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Giving Puppies as Gifts: What if They're "The Wrong Dog?"

The ASPCA's advertisement "Puppies Are The World's Best Gifts" worries me

Happy holidays to you all! At this time of year many people are wondering what gifts to give to family members and friends. Well, how about a puppy?

I just came across a video produced by the ASPCA called "Watch This Definitive Proof That Puppies Are The World's Best Gifts." At the time of my writing this short essay there are 246,000 likes. Of course, many people are going to enjoy seeing a puppy emerge from a box and happy people hugging him or her. I liked it too. It is cute and yes, as the ASPCA writes, "Watch the above video compilation of people of all ages, crying tears of happiness after receiving their new best friends. We’d be surprised if you can make it through the whole thing without getting a little misty-eyed yourself."

But what about the dogs? Are they really getting a "forever home?"

I applaud all that the ASPCA does and also that they want to find good homes for dogs in needs. Who wouldn't? However, this video really surprised and troubled me, especially in light of a recent essay in the New York Times about which I wrote a piece called "Musical Dogs: Moving Dogs From Home to Home can be Perilous" and fellow Psychology Today writer Mark Derr wrote an essay titled "What’s Wrong with 'The Wrong Dog?'” (Please also see Psychology Today writer Jessica Pierce's essay caled "Giving Pets as Gifts.")

The text for the ASPCA video also notes, "Not only will you be giving companionship to a loved one, but you’ll be giving the dog a forever home where they can spend many happy holidays to come."

I would like to believe that the puppies will have "forever homes," but this is hardly a guarantee. Bringing a dog or cat or other animal into a home is a huge commitment, one that should be "forever," from "cradle to grave." But we know this isn't always the case. Even people who personally choose a new companion animal return them for a wide variety of reasons.

I beg everyone who is thinking of giving a puppy or other animal to someone as any sort of gift really think it through. Perhaps put a note under the Christmas tree about what you want to do or otherwise be 100% sure that the people really want to add a new "family member" and are ready to do all it takes to make sure that the animal won't be returned. I know that the surprise will be lost, but at least there may be more certainty that the animal really will be welcomed.

Please don't make a well-intentioned move a grievous mistake

I worry that if indeed the animal is "the wrong animal," he or she will pay a huge price for the well-intentioned move that turns into a grievous mistake. Moving dogs or other animals from one home to another -- playing "musical animals" -- really can be perilous, and it's the animal who pays the price. Happy holidays to you all, and please be careful about giving a live and sentient being as a gift.

Note: I just discovered a study called "Should Dogs and Cats be Given as Gifts?" in which the authors conclude, "results suggest there is no increased risk of relinquishment for dogs and cats received as a gift." While this makes me feel slightly better, I would like to be asked first before someone gifts me with an another being. If I say "yes," I would be no less appreciative of the person's generosity.

Note: This comment was submitted by Alison M. Jimenez on December 23, 2014 - 7:52am.

Hi Mark, I tried reaching out to you to issue a correction, but I have not heard back from you. The ASPCA did not actually produce the video as you state in your article. The video was produced by The Huffington Post, and they wrote the article as well. They simply linked to our research. I would really appreciate it if you would update the article to correct those errors.

We at the ASPCA agree that the last thing anyone would want is for animals to be returned or relinquished to shelters - at any time of the year. But as we've uncovered with our research and written about on our website, there’s just no proof that giving animals as gifts makes them more likely to be returned.

This persistent myth may not only prevent the movement of shelter animals to potentially loving homes, but also drive potential adopters toward unscrupulous and inhumane sources for pets including pet stores that almost always get their inventory from puppy mills.

In our scientific study, the ASPCA found that 96 percent of people who received pets as gifts reported it either increased or had no impact on their love or attachment to that pet. Also, 86 percent of the pets in the study are still in the home, a number roughly equivalent with the percentage of pets retained following a routine adoption.

The survey further revealed no difference in attachment based on whether the gift was a surprise or known in advance. This supports previous studies conducted in the 1990s and 2000, which also found that pets acquired as gifts are less likely to be relinquished than pets acquired directly by an individual owner.

We also stress that pets should only be given as gifts to people with the ability, means and available time to care for one responsibly, and to children under 12 only if parents are ready to take on full responsibility. To help with the transition, we recommend delivering a “starter kit”—bowls, food, toys, a collar, an ID tag, or litter—with the new pet, and encouraging new owners to get their pets licensed. Also, making sure only to get pets from shelters and responsible breeders, not from pet stores or internet sources is very important

Concern about animal welfare comes from a good place, but too much fear and not enough information can stand in the way of a life-saving match.

The free teaser image can be seen here.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also), Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also), and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. The Jane effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson) will be published in 2015. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)

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