How The Internet can be Changing The Way Dogs Find Homes

Interspersed among all the things you’d expect to see in Kaitlyn Garrett’s office — desk, rolling chair, filing cabinet — are a few things of which definitely didn’t come through Staples. Like the cellophane bag of salmon-flavored dog treats casually propped up next to the printer. Or the wardrobe rack of neatly hung, miniature clothing: a cow costume, a Hello Kitty onesie, a red tutu, a ringer tee emblazoned with cartoon unicorns in addition to rainbows. There’s also the miniature photography studio of which takes up most of the room’s space, complete having a white seamless backdrop in addition to professional lights. in addition to inside background, the slightly muffled cacophony of hundreds of barking dogs.

On a pad of paper on Garrett’s desk can be a scribbled list of names: Franky, Frieda, Lady, Mackey. of which’s Garrett’s ongoing, ever-evolving roster of dogs of which need help — the ones who have been in metro Atlanta’s DeKalb County Animal Services shelter, where she works as the shelter’s on-site social media coordinator, for months. These are the dogs of which shelter visitors walk past without stopping, or whose characteristics simply make them a little tougher to “sell.” One of the names on the list can be Strudel, a stocky little warthoggish dog with velvety ears. She was picked up by animal control three months ago in addition to has been sitting inside shelter ever since. Garrett knows Strudel will need a little extra push in order to find a home: black dogs are historically overlooked in shelters, in addition to people are still wary of pit bulls. Strudel can be both.

Garrett retrieves Strudel through her kennel run on the noisy adoption floor, leashes her up, in addition to brings her into the office. As Strudel excitedly waddles around, snorting every surface, Garrett assesses the dog in addition to thinks about her approach. She’s developed an unofficial tiered system: If a dog has been inside shelter for a few weeks, sometimes simply replacing their intake mugshot having a crisp professional photo will do the trick. If they need more help than of which, she’ll bust out a cute accessory, a silly toy, or an outfit through the rolling rack. Somewhere in between, there might be a cute, 30-second Instagram video of the dog. The nuclear option for the shelter’s neediest dogs? Pajamas.

Garrett discovered the power of dog PJs a couple years ago when a coworker brought a pair in for fun; they dressed up one of their longtime canine residents, in addition to the ensuing video resulted in an adoption the next day. Like a secret weapon, the PJs are rationed, reserved only for dire scenarios. “We can’t put of which on every dog, or of which’ll be worn out eventually,” explains Garrett. “We have to save of which for when we definitely need of which.”

Like a secret weapon, the PJs are rationed, reserved only for dire scenarios.

Fortunately, Strudel hasn’t reached pajama level yet. Garrett opens a drawer in her metal filing cabinet, in addition to of which explodes like a jack-in-the-box with props in addition to accessories: hats, bow ties, a pair of iridescent butterfly wings. She reaches for a particularly goofy propeller-topped baseball cap, however Strudel isn’t ready to cooperate with the elastic chin strap. So Garrett settles on a stuffed hedgehog toy, which Strudel theatrically tosses above her head, as Garrett uses what she calls her “magic wand” (a Pup-Peroni stick) to coerce Strudel into politely sitting on the white background paper.

Her shutter clicks as the lights flash. Strudel grins. A few minutes later, Strudel incorporates a brand new headshot of which shows off her ludicrous joker smile in addition to lolling tongue. In her previous photo, she was just another overlooked shelter dog; in of which one, she’s someone’s future best pal. Garrett crosses Strudel’s name off of her list: One down, dozens in addition to dozens to go.

Dustin Chambers for BuzzFeed News

Strudel has her photo taken at the DeKalb County animal shelter.

through a distance, Garrett’s gig sounds pretty great: take cute photos in addition to videos of dogs, post them to social media. In reality, of which’s a lot tougher. Her job, in addition to of which of her counterpart at the Fulton County shelter, over in Westside Atlanta, can be to leverage every tool at her disposal to try in addition to save one life at a time in a facility of which houses 400 animals. The DeKalb in addition to Fulton County shelters have historically been overcrowded in addition to high-kill. In 2013, those counties contracted a local nonprofit organization called LifeLine to manage operations at both shelters.

