Mark Wade got his dog, Kitsu, on a whim during a family trip to a pet store 14 years ago.
He would never dream of taking the same approach today, he says. Not with what he's learned about so-called "puppy mills" and the high euthanasia rate for dogs waiting for homes when animal shelters become overcrowded.
And now he has access to something he didn't have 14 years ago: smartphones.
Wade, a Naperville software developer, left his job about a year ago to launch Woof Rescue, an iPhone and iPad app that helps people search for the exact dog or cat they'd like to adopt from thousands of shelters nationwide.
"Woof Rescue is an app that helps people find the love of their life at a local pet shelter," Wade said, giving his best sales pitch for the program he wrote to promote pet adoptions.
"I've been a developer by trade for 30 years, but the pet industry is new to me," he said. "At this point, I was looking for something with a bigger social impact."
Woof Rescue's social impact comes when people use it to adopt dogs or cats from shelters that sometimes are forced to euthanize animals, he said.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 2.7 million dogs and cats are euthanized each year.
"I want to bring that number down through putting pets into foster homes or adopting them out," Wade said.
The other upside of the app is it helps would-be pet owners find exactly the animal they have in mind without driving from shelter to shelter in search of the perfect pup.
"If you're looking for a specific pet that may be very rare, it may show you something that's 1,000 miles away," Wade said. "But if you have to have that particular kind of dog, you may be willing to fly out there to adopt it."
Most of the app's 27,000 users have searched within 50 miles of their home. Users also can search by gender and age. Wade wants to add features that allow searches for characteristics such as kid-friendliness or compatibility with other dogs.
One suburban organization, Palatine-based Young at Heart Senior Pet Adoptions, likes the search-by-age feature, especially as some older adults are looking for anything but a training-intensive puppy.
"That makes it much easier to find the age range that you're looking for," said Arlene Burkhardt of Bloomingdale, who has fostered 55 senior pets through Young at Heart in the past 10 years. "The pictures on his site are awesome and it gives a really nice bio about the animal."
iPhone or iPad users can download Woof Rescue for free, and Wade said he plans to keep it that way, even as he builds the list of pet vendors -- such as veterinarians, dog walkers and other pet services -- in a marketplace on the app to bring in advertising revenue. Keeping the app free decreases the barriers to pet adoption, he says.
"Now I'm starting to get all the stories of people who have found a pet, and even without making any money, that's worth it to me," Wade said.
One such story -- complete with photos cute enough to nearly crash the Internet -- came from Kelsey Leman of downstate Deer Creek, a tiny town between Peoria and Bloomington-Normal.
When she moved out on her own, the nursing home activities leader said she was looking for a pet she could train as a therapy dog. After trying petfinder.com, she found her perfect pooch on Woof Rescue. Soon, she adopted Nellie from The ARK Animal Shelter about 35 miles north of her hometown in a slightly larger town called Lacon.
"I like to do everything from my phone because it's always with me," Leman said. "I really liked how he has the photos and descriptions, and it was a lot more streamlined than Petfinder's website."
Information about pets on Woof Rescue comes from 3,100 shelters across the country through a service called rescuegroups.org that compiles the details so Wade doesn't have to reach out to each specific organization. At least one suburban shelter, Animal Rescue Foundation of Illinois in Wheaton, has its animals listed.
"I love the fact that he's using technology to attract people to their future pets," said Theresa Charleston of Chicago, a designer who created a photography guide for Woof Rescue with tips about the importance of good lighting, composition and patience for taking great pet shots.
Foster homes or shelters enter a photo of the pet, its name and a description, and the data is updated real-time to Woof Rescue users.
The app grew out of the Chicago Startup Weekend challenge in 2014, a "hackathon" inviting creative technologists to invent something new. But Woof Rescue isn't the first business Wade has created.
Always an entrepreneur, Wade sold his first business idea to RadioShack as a 12-year-old in Ohio. Since then, he's also launched an eBay business selling collegiate collectibles and developed an app called My Haunt that lets people showcase their Halloween decorations.
Wade's next step is finishing a version of Woof Rescue for Android phones. He expects it to be available in December.