Portrait of Today Show's Jill Rappaport with her rescue dogs

Jill & her happy brood
photo courtesy of
Getty Images

If the Oscars and Westminster bred and had a baby, it would be Best in Shelter, the new awards program focusing on shelter animals with the message of “Adopt Don’t Shop.” The brainchild of NBC award-winning animal advocate and best-selling author,  Jill Rappaport, in conjunction with the ASPCA, Best in Shelter is a television prime-time special showcasing adoptable pets from shelters in the top 10 markets across the U.S. It’s about time!  And, it won’t all be fluffy puppies and kittens, who we know are adorable and we love. Jill knows how tough it is to get seniors, tripods (3-legged dogs), black dogs and others with challenges adopted. So, she’ll be taking special note of these animals and bringing much-needed attention to them. Kudos, Jill! Where will Best in Shelter call home? Stay tuned to Bark and Swagger for the network reveal soon!

The concept:

Bark and Swagger will be doing our part to help spread the word. I ran into Jill with her rescue pup, Rubie, in one of the aisles at Global Pet Expo, and got to interview her about Best in Shelter. Beginning in the fall of 2014,  Jill will go on the road to select those animals she feels best exemplifies the beauty, diversity and promise of shelter dogs and cats. Some of them will be”city-run” shelters, which sadly are the kill shelters. But, the great thing is Jill will be posting and tweeting and getting those selected out there from the moment they’re chosen. And, Best in Shelter vignettes of each animal selected, will also be airing on national television shows, so these babies will be getting a lot of attention from the get go. If as a result of this process, animals get adopted right away, all the better, says Jill. She’ll just choose more animals to highlight, so it’s a win win! The more to highlight, the more get adopted.

“It breaks my heart,” Jill laments. “If you go to a  movie premiere or a sporting event, a packed house is a success. Sadly, packed houses are the norm for shelters.  Every cage is full.  We need to change this dire situation. Nothing is more upsetting to me than when people say, ‘How do you do what you do? I could never go into a shelter. It’s too painful,’ to which I reply, ‘You think it’s painful for you? What about the animals waiting on death row?”

Adopt don't shop: Jill Rappaport's new Shelter Shake toy to help shelter dogs

the Shelter Shake toy

Enter the Shelter Shake. What’s that?

To help alleviate some of the stress shelter dogs feel, Jill, in conjunction with interactive dog toy & accessory leader Hyper Pet, created an unusual new toy called the Shelter Shake. Rubie was going crazy for this toy during our interview, and I mean nuts! It’s made from a strong neon orange canvas-like material and a soft fleece, and is big enough to be a small pillow. But the kicker is, when you move the toy, it starts to wiggle and bark. It’s battery operated and is the first toy in Jill’s Rescue Me® Collection, which also includes collar and leashes, and helps promote awareness for pet rescue and adoption.

Jill gave me a scoop, revealing that she’ll be launching Shelter Shake exclusively on QVC this Spring, so stay tuned! 

Hyper Pet’s Director of Marketing, Sarah Bell, explains, “Rubie came into the Hyper Pet booth last year and loved our toys. It sparked an idea in Jill and she approached us to create a toy especially for shelter animals. The purpose would be to help them feel stimulated, create a kind of companionship and improve their lives,  so they are more adoptable. And, that ‘s what it’s all about.”  You can see Rubie playing with hers here.


The competition…

Like other awards programs,  those animals selected will compete in front of a live studio audience. They’ll strut their stuff for a panel of judges for a chance to be crowned “Best in Shelter,” and win a loving home in the process. In addition to Jill and special celebrity guests, the judges will feature experts in their niche, who would be faced with the task of narrowing down their faves.  Jill also told me there will be trophy categories, like “Sizzling Senior,” and at the end of the special, one Best in Shelter superstar will be crowned. But, you might remember from show like American Idol or The Voice, it’s not just the winners who benefit. The attention brought to all of the animals means they are prime and quick adoption candidates.

NBC's Jill Rappaport creates new TV awards show. Here with her inspirational dog, Jack, in Adopt don't Shop on Bark and Swagger

Jill and her beloved, Jack

Where it all started:

Jill is no newcomer to animal advocacy. Of her 23 years on NBC, the last 8 have been devoted to it. And, she came to her calling with the world watching.