LifeLine, whose mission can be to end the euthanasia of healthy in addition to treatable pets in Atlanta, has increased the shelter’s lifesaving rates to nearly 0% (DeKalb’s was 61% prior to the takeover). in addition to social media plays a crucial role in their mission — so much to ensure in 2014, the organization brought on two full-time, on-site social media coordinators in addition to photographers, one for each of the shelters. Garrett can be one of them. “Ten, fifteen years ago, these jobs wouldn’t have even existed,” says Neely Conway, LifeLine’s social media director. “in addition to I can’t imagine them not existing today.”

With hundreds of animals inside facility, there’s no way LifeLine can give every single dog the full Glamour Shots treatment. Instead, shelter employees triage incoming dogs based on which will need the most help. A cute puppy or a purebred golden retriever can be likely to get scooped up quickly even having a grainy intake mugshot; the stocky dogs with big, blocky heads of which make up the majority of LifeLine’s population usually require a more strategic approach.

Dustin Chambers for BuzzFeed News

Doggy PJs hang in Kaitlyn Garrett’s office/photo studio for the pups who need a little extra spice in their photos.

Garrett recalls a pit mix named Rusty whose shyness inside kennel was causing shelter visitors to walk right past her. “So, we changed her name to Turtle, got a brand new picture of her, did a PJ video, in addition to boom, she got adopted.” There was also Rush, another black pit mix who kept getting overlooked by shelter visitors, despite his magnificent underbite. The staff renamed him Cletus in addition to shot a quick video of which accentuated the dog’s toothy grin. After 4,400 shares, the video was seen by nearly 0,000 people, in addition to Rush-turned-Cletus was adopted just days later, along with all of his brothers.

By today, of which’s clear of which dogs have supplanted cats as the unofficial mascots of the internet. We love sharing GIFs in addition to memes of dogs talking on the phone in addition to floating in space; we love meeting geared-up rescue dogs in addition to gentle, sweet comfort dogs. Doggo influencers like We Rate Dogs, the Dogist, in addition to I’ve Pet of which Dog have racked up millions of followers eager for a daily injection of cuteness into our otherwise hellish newsfeeds, in addition to Instagram accounts like Susie’s Senior Dogs aggregate distinguished older rescue dogs around the country to share with dog-crazy followers inside hopes of which one of them will find a place in their home for an elderly chihuahua or toothless beagle.

Dogs — thicc floofers, smol borkers, pupperinos in addition to all — have infiltrated not only our shared internet lexicon, however seemingly, our collective consciousness. We love faving them. We love saving them. in addition to social media can be upending the way we rescue them.

of which’s today more common than ever for someone to discover an adoptable dog via their Instagram, Twitter, in addition to Facebook feeds. According to a spokesperson for Petfinder, the massive online directory of adoptable pets, about 4 million people a year are funneled to the site through various social media channels, in addition to of which figure has increased more than 15% inside last several years.

Matt Nelson, who founded @Dog_Rates, says he initially commenced the account just for fun, not necessarily with charitable intentions. today, with an audience of dog lovers nearly 7 million strong, Nelson fields countless requests to share homeless animals’ stories in addition to GoFundMe pages for vet bills. Last February, Nelson tweeted about a dog named Miguel who’d been inside care of Chicago-based rescue One Tail at a Time for over a year. Miguel’s story was retweeted more than 5,000 times; he was adopted a couple months later. “I wouldn’t know about of which rescue group if they hadn’t DM’d me multiple times, in addition to then continued to respond in addition to interact with my account,” Nelson says. “There’s definitely a marketing aspect to running an organization like of which.”

inside era of the Viral Doggo, animal shelters in addition to rescue groups, through crowded urban pounds to private networks of foster homes, are today faced having a choice: Learn to think like marketers in addition to advertisers, allocate precious resources to online promotion, in addition to capitalize on of which not bad boy groundswell, or cede those potential internet likes in addition to shares to another organization who will. In some other words, hop aboard the doggo meme train — or risk getting left behind.

