracts. We would, after all, be competing for something (or someone, rather) to take home and we would, therefore, be ineligible to participate in other game shows for a set period of time.

But, as to its impetus, this show was created by the US Humane Society in an effort raise awareness about shelter dogs and the benefits of adopting them. And these dogs on the show are clearly a tiny bit more empowered than your typical shelter dogs in determining their fates. Their feelings about their prospective owners would supposedly be analyzed by experts in an effort to determine where they wanted to live. Nice idea, but would it really work?

This might be a good time to address my background. I was raised by two dog lovers. My parents won’t take long vacations because they don’t like to leave their dog with a sitter, forget about a kennel. I was raised to believe dogs have feelings, “rights,” although my father would never put it that way. My parents would consider it highly egregious to adopt a dog and then return it on a whim or because dog ownership turned out to be harder than one thought it would be.

You take on a huge responsibility to another sentient, practically powerless, dog when you adopt one. And once you jump in, you’ve made what amounts to a sacred covenant. It was just that conviction of responsibility that I well understood that kept me stubbornly bound to the angry, bullheaded Helga for 16 years. I wasn’t going to give up on her no matter what. Because, you see, we had a pact. And the decision to make that pact should come before you adopt them. You just shouldn’t “return” them for anything less than life-saving contingencies.

It was a conviction of responsibility that I well understood back from when I was a teenager and made the decision to adopt the 4-week old Helga when I was still living with my parents (and I didn’t bother asking them). I knew that this conviction of responsibility would ensure that although I hadn’t asked, I would get to keep her because my father’s sense of fairness to the dog was more absolute and would outweigh his desire to punish me for making such an awesomely selfish decision.

Helga stayed, but by the end of the day I was fantasizing about joining the circus. I got such a lecture about my foolishness and moral decrepitude, a lecture event that is now part of our family mythology to this day. Rarely have I seen my father angrier with me.

Those ethical parameters ingrained into me about dogs and their feelings resonated a year later when I took a philosophy course in college called Modern Ethics and we started reading animal rights philosophies by Peter Singer. He wrote persuasively and unemotionally about animal ethics in his books: Practical Ethics, which we studied in class, and the classic Animal Liberation, which lead me to become active in PETA, Farm Sanctuary in upstate New York, START in St. Louis and the Animal Protective Association of Missouri. For a year or more, I helped take dogs to nursing homes, went on anti-fur marches, did dog walks for fund raisers, stuffed envelopes and attended consciousness-raising meetings. I stopped eating beef, chicken and pork back in the early 90s when you couldn’t so much as find a vegetarian TV dinner in a grocery store.

Eventually I dropped out of active participation in kind of a funk. At the time, I was seeing racist epithets spray-painted on my college campus walkways. I felt humans couldn’t even grasp the concept of treating each other right, let alone another species of mammals. I felt like we were trying to teach Algebra to Kindergartners. But my head and heart has continued to follow the cause and I’ve been veggie ever since.

In the mid-90s, I took a public speaking class and gave a presentation on Euthanasia in animal shelters. I showed a video of a large dog being euthanized and it was shocking and heartbreaking for everyone to see. Then I unveiled the statistics: this same event was happening to tens of thousands of dogs, and infinitely more cats, each year. At the end of the speech, I implored the class to spay and neuter their pets and adopt from shelters instead of breeders.

Times have certainly changed for the worse. This year the Humane Society of the United States estimates that 3-4 MILLION dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters every year in the US alone. Shelters are simply overwhelmed.

I was also familiar with the shelter adoption process, as well. After all, I had adopted Helga from the St. Charles Humane Society’s shelter. I had been shopping with a friend and we walked into the shelter on a whim. I was entranced by this tiny fur ball and I filled out one small form which asked what kind of home I lived in, did I have a yard, did I have experience with dogs, etc. I paid $35 ($30 of which would be refunded IF I chose to get Helga spayed, which I did and then went around telling everyone I had a $5 dog). And then off we went. I could have lied about every item on the form, but I still walked out with a dog in twenty minutes. Honestly, I had no idea I was going to be adopting a dog that day. I adopted her without any forethought or consideration. My heart did all the talking. Although it worked out well for me, I’m a special case. I had that aforementioned conviction of responsibility most expectant pet owners seem to lack.

This is why shelters have vastly improved their adoption processes to weed out the fickle pet shoppers. Most shelters now mandate a 24-hour waiting period for adoptions (to give people time to think over rash decisions), people are required to go through a background check (to weed out those already convicted of crimes against animals), and people are asked to pay higher fees to adopt pets (to help fund the shelters and again weed out the less-than-serious and responsible). Shelters want you to jump through a hoop or two because animals are better off stuck in the shelter than being shuttled around from home to home when they have no idea why they’re being “returned.” Even the one-on-one interviews are rougher. And animals are spayed and neutered before they leave the shelter, no exceptions. Shelters have found that people are just not responsible enough to help control overpopulation and thereby help reduce the millions of euthanasias occurring in shelters.

And I hate it when people try to recycle pets. Animals are not merchandise. So I could relate to these angry folks who were concerned about the intentions of the Who Gets The Dog? show creators and producers. I had them myself.

I also hate reality shows. I hate the idiotic melodrama. And I don’t like game shows particularly either. I’m not very competitive by nature and am bored by trivia. My friend Christopher once tried to get me to go on a game show called Cram years ago and I refused. Julie, who loves game shows, did audition with him, and she has auditioned for other game shows as well.

I’ve also never had any burning desire to be on TV. As a longtime Cher fan, I’ve received about four or five requests to be on televised freak-fan shows, from Oprah to VH1 shows and special fan-freak documentaries. The only thing I ever accepted was a spot on an NPR radio show talking about celebrity obsession. But hey, it was NPR; I’ve actually fantasized about being on NPR. I can’t think of any benefit or prize worth the cost of showing a handful-to-a-hundred people what an awkward geek I really am. It defies my Leo-ness, but there it is. I’m more of an observer than a participant, more a commentator than a performer.

But I love dogs. And I missed Helga after she passed away in May of last year, one month shy of her 16th birthday. And the idea of Fate usually swings my heart very irrationally. And Julie had been scouting for her own dog on petfinder.com. So this show suddenly sounded appealing and interesting and, dare I say, "meant to be". So when Julie passed along the details for the show, I really wanted to participate. She said she was shocked.

I can only speak to my experience on the show, but I have to say, it wasn’t a bad one. Hugs did not suffer. On the contrary, he seemed thrilled with all the attention. He ignored the cameras and schmoozed like a pro. And he was shadowed constantly by a dedicated dog handler named Christen whose sole responsibility was to ensure his safety and happiness. And she took her responsibility seriously. During the chaos of filming any show, it’s easy to lose track of things. Christen was there to make sure Hugs was safe at all times and at one point stopped production because it looked like Hugs might be limping.

And we jumped through plenty of hoops to prove ourselves fit to be on this show. We filled out an online questionnaire, went through a background check, were interviewed on video, and responded to a series of essay questions on dog ownership. Then, as contestants, we had our actions and comments scrutinized by a panel of experts that included:

  • Merrill Markoe, author of "What the Dogs Have Taught Me (and other amazing things I've learned)" and "The Day My Dogs Turned into Guys"
  • Tamar Gellar, who founded Southern California's first totally cage-free boarding and daycare center, "The Loved Dog Company", has appeared on Good Morning America, CNN and USA Today talking about animal behavior, and once counseled The Osbournes on taming their pack.
  • Dr. Dean Graulich, a veterinarian from Malibu who also runs a dog rescue

So, the essays, the behavior analysis by animal judges and the Animal Planet staff: all of this you wouldn’t have to go through if you walked into your local shelter to adopt a dog. And the surveillance didn’t stop after we took Hugs home. Producers did follow-up calls with us to ensure we had updated all his adoption papers and tags, often calling us to see if we had questions or problems, inquiring about how the potty training was going. We’ve also kept in contact with Hugs' handler, Christen, who Hugs-sits for us from time to time.

It is true that 15-minutes-of-fame-obsessed people could fake their way through all of these hoops if they were really good at it. But you could easily fake your way through less hoops at any shelter in the city. It’s a rare risk in contrast to the show’s benefit: raising awareness about shelter dogs and reducing the stigma of shelter dogs. Julie even encountered this rescue-dog prejudice the other day at obedience class when the trainer warned her that rescue dogs are special risks who behave well for the first three months and then often start acting out. I notice this prejudice comes mostly from pure breed dog lovers, interestingly, which is outrageous since inbreeding has proven to cause mental and physical problems in most mammals. Shelter dogs may have special problems due to rough childhoods or time on the street, but pure breeds have their fair share of problems as well.

Who Gets the Dog proposes that getting the chance to have a shelter dog in your home is a cool thing, something worthy of competing for a dog’s affection. And under the guidance of the Humane Society of the United States and Animal Planet, one of the least “Hollywood” of all the current TV stations, this show might possibly save hundreds of shelter dogs' (and cats') lives, which is surely worth the risk of one or two fame-seekers slipping through.

I’m behind it. Watch and decide for yourself.


Humane Society of the United States

Animal Planet


Helga's homepage

Our account of our Who Gets the Dog? experience

Hugs' homepage

Read the HugsGram - Edgar's personal newsletter for his fans

Read Edgar's 2nd HugsGram

Are you for or against Who Gets the Dog? Tell us your thoughts.


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