MURRAY — On their first trip to the Humane Society of Utah to volunteer as dog walkers, Carol and Eric Hochstadt noticed a small detail that they couldn’t get out of their minds.
Every dog had a picture posted next to its kennel and on the shelter’s adoption website, but in many cases, the photos resembled prison mug shots instead of snapshots designed to woo prospective pet owners. The dogs often looked frightened or stressed, and the bars on their cages didn’t help visitors to imagine a cute corgi or a frisky Labrador lounging in their living rooms or frolicking on the grass.
In 2010, when the Hochstadts took home a golden retriever named Ginger over the Christmas holiday weekend, Carol snapped a picture of the canine happily curled up on a dog bed. After the holiday break, she posted the photo on the Humane Society’s website and Ginger, who had lived at the shelter for weeks, was adopted immediately.
Realizing that they were on to something, the Hochstadts signed on for another duty: Once a week, they would take attractive photos of the shelter’s new dogs, paying extra attention to those that might be overlooked by families in search of playful puppies.
“We decided to especially focus on medium-sized and large dogs,” says Eric, “because they aren’t adopted as quickly as some of the smaller breeds. And it’s the same thing with black dogs. There are a high number of black labs, for some reason. Some people think they look less friendly, which is silly. They make wonderful pets.”
He and Carol now devote every Thursday afternoon to photographing the shelter’s new dogs, taking two at a time outside on leashes and prompting them to pose on the lawn and “smile” for the camera.
“You have to be patient and wait for the right moment, but it’s so worth it,” says Carol, who wanted to meet for a Free Lunch chat in the hope of inspiring people to take a closer look at the shelter’s adoption list.
“There’s a huge difference between showing a dog in a drab room with bars and a concrete floor or an outdoor setting with a backdrop of green grass or fresh snow. People can envision themselves walking these dogs and playing with them. They’ll picture the dog in their house, not in this prison, and they’ll be more likely to say, ‘OK, I just have to take you home.’”
On this particular day, she and Eric are photographing 16 dogs, from dachshunds to pit bulls. “We’ve seen Great Danes, all the way down to tiny Chihuahuas,” says Eric. “Sometimes, it’s frustrating, because there’s no end to it. It’s like running in place. For every dog that’s adopted, another comes in.”
Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., the Hochstadts only have room at home for two dogs — Bessie, a husky shepherd, and Bear, a Samoyed — but they carry the memories of hundreds in their hearts.
“People ask me, ‘How can you stand it? If you love dogs, how can you leave them here?’” says Carol. “And it is hard to see somebody come in through the ‘receiving’ door with a beautiful dog. I tell myself, ‘Maybe we can help this dog to find a better home.’ That’s what makes it possible for us to do what we do.”
Still, the reasons pet owners give for dropping off their animals saddens and infuriates her and Eric at times.
“We’ve seen reasons like, ‘The dog is too verbal,’ or, ‘The dog isn’t amusing enough,’” says Eric. “One person wrote down that the dog didn’t match their couch. Just the other day, a dog was brought in because the owner thought it drooled too much. That can get you, sometimes.”
“It’s tough some days, not to take them all home,” he admits, “but it’s made easier knowing that the right photo just might get somebody to come down to the shelter. If they leave with a dog that otherwise might not have been looked at, that makes it all worthwhile.”
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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.