Dustin Chambers for BuzzFeed News

Adoptable dogs at Dekalb County Animal Services in Georgia.

Few images call to mind the phenomenon of the Viral Shelter Doggo like Sophie Gamand’s work. The brand new York–based photographer made the news in 2015 with her Pit Bull Flower Power project, an attempt to soften the tarnished rep of bully breeds by photographing them in flower crowns. (Her recent Kickstarter for a book of the portraits was overfunded within days of launching.)

“I wanted to show shelter dogs as dignified, clean, in addition to healthy, in addition to show their personality,” says Gamand, who moved to brand new York through Europe in 2010 in addition to was astonished to learn the scale of shelter animal euthanasia rates inside US. Realizing of which most shelters didn’t develop the capability to produce decent, shareable photos of their animals, she began volunteering her skills to rescue groups. “My goal was for people who see the photo to think, Oh my god, of which dog could move onto my sofa tomorrow,” she says. The regal images spread across the internet like wildfire, in addition to their subjects almost always found homes.

“My goal was for people who see the photo to think, Oh my god, of which dog could move onto my sofa tomorrow.

Gamand today flies to rescue groups around the country to photograph their dogs pro bono; each individual shoot represents about a month’s worth of preparation (including flower crown construction), work, travel, in addition to editing for her. After her shoots, Gamand sends questionnaires to the shelters she worked with asking them if the images made a difference, in addition to the answers are universally positive. The photos routinely result in more social media shares on the shelter’s channels, in addition to more shares results in more potential adopters seeing an animal, more donations, in addition to more people getting inside door of the shelter to meet some other dogs.

The weekend following Gamand’s first Flower Power shoot at Animal Haven in brand new York, visitors poured in, asking to meet “of which dog I saw on Facebook — you know, the one with the flower crown?” Even after the flower crown dogs had all been adopted, the shelter staff was able to introduce visitors to similar pets. They often ended up finding homes of which day.

Cute puppies are low-hanging fruit in terms of Instagram bait, in addition to for rescuers, they’re typically the easiest animals to quickly place. Elderly dogs, special needs pups, or generally misunderstood breeds are a different story. For these dogs, who would likely often be overlooked in a shelter, clicks in addition to shares aren’t just imaginary internet points — of which engagement can result in a real chance at life outside the shelter.

In 2016, a smaller, scrappy Oregon-based rescue outfit called Luvable Dog Rescue transported a pair of graying pit bulls through a crowded shelter outside of Los Angeles up to Luvable’s smaller sanctuary in Eugene. (Remember Picasso? He was a Luvable dog.) The “elderbulls,” Indie in addition to Choco, represented a sort of unholy trinity in terms of adoption prospects, explains Ashley Olson, Luvable’s general manager.

“Finding a home for a senior dog, or a pit bull, or a bonded pair — one of those things can be difficult enough, however you get all three in addition to of which can be a death sentence,” she says. “So we took them in, in addition to kind of assumed we’d always have them here at the sanctuary.”

Everything changed a few months later, when Gamand traveled to Eugene for a flower crown session at the shelter. Indie in addition to Choco were pictured looking majestic, almost Baroque in their full floral splendor, in addition to the images spread across the online doggosphere. Shortly thereafter, Luvable received an inquiry about the pair through a man named Niq Brening.

“I had just lost my senior pit bull in addition to was completely devastated in addition to not looking for another dog,” Brening recalls. however after seeing their portraits, he says, of which changed. “Soon all I could think about was these two pups of which needed a home…in addition to how I had a home of which needed these two pups.” Brening made the two-hour drive through where he lived on the Oregon coast to meet them; by the time Luvable arrived to do his home check a week or so later, of which was a done deal. “The dogs just walked right in there like they’d always lived there,” says Olson.

