Downtime

How Should I Tell People a Shameful Secret About My Dog?

This puppy’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me—but I know the way I got her was wrong.

Hand stroking a happy dog
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bogdan Kurylo/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com. We love dogs and cats equally, and reserve treats for questions about your turtle, guinea pig, bird, snake, fish, or other beast.

Update, Sept. 9, 2019: In retrospect, Beast Mode wishes it had handled this advice differently. Please read about why in the following week’s column.

Dear Beast Mode,

I have a pet store puppy. I know, I know. I’m someone who is involved heavily with animal rights, and before this, I would never have even dreamed of giving money to any organization like this. The only reason I set foot in the pet store in the first place was to play with the dogs who hadn’t been played with that day, to try to give them some kind of positivity and love, because I know many of them come from terrible situations. That’s how I happened upon my dog. When I met her, we connected instantly, and suddenly I couldn’t imagine leaving her. I kept thinking, “Who knows where a sweet, timid puppy like her might have ended up after being sold from a place like that?” I hated giving the store my money, but I’ve never regretted for an instant giving a stable, loving home to my dog, who is undoubtedly the best thing that’s ever happened to me. However, I constantly get questions about where I got her, from acquaintances, family, and even strangers at the dog park! I’m getting tired of explaining this long story every time in an attempt to justify buying her from a pet store. I know why it was bad, and I do what I can to mitigate that with volunteering and other work, but I love her to death and wouldn’t give her up for anything. My question is: Is there a polite response that I can use to avoid this lengthy justification when someone asks? I have social anxiety disorder, and the judgment I frequently get if I tell the truth is extremely difficult for me to deal with. It stays with me for a long time after the conversation is over. Is this just my punishment for supporting a pet store, or can I avoid the issue with some kind of witty, diversionary response?

—Pet Store Penance

Dear Pet Store Penance,

It must be a sign of how awful things have gotten in these cruel times, but your email actually gave me, hmm, what’s that word? Ah yes: hope. One of the most confusing things about 2019 is the glaring absence of shame from those who ought to feel it most. I’m not saying you’re a bad person. I’m just happy you understand your misstep and have the type of emotional gearbox that can reach guilt and embarrassment. It sounds as if you’ve gone beyond that and even channeled those energies into altruistic actions, and so you are—and I mean this in the best possible way—a great advertisement for the benefits of shame.

I clearly don’t need to explain to you that getting a puppy from a pet store is bad, but it’s helpful to remind others why this is the case. According to the Humane Society, 2.7 million adoptable dogs and cats are euthanized each year in the United States. Buying a pet from a pet store doesn’t just bypass shelters working to rescue those animals. It also helps support inhumane puppy mills that produce and sell as many dogs as possible. These animals are kept in poor conditions and are more likely to suffer health problems and trauma as a result.

According to the Humane Society, “rescuing” a dog from these places is hardly that, as “the money you spend goes right back to the puppy mill operator, ensuring they will continue breeding and treating dogs inhumanely.” There are some pet stores that offer shelter animals for adoption (you can read more about that here), but the best thing you can do is go to your local shelter or rescue operation directly.

Ruby!
A gardener worth gloating about.
Nick Greene

Allow me to quickly digress before addressing your question directly, as your email brings up a rather helpful point. Besides all the humane and charitable aspects of adopting a pet from a shelter, there are also some wonderfully selfish reasons that shouldn’t be ignored. Rescuing an animal means you get to tell people that you rescued an animal. It feels great! Sure, some folks may think this is narcissistic and gauche, but screw ’em. There are enough people who refuse to feel the shame you feel about the harms of pet stores and abusive breeders, so it’s only fair that owners who do good get to be exceedingly shameless when celebrating their choices. Speaking of which, here’s a photo of my dog, Ruby; you can bet your ass that this superstar came from a shelter.

The dog park can seem like a pretty judgmental place, but I can say from personal experience that humans mostly ask, “Where’d you get your pup?” as an excuse to mention where they got their own. Still, I understand why you’re apprehensive. You’re genuinely torn up about it, so I doubt that lying would come simply or ease any anxiety. The truth you laid out in your email is nothing to beat yourself up over: You thought you were rescuing the dog but now realize that’s not how it works, and you feel awful because of it. That story might not always work as an impenetrable shield from judgment, but if someone takes issue with your honesty, then they were probably going to judge you about something sooner or later anyway.

I know that “tell the truth” is some obvious, Mr. Rogers–ian advice, but it’s still worth hearing and taking to heart. You’ve learned your lesson, so I will lend you my tried-and-tested dog-park-distraction response. No matter the situation, you will be able to get out of it by saying, “Excuse me, I need to go pick up shit.” It doesn’t matter whether your dog is actually taking a dump, because there’s always shit to be picked up at the dog park. That’s the genius of it. I trust that you will use it for good.