Animal rescue programs have been around since the 1950s, but only in the past decade have organizations cropped up for specific breeds of dogs and those breeds' mixes. The groups foster dogs to ease crowding at local shelters and offer would-be pet owners more options to adopt.
This may be the best time to find the right pet. Each spring, after the joy of getting a dog as a Christmas gift shifts to the reality of taking care of it, new owners drop off their dogs at shelters in droves. Worse, the current economic downturn has forced many families to turn their dogs over to rescue groups. Even the record snowfall up North led some pet owners to decide they could not provide for their dogs during the difficult weather, rescue volunteers said.
The rescue groups are usually a loose network of volunteers who have fallen in love with a certain type of dog. They foster dogs found in shelters, rescued from puppy mills or dropped off by owners, and look for the perfect permanent home for the animals.
"We're eHarmony for dogs," said Sarah Ruckelshaus, director of Mid-Atlantic Border Collie Rescue, whose group has a 98 percent success rate at finding a happy "forever" home. "We're really looking to match up the dog's personality, temperament and energy needs with the family."
The adoption process is strict to ensure the match will stick. Jenny Eisen grew up with the Great Danes her mother adopted through the Mid-Atlantic Great Dane Rescue League and volunteered for the group. But even she had to go through an adoption process to get her own dog. Eisen, a nurse, said a volunteer brought over a Dane to see how it would interact with her two roommates and in her Arlington, Va., townhouse.
Eisen said some people are reluctant to adopt a rescue dog, thinking that something must be wrong with it for the owners to give it up. "Most people are worried that if they get a dog from a rescue league the dog will have all these issues," Eisen said. "But in actuality they have a pretty rigorous screening process for the people and the dog, so you know what you're getting into."
Though puppies do pass through the rescue organizations, it is much more likely to find a dog that's at least 1 year old. Kimberly Pollard, a lobbyist in Richmond, Va., wanted a pug after falling in love with her neighbor's dog, but she worked full time and could not rush home every few hours to potty-train a puppy. She found Levi, 3, through Mid-Atlantic Pug Rescue.
"A puppy is great," Pollard said, "but if you get a dog a year or two older, they're already trained. And older dogs need homes. That's two benefits right there."
The past 10 years have seen a sharp increase in demand for purebred dogs due to popular culture: Pug sales spiked after one had a role in Men in Black and its sequel; Chihuahua fever can be credited to the film Legally Blonde and Taco Bell ads.
But purebred dogs often require specific care for particular health issues, said Joan Schramm, public relations coordinator for the Great Dane group. Great Danes, for example, can suffer from joint problems and heart ailments. Rescue organizers cite a lack of knowledge as the single biggest contributor to the rise in specialty breeds up for adoption.
"They look so cute on the screen," said Schramm, who is not looking forward to the summer release of Marmaduke, a movie about a Great Dane. But "six months later … we'll be inundated with dogs."
The high demand has driven many disreputable sellers into the business, said Joanne Hale, the director of MidAtlantic Bulldog Rescue. Foreign importers, puppy-mill owners or backyard breeders pay "$1,000 for a litter of puppies, and sell them for a $3,500 a pop."
While many volunteers have more than a few choice words for dog breeders, the organizations do not discourage people who want to buy a puppy or a show dog. The American Kennel Club's Web site offers a checklist on what to look for in a good breeder.
"Just do your research," Schramm said. "Buying a dog off Craigslist is not such a good idea."