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We need to rethink “adopt, don’t shop”

Choosing a dog is a big deal. It’s a choice that will impact you (and your future pup) for years to come, and, as such, it’s important to carefully consider which dog is right for you.

If you’ve ever embarked upon this journey of choosing a dog, you’ve likely received an unsolicited barrage of advice—including the old “adopt, don’t shop” adage. We hear it from friends, family members, and strangers on the internet, and see it plastered on bumper stickers and posted on billboards. This phrase is pervasive, suggesting that adopting a dog from a shelter or humane society is the “right” or “better” choice.

But is this sound advice, or is it incomplete? Though adopting might be the right choice for some dog owners, there are reasons it isn’t a good fit for others—and, in some ways, pushing adopting over purchasing an ethically-bred puppy is indirectly perpetuating inhumane breeding practices. 

Origins of “adopt, don’t shop”

The “adopt, don’t shop,” slogan was initially intended to dissuade potential dog owners from purchasing pups at pet stores, where available puppies often come from puppy mills. And given that an estimated 90% of pet store dogs are born in puppy mills, this slogan is founded on solid advice: Puppy mills prioritize profit over the well-being of animals, often subjecting them to inhumane living conditions, poor healthcare, and genetic disorders through indiscriminate breeding practices. 

So, if “adopt, don’t shop,” was solely aimed at discouraging folks from supporting puppy mills, we’d be totally on board. Puppy mills are bad, and so are backyard breeders. The problem is that it isn’t. This slogan has expanded to suggest that, in all cases, adopting a dog is better than purchasing a dog, and that simply isn’t the case. 

Problems with “adopt, don’t shop”

The idea that “adopt, don’t shop” doesn’t support puppy mills or other inhumane breeding practices (such as backyard breeding) is fundamentally flawed. Though well-intended advice, this slogan could actually be perpetuating backyard breeding and puppy mills. 

Why? Because ethical, reputable dog breeders do not abandon their dogs in the desert or surrender unadopted puppies to the shelter. Their dogs have also had genetic and health testing, so are less likely to end up surrendered to a shelter due to problems with health, temperament, or something else. In fact, most ethical breeders will require that new dog owners sign a contract saying that, if problems arise with their dog and they need to rehome it, the dog must be returned to the breeder.

This, then, begs the question: Where are the dogs in shelters coming from? If they aren’t from ethical breeders, who have lifetime return policies so their dogs don’t end up in shelters, why are there so many dogs available for adoption?

Many dogs that are labeled as “strays” or “owner surrendered” at shelters can be traced back to puppy mills and backyard breeders. And if prospective owners are encouraged to only consider adopting—even if it isn’t the right choice for them—the demand for adoptable dogs will remain high, leaving space for backyard breeders and puppy mills to continue to breed dogs unethically.

If all dogs were coming from ethical breeders who maintained accountability for their pups' entire lifespan, there would be almost no need for shelters. The only dogs that would end up there would be in very rare cases, such as if a breeder died. But there wouldn’t be a steady stream of dogs coming in with diseases, temperament challenges, and no breeder to take responsibility.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Shelters exist, as do a whole bunch of pups who, by no fault of their own, are a result of sketchy and unethical breeding practices. 

What’s a prospective dog owner to do? 

Unfortunately, the “adopt, don’t shop” campaign has done a good job of pitting dog owners against each other. Yes, shelter dogs need homes—but it’s not fair or realistic to ask all prospective owners to adopt, especially since many shelter dogs come with many unknowns. People who choose to adopt are not better than those who choose to work with an ethical breeder, and buying into this notion is bad for everyone.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: choosing a dog is a big deal. And prospective dog owners should carefully consider both adopting and purchasing a dog from an ethical breeder to determine what’s best for them.

When thinking about adopting vs. purchasing from an ethical breeder, here are a few key considerations: 

Adopting from a shelter

  • Unknown history: You likely will not know much about your pup’s parents, genetics, breed, or behavioral history. 

  • Lack of records: You might not have access to the precise age of the dog, its health history, medical records, etc.

  • Lack of clarity around breed: Different breeds have different needs. Without a full understanding of your dog’s genetics, it can be difficult to predict their behavior, temperament, and lifespan. 

Purchasing from an ethical breeder

  • Higher initial costs: Though ethical breeding is not a money-making venture, these dogs often have a higher purchase price. That said, this higher investment also comes with full health records, parental history, genetic testing, and a lifetime breeder guarantee—which can save you significant $$ over your dog’s lifetime. 

  • More predictability: By purchasing from an ethical breeder, you can feel confident about your dog’s breed, temperament, genetics, and other factors. This peace of mind can be helpful for people who cannot risk having a dog that has significant health problems or is aggressive/reactive (for instance, families with children).

The tl;dr on “adopt, don’t shop” 

At the end of the day, a person should choose the right dog for THEM. And reverting to broad slogans like “adopt, don’t shop” as the end all, be all, guidance when choosing a dog is harmful. 

Where the dog comes from is irrelevant, and we need to stop bullying owners based on their dog’s origin (i.e., you’re “bad” or “good” for either adopting or shopping from an ethical breeder). Yes, backyard breeders and puppy mills are bad and we certainly should not be supporting them. But people who choose to purchase a dog from an ethical breeder over adopting or vice versa should be able to make that decision based on what’s right for them—without broader public judgment.


Looking for more info on how to choose a dog? In our guide, Finding Fido: Your Guide to Choosing the Dog That’s Right for YOU, we break down everything that new dog owners should consider as they choose a dog.

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