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Adopt don’t shop: Mike Ruiz’ top tips on choosing a four-footed friend

Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, Keyshia Cole, Brooke Shields, Debbie Harry, Maye Musk. Visualize pretty much any memorable celebrity photo from the past 20 years, and chances are you’ve come across the work of Mike Ruiz.

Still don’t recognize the name? His face is famous, too. A former model born in Repentigny, north of Montreal, Mike has also been a judge on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, Canada’s Next Top Model and America’s Next Top Model.

But for the past ten years, Mike’s real passion has been of a four-footed variety. As an animal rights activist, devoted dog dad and proponent of the ‘adopt don’t shop’ approach to pet ownership, Mike has some great advice for anyone thinking about adopting a shelter dog.

You are known for promoting the ‘adopt don’t shop’ approach to dog ownership. Why is that important?

Shelters are overcrowded and there are so many dogs in need of homes. I talk about why it’s better to adopt, but people don’t seem to understand that. People think they’re getting a damaged dog from a shelter. They don’t understand that the dogs in the shelter are dumped there by people who owned them. All dogs are individuals to be loved, they’re not accessories.

What should people be thinking about if they adopt from a shelter or rescue organisation?

Have an idea of the dog breed you’d like, but don’t get hung up on that. You can’t find every possible breed of dog in a shelter. Some people want smaller dogs they might travel with and it’s okay to have parameters for what you want. But also understand dog ownership is a lifelong commitment.

What sort of questions should you ask at a shelter or rescue organisation?

Get a dog’s health history. It’s hard to know because most shelter dogs are dumped without paperwork, although the owners are encouraged to leave the story. Health issues can occur in any type, particularly in purebreds. So, it’s important to bear that in mind. If you need to do a vet check, consider using a mobile vet who can come to your house.

What do you need to know about a dog’s behaviour before you bring it home?

When you walk into a shelter, ask about the behavioral assessment. They have volunteers who do them. They’ve observed the dog in a playground setting with other dogs. It’s hard to explore every scenario in the shelter, but they can tell you if they get agitated around men or children or other dogs.

What steps should you take to bring a shelter dog into your home?

When you adopt a dog, you have to acclimate. These dogs have been tossed around like garbage and they’ve been in a shelter, they come into a strange place and they are terrified. You have to give them a chance, take your time.

When you get a dog home, give them at least three days of decompression. For three weeks, keep them away from other people until they’ve acclimated. In three months, you can slowly introduce them socially. 

What a common mistake people make?

You can’t adopt a dog and freak out the dog with people. You must set up healthy boundaries. If they don’t know you’re the alpha, they’ll have behavioral issues. You’re not breaking their spirit but keeping them alive. If you don’t give your dog healthy boundaries, they won’t know what behaviour is acceptable.

How do you introduce a new shelter dog to kids?

If you have kids, teach them not to pull or kick the dog and to be gentle. Go slow. When I adopted (my first dog) Oliver, I did a deep dive into pit bulls, how hard are they to train in social situations, where they are on the aggression scale. Every dog breed is different, with different personalities, so do your research.

You first fell in love with pit bulls when you adopted your late pitbull, Oliver, followed by adopting Julia. Can you tell that story?

It was the height of my career, flying all over and I was in L.A. A friend was fostering this dog, so I went over for a visit. Oliver just looked at me with these big brown eyes and stared at me while I laid down from jetlag. This wave came over me. Flash forward 12 hours, paperwork was filled out and he was my soul dog.

I developed such a profound bond with him, it changed my outlook on all sentient beings. Then he passed away and I thought I’d never have that bond again. I thought I could never betray his memory. Then someone said the best way to honour one dog’s life is to save another one. Three weeks later, I adopted Julia. I was so terrified I wouldn’t bond with her, but I am so desperately in love with her, too. That connection is really what motivated me to want to encourage others to forge a connection with a dog.

That experience has also led to your advocacy work for dogs on death row, dogs with inmates and fundraising for rescues. How is that going?

When I photograph dogs on death row to help them get adopted, I post their image and story online. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I still go into the bathroom in the shelter and cry after the shoot. These little dogs are sitting on my lap looking at me, asking me to get them out there. We’ve saved thousands of dogs. The first year, we raised $100,000, which is amazing for a freshman effort. We get great support from celebrities, too. Dave Bautista and others raised $1 million to save 100 dogs.

Follow Mike Ruize on Instagram at @mikeruizone or his dogs’ accounts, @oliversworld and @juliasamazinglife. Mike is photographer and creative director of PhotoBook Magazine, a digital publication that focuses on sustainable, ethical subjects.


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