Spreading kindness one image at a time: The story of Rusty Rodas

A photo posted by RUSTY RODAS™ (@rustyrodas) on

A photo posted by RUSTY RODAS™ (@rustyrodas) on

Spreading kindness one image at a time: The story of Rusty Rodas

by Daven Mathies    |    September 8, 2015

It started with a photograph.

Rusty Rodas, Golden Retriever and Instagram golden boy, never dreamed he would be famous. His desires were grounded in a reality that left no room for opportunity. He spent the first year of his life likely wishing for little more than a good meal and a night of worry-free sleep. Eventually, for reasons unknown, his owner abandoned him in a Portland park.

We don’t know exactly what happened during that first year—abuse, neglect—but by the time Rusty ended up in the custody of a local animal shelter, he was visibly shaking with fear. That’s when Kelsey Rodas saw his “mugshot” on Petfinder. She was 23 at the time, and for her it was love at first sight. That mugshot was perhaps the most important photograph that Rusty would ever pose for, although it would hardly be the last.

“I had to have that dog in my life,” Kelsey, now 28, tells me, recalling the moment she first saw Rusty’s picture online.

We are sitting at a picnic table at Swan Island Dahlias in Canby (@swanislanddahlias), where a few other members of the Portland Instagram Group are wandering about. Rusty is under the table where he occasionally brushes against my foot, but mostly just lies there enjoying the shade. He is Kelsey’s first rescue dog, but her parents are actively involved with Northwest Animal Companions of Oregon, a volunteer-run animal shelter, so she had an idea of what adopting him would entail. Still, she didn’t hesitate to put her name on the list for Rusty, who already had five people interested in him.

As luck would have it, one by one the waitlist cleared until Kelsey got the call from the shelter. Unfortunately, she couldn’t make it in that day; at the time, she was caring for a foster dog from NW Animal Companions which had gotten sick. Worried she had missed her one shot at Rusty, she pleaded with the shelter to set up another appointment. They told her two new people had already expressed interest, and that she would have to start again at the end of the list. Whether by providence or another stroke of luck, both people eventually cancelled, and Kelsey got her second chance.

Immediately upon meeting Rusty, Kelsey could see how afraid he was. His legs shook, he wouldn’t approach anyone. But she also noticed something about him that would become Rusty’s signature characteristic: a complete lack of aggression. He was scared, but there was an undeniable kindness in his eyes. While other potential adopters had lamented Rusty’s lack of the usual “Golden personality,” Kelsey saw that it was still there, just buried beneath the surface. This confirmed what she already knew: she had to adopt this dog.

On the drive home with him, something amazing happened. After spending twenty minutes coaxing Rusty into the car, Kelsey sat in the back with him while her parents drove. Not long after the car pulled away from the shelter, one-year-old Rusty scurried across the back seat, placed his paw and head on Kelsey’s shoulder, closed his eyes, and fell asleep.

“He was so emotionally exhausted. He was already showing me so much trust. I knew that I had totally made the right choice,” Kelsey says.

But Rusty’s unforeseen path to stardom was still littered with roadblocks. Once Kelsey brought him home, she discovered that he was afraid of nearly everything, from garbage cans and mailboxes to loud noises and fast movements. He couldn’t enter through a doorway without crawling on his belly. The first two years of his new life were spent unlearning everything he learned to be afraid of in his past life.

“It would take me twenty minutes to get him in the bathtub,” Kelsey says. “Now, he just gets in by himself. It definitely taught me a lot about patience, and it’s so rewarding to see him not be afraid of things.”

Now at age six, it’s hard to imagine Rusty was ever scared of anything. He has the calmest demeanor of any dog I’ve ever met, graciously posing for photos with fans, letting random passersby pet him, and blissfully ignoring the yipping and yapping of more aggressive, smaller dogs which tried in vain to upstage him at the dahlia fields.

Rusty doesn’t try to get attention; he doesn’t need to. He simply has a magnetic personality. People would stop mid-conversation to come over and pet him. He is a rare breed, indeed: quiet, reserved, kind, yet confidently charismatic. The renown he’s garnered in front of the camera hasn’t gone to his head. (I suppose it helps that he’s a dog.)

Rusty’s fame is the result of Kelsey’s clever and entertaining portraits of him, which often feature him dressed up in human clothes or capture his expressions at the perfect moment. Most of his thousands of followers probably don’t know about the human behind the camera. Kelsey tells me she has always loved photography, but had never pursued it beyond an introductory class in college.

“I had a point-and-shoot, and I’m in there with all these people with DSLRs,” she recalls. When she got Rusty, however, he was the perfect new subject. He willingly took on the role of muse and helped Kelsey rediscover her passion for photography.

At first, she was taking pictures of him simply with her iPhone and uploading them to her personal Instagram account. She noticed Rusty’s portraits were getting more “likes” than anything else she posted, but she also realized that maybe not all of her friends wanted to see pictures of her dog all the time. So she gave Rusty his own account, just to keep his pictures separate. Before long, his account outpaced her own. Just two years in, @rustyrodas now has over 60,000 followers and counting, and each image receives hundreds of comments and thousands of likes.

A photo posted by RUSTY RODAS™ (@rustyrodas) on

A photo posted by RUSTY RODAS™ (@rustyrodas) on

Several years ago, Kelsey had purchased a Canon Rebel T1i as a Black Friday impulse buy, and more recently acquired the Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 lens, which provides significantly more control over depth of field compared to the kit lens (or an iPhone, for that matter). Most of Rusty’s portraits are now shot with this combination, but Kelsