Eddie was not a particularly magnanimous little dog. While he was sweet and loving with people he knew, he was a snarling, snapping nightmare with children and other dogs. As he weighed less than ten pounds, it was a manageable situation but who would want to manage it? Making matters worse, he was a tan Chihuahua in an area up to its ears in tan Chihuahuas. If shelters in other states suffer from an overabundance of wonderful large black dogs, California has a Chihuahua overpopulation issue reminiscent of the “Tribble” episode of Star Trek.
After having Eddie in our care for two years we were at a total loss for how to find him a home. Facebook posts, adoption ads, offering free training - nothing worked. Stymied, our Adoptions, Behavior and Marketing teams sat down to a situation room conference and came up with a drastic idea: complete honesty. We wrote a no holds bar blog about why you probably didn’t want to adopt Eddie, crafted a satirical press release noting the same, produced a couple jarring videos, and made some memes to distribute through various marketing channels.
It went completely viral. Our phone lines jammed and the media turned out in force to talk about little Eddie. America embraced Eddie. To say this was a huge learning experience for us at Humane Society Silicon Valley would be an understatement. After two weeks of near bedlam, Eddie was comfortably ensconced in a new home and our staff was older - and much wiser - than we used to be. Three big lessons stuck out from our crash course in unconventional marketing.
1) Everyone owns an Eddie. As the Eddie blog scampered it’s way around the internet on fleet little paws, we heard a resounding chorus of one sentence: “He’s just like my dog!”. While we may strive for perfection in ourselves, people are unfailingly willing to embrace imperfection in their companion animals. As a society, our love of the dogs we share our lives with far outweighs our need for control and order. While statistics have always borne out the fact that the reason dogs wind up in shelters has more to do with changes in the owners lifestyle, Eddie’s raging popularity - and the surfeit of people that stepped up to meet him - showed us anecdotally that we accept our dogs, warts and all.
2) Inform, don’t restrict. In deciding to go the route of radical honesty, we also decided to trust as well. Too often shelters deal with difficult animals by restricting the adopters - no kids, adult only, experienced homes. By doing that, we drastically cut down the number of options for animals already at a disadvantage for finding homes. We also forget a vital fact: most of us didn’t come to dog ownership as experts. None of us were born conversant in the lingo of behavior theory and versed in positive reinforcement training. It was a relationship with a dog that encouraged us to seek out information - to learn and grow. Even the most expert pet professionals usually came to their career through the very simple act of loving an animal. By frankly presenting Eddie’s problems and removing his restrictions, we allowed for the possibility of that transformative relationship, allowed his potential adopters to make an informed decision about what they were capable of. And they did.
3) You don’t need to write a horror story to make people care. Noticeably absent from all of the media we did about Eddie was one simple thing: his rather unremarkable history. Eddie wasn’t a victim of abuse or neglect - he was simply an under socialized dog who got loose and was a bit too much for his owners to handle. Too often in shelter marketing, we make the mistake of thinking that we need to return to the same narrative of good versus evil. If there’s one thing we learned from Eddie the Terrible, it’s that people are more complex - and their hearts are larger than we anticipated.
Eddie forced us to reevaluate how we approach more challenging animals that enter our doors and how we interact with potential adopters.
And perhaps these are lessons that can save more lives.