Save the Dogs: Inside a Foundation's Quest to Help Shelter Animals Find Homes

Unless you’re an avid dog welfare advocate, you may not have realized that October was Adopt a Shelter Dog Month. And while those of us actively fostering and rescuing dogs believe that every month should be Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, dog rescue advocates hope that a dedicated awareness month can help stem this sad epidemic. We spoke with Julie Duke, executive director of the Pedigree Foundation, to find out what role philanthropy is playing to raise awareness over the plight of the shelter dog.

Since 2005 the pet industry has experienced unprecedented growth, rising from $23 billion to over $50 billion—that’s more than Americans spend on music, movies and video games combined. By all accounts, Americans love their pets and are willing to spend a lot of money on their care, but despite this surge in pet-related purchases, there’s one figure that remains sadly unchanged—the number of dogs that find their way into shelters every year. Says Duke:

For about 10 years, we’ve been following the number of shelter animals, and it doesn’t seem to be moving very much. It’s still over 5 million dogs that end up in shelters, and we know that more than half of them don’t come out.

Of those 5 million dogs, over 1 million—80 percent of which are healthy and treatable—are euthanized each year. And shelter dog adoption advocates like Duke and the folks at the Pedigree Foundation agree that these numbers are unnecessarily high. But before pointing a finger at shelters and their practices, Duke believes the biggest challenge keeping shelters full is irresponsible ownership: "People just don’t spay and neuter. It’s not that there’s not information out there. It’s not that there’s not low-cost spay and neuter out there… but people just don’t do it for some reason."

The Pedigree Foundation has its roots in adoption. In 2005, the Pedigree brand of MARS, Inc. (yes, the same maker of chocolate candy products you should definitely not feed your dog) launched the Pedigree Adoption drive—an international campaign to raise awareness and funds for dogs in need. Building on the success of the campaign, and no doubt capitalizing on the exponential growth of its product sales, the Pedigree Foundation was born in 2008 to advance its work on behalf of shelter dogs.

Since then, the private foundation, funded by the Pedigree brand and public donations, has awarded more than $5 million through 4,194 grants to shelters and rescue organizations for various initiatives, big and small. "The focus of all of our grantmaking is helping dogs get adopted," says Duke. "Our philanthropy mission statement is to help dogs in need find loving homes."

Indeed, Pedigree’s grantees are primarily shelters and rescues, allowing Pedigree to give support directly where it’s needed. And sure, a lot of shelters and rescues simply need enough money to keep their doors open and their animals fed and cared for, but Pedigree also looks for innovative programming and smart campaigns offering three different grant types annually:

  • Operation Grants are awarded in amounts up to $1,000 and may be used for general operating expenses. 
  • Innovation Grants are awarded in amounts ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 for programs that focus specifically on the development and initial implementation of creative and innovative programs that increase the number of canine adoptions.  
  • Program Development Grants are new in 2015. They will be awarded in amounts from $1,000 to $10,000.  The funds may be used to implement new programs or support the expansion of current programs that increase their numbers of canine adoptions. 

Pedigree is far from the only organization doing work in this area—and far from the biggest. The ASPCA, Humane Society and Petfinder Foundation all come to mind, as does the national no-kill movement that has gained significant ground over the past 20 years. In fact, today there are over 13,000 rescue groups and animal sanctuaries in North America and millions of private individuals contributing both time and money in support of this work. But despite the rising number of players on the scene, the amount of money going directly to companion animal welfare is difficult to pinpoint.


According to Duke, the funds devoted to animal welfare within the total amount generated for philanthropy in the United States remains less than 10 percent. Further complicating things, that 10 percent generally sees animal welfare lumped together with conservation and environment.

For Duke, this isn’t good enough. Recounting how one of Pedigree’s grantees, Austin Pets Alive, was flooded out during last summer's flooding in Texas—and perhaps taking a tactical page from the environment and conservation handbook—Pedigree wants to develop a crisis response fund to allow the foundation to be more responsive to emergency situations.  

Despite stagnation in the number of dogs entering shelters each year, many do get adopted, and Duke believes there have been great strides made in the animal welfare community.

There are pockets of real success in terms of marketing and engagement. In the rescue and shelter world, it takes all the resources they have just to keep going, just to take care of the animals and so the marketing the education the communication is all the secondary focus...yet there’s great work being done. But there’s always more to do because there are always more animals to take care of.

Adopt a Shelter Month has come and gone, but the effort to help shelter dogs find their forever homes is far from over. For every dog that gets adopted, there are countless others waiting to take their place in a shelter. "A lot of people don’t understand how wonderful shelter dogs are," Duke says. "If they were human, they would have great stories to tell."

As a proud mom to three former shelter dogs, I couldn’t agree more.