“Sadly, I got into it because my beloved German Shepherd, Jack, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma,” she shares. “And while documenting his recovery on the Today show, he touched lives all over the world. Jack’s story ended up being a bright light.” The cancer ultimately took the 13 year old’s life. He’d had an amputation and chemotherapy, which extended his life by 2  years. As Jill described, Jack lived on 3 legs, happy and pain free. “Through this process, Jack made me realize what I wanted to do with my life,” she recollects. “I watched him two days after that surgery. He literally pulled me out of the hospital on three legs. All he wanted was to be home,  with the horses and the dogs. When they saw him,  the dogs weren’t like ‘Ew, you’re missing a leg.’ They were just happy to see Jack. Animals can teach us so much. They don’t judge the physical. They have an incredible tenacity and will to live.”

At that point, Rappaport, who’d been the premiere entertainment reporter for Today for 16 years,  went to her then-boss and told him that this was her calling; what she cared about. “Stars don’t need my help, animals do,” she declared. And, they were supportive.  Jill covers life threatening issues for pets, like rescue, shelters and health. “To me, this is not a job, it’s my oxygen,” she enthuses.

Bow to Wow was the first…

Jill never understood why awards shows would only highlight purebreds from breeders. She wanted to shine a light on shelter animals in desperate need of loving homes. So, she decided to do her own version on Today, but with shelter dogs. The monthly segment was called Bow to Wow (Meow to Wow was soon added), and higlighted everything from purebreds to 3 legged animals, blind, deaf and senior pets. Jill’s segments had a 100% adoption! 100%!   And she thought, what a great  idea for a show.  “Fifty years from now, when we’re no longer here, I’m hoping the two national dog shows  – Westminster and the National Dog Show – will be three, with Best in Shelter,” she explains. “Don’t shelter dogs deserve their own show?

“So, I’m hitting the road next fall, and I’m going to have a wrapped car with all of my dogs prominently featured on it!”

NBC's Jill Rappaport's new shelter dog, Stanley, in Adopt don't Shop on Bark and Swagger

The new boy on the block – Stanley
photo courtesy of Jill Rappaport

Rubie, Buckaroo, Sweet Pea, Petey, CJ &, now, Stanley…

Jill doesn’t just talk; she walks the walk. She has 6 rescues: Rubie, a 5 year old Dachshund who was about to be euthanized the day Jill rescued her; Buckaroo, a Yellow Labrador Retriever; Sweet Pea, the Coonhound from the Brookhaven kill shelter on Long Island; Petey, the 125 lb American  Bulldog she rescued from NYC’s Animal Care & Control, CJ, the Havanese and, now, Stanley.  Stanley is a sweet, gorgeous, cream-colored Standard Poodle shelter dog Jill took home from Global Pet Expo for a Today show segment. He got on so well with her dogs, she decided to keep him. I met Stanley at Global and was, in fact, interested in him myself. What didn’t work out for me worked out great for Jill.

“I have purebred rescues. So, in a shelter, you can find anything and everything. The one thing that’s consistent is a huge heart and an unbelievable desire to live. And we need to give them that chance!”

How will you decide what shelters you visit for Best in Shelter?

“We’ll criss cross the country, visiting shelters to shine a light on the animals that need it the most,” Jill explained.

 What will you be looking for?

“People need to understand that the only thing wrong with a shelter animal is that they ended up in a shelter; that their circumstances put them there,” Jill emphasizes. “There’s no difference between them and a dog at Westminster. They all have the heart, soul and beauty of a champion. They just were unfortunate enough to end up on the wrong side of those velvet ropes.

“I’m looking for all kinds of animals. Whether they’re blind, deaf or on 3 legs, they are all blue ribbon champions in my book. Hopefully, everyone is going to understand and embrace that, and it’s going to shed a light on how wonderful these animals are.” Even celebs have pitched in and adopted Jill’s dogs.  “Michael Phelps took one of my Bow to Wow dogs,” she states. “And, Olympic medalist, Steve Holcombe, took another.”

Stay tuned, because Bark and Swagger is going to follow Jill’s journey.

During our interview, Rappaport playfully quipped her pro-adoption sayings to me, “Get a heart melter from a shelter! I’m a pound hound! A shelter cat is where it’s at! Smitten with my rescue kitten!”  Anyway you choose to put it, opt to adopt.

Do you have an adopted pet? Tell me about them below in the Comments.

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Written by Jody Miller-Young
What does stylish mean to you? I’m passionate about animals, fashion, travel, home decor and rescue, and that's what you'll find here. After a recent move to Fort Lauderdale from NYC, we're loving our new life in the sunshine. Welcome to my world! Grab your favorite beverage, curl up and stay awhile.