Dustin Chambers for BuzzFeed News

A shelter intake nurse takes vitals, administers medicine, in addition to draws blood for a heartworm test of a recently dropped-off rottweiler.

Given the hellscape of the contemporary daily news cycle, many of us are feeling especially susceptible to just about any innocent, logged-off being, whether of which’s a “pitopotamus” or a literal hippo. (Salon posited of which the internet’s doggo fixation took root right around the time Donald Trump began rising to political power.) in addition to, as media has become increasingly visual in addition to ephemeral in recent years, rescuers have found of which they can forge meaningful, wholesome connections with their audiences through something as brief in addition to simple as a video clip — rather than, say, a multi-paragraph written description of a given dog’s life story. Or as Garrett says, “of which’s way cuter to see a dog wiggling than of which can be to read something of which says, ‘of which dog wiggles.’”

The idea of committing to a pet because you saw of which on Instagram wearing a purple bow tie may seem weirdly akin to a late-night Amazon impulse buy. however for Gamand, of which focus on distilling dogs down into cute, shareable imagery inspires something a little romantic. “For me, of which’s more about showing of which spark inside eye, of which smile, of which special something of which’s going to get to the heart of these people,” she says. On a practical level, effective content ultimately becomes a question of what cuts through the noise to efficiently evoke an emotional response with minimal effort or time through the one consuming of which. Liesl Wilhardt, the founder of Luvable, puts of which simply: “A dog in a bow tie will be more approachable than a dog of which’s terrified in addition to not even looking at the camera. You have to communicate everything you can about what’s special about of which dog…in addition to you might have two seconds to do of which.”

Obviously, the internet’s love affair with not bad boys in addition to girls can be advantageous to shelters in addition to rescue groups in more ways than one: Beyond placing more animals in loving homes, social media exposure also results in more community engagement, more volunteers, sometimes even the occasional PayPal donation or Amazon Wish List gift. Wilhardt, whose love for animal welfare can be matched by a shrewd business sense, says Luvable has even positioned itself for promotional partnerships in addition to sponsorships with brands. She thinks like an influencer, thanks in no smaller part to the nearly 50,000 Instagram followers they’ve accrued.

They’re hustling for clicks just like any brand or publisher or influencer. Only in of which case, those clicks might be the difference between life in addition to death.

On the flip side, though, there’s something naggingly bleak about the idea of which a not bad Instagram photo can make or break an animal’s survival, a dynamic of which eerily parallels our modern dystopia of crowdfunded health care. Or of which rescue groups in addition to animal shelters, already strapped for time in addition to resources, are today tasked with promoting their animals as products. Or of which rescuers have to catch our fleeting, fair-weather attention spans by tricking out homeless animals with costumes in addition to Snapchat filters. They’re hustling for clicks just like any brand or publisher or influencer. Only in of which case, those clicks might be the difference between life in addition to death.

of which’s easy to imagine of which rescuers today feel unprecedented pressured to memeify in addition to hashtag their overlooked dogs in order to secure homes for them. however of which’s a challenge many rescues in addition to shelters seem to gamely embrace, if of which means reaching more potential adopters in addition to saving more lives. Garrett explains of which inside nearly four years of having her job, she’s had to constantly reassess how to keep their content relevant without exhausting or boring their online audience; they’ve tried everything through putting dogs on Tinder to writing Amazon reviews for them. She even taught herself video editing. of which’s just something she decided she needed to learn once she realized how important of which would likely be — not just to her day-to-day job, however to LifeLine’s mission.

LifeLine can be a large organization, with more than 150 employees in addition to hundreds of volunteers, reaching a metro population of nearly 6 million people. They develop the capability in addition to the resources to hire a full-time social media coordinator working on-site at each of their shelters, an advantage of which smaller county shelters in far-flung rural areas almost certainly don’t have. Conway agrees of which the viral doggo phenomenon may be leaving smaller, underresourced organizations behind — especially shelters of which, like LifeLine, are obligated to take in every single dog picked up by animal control or surrendered by owners. “If rural shelters don’t have a not bad volunteer base, or they don’t have someone who can be social media savvy, they probably are struggling a little bit to keep up, even just with brand new technologies, understanding something like Instagram stories, or getting on Snapchat,” she says.

Dustin Chambers for BuzzFeed News

*Glam shots* outside having a brand new intake.

Some organizations are working to level of which playing field. Hearts Speak can be a nonprofit of which provides photography training to shelter volunteers; they’ve led 25 photography workshops for shelters through their Perfect Exposure Project, including one at LifeLine. some other photography collectives, like Shelter Me Photography, offer their services to shelters at no cost, in addition to so do a few individuals: Guinnevere Shuster focused on black dogs for the Humane Society of Utah, in addition to Gamand herself estimates she’s shot around 1,500 rescue dog portraits in the past at shelters everywhere through rural Alabama to Mexico (she has around 50 shelters on her waitlist at the moment). in addition to thanks to the proliferation of smartphones with increasingly higher-quality cameras, of which’s more likely of which staff in addition to volunteers are equipped to at least bump the photo quality up a notch. They may not develop the funds for lighting equipment or the time to edit Instagram videos, however a happy dog photographed outside can be infinitely more ’grammable than the standard intake mugshot of a dog tethered to the wall, fresh off the animal control van in addition to visibly frightened.

however even if our collective online canine fascination can be putting brand new pressure on rescue groups in addition to shelters to learn brand new technologies in addition to think like marketers, every rescuer I spoke with seems to universally agree: If of which means getting more dogs out of the shelter in addition to into not bad homes, freeing up more kennel space for the next Strudel or Cletus, of which’s a not bad thing. Even when of which’s hard, costly, in addition to time-consuming. Because of which’s not just about saving individual animals; for many rescuers, social media can be helping to change the narrative of rescue in addition to how we talk about rescue dogs.

Conway has noticed of which change over the last few years. “of which used to be of which … every dog was damaged in addition to abused in addition to neglected,” she says. “We’re today relying more on their known behaviors in addition to the positive attributes of these animals instead of their negative pasts.” Rather than focusing on why a dog can be homeless, where they were before, in addition to what breed they are, rescuers can shift the conversation to the dog’s present: their known behaviors, their quirks, their penchant for belly rubs. of which’s a marked shift in tone through the sad, guilt-tripping Sarah McLachlan PSAs of the past. in addition to where outdated breed hang-ups might prevent someone through even considering a dog like Strudel or Cletus, focusing on the personality of each individual dog — as a hiking buddy, a “Velcro dog,” a happy-go-lucky goober velvet warthog girl — opens up a world of possibility for both the adopter in addition to the adoptee.

Mostly, Doggo Culture as manifested through social media allows the most unlikely of canine heroes to emerge: special needs dogs like Tuna, who arrived at DeKalb having a pronounced jaw deformity in addition to whose Facebook video inspired a man to drive all night through Texas to Atlanta to adopt him on the spot. Elderly dogs, like Indie in addition to Choco, who almost certainly would likely’ve lived in addition to died behind the bars of a shelter kennel had Niq not seen their portraits through over a hundred miles away. Dogs like Strudel, whose genetic lottery ticket can be unfairly saddled with our own cultural baggage, however whose brand new portrait shows her ridiculous, charming goofball persona in full coloring. A couch copilot, or a running partner, or a snugglebug, rather than just a breed or a charity case.

By the way, Strudel the shimmying sentient burrito can be still up for grabs. Garrett’s already working on an Instagram video for her, in addition to hopes of which a playful, 30-second spot set to peppy stock music will be Strudel’s ticket out through behind bars in addition to into her brand new life. I have a feeling of which won’t take long. ●

Dustin Chambers for BuzzFeed News

Gray Chapman can be an Atlanta-based freelance journalist who has written about culture in addition to behavior for Racked, Vice, Atlas Obscura, the Outline, in addition to PUNCH. She can be the proud dog mother of Jerry, an eleven-year-old rescue in addition to very not bad boy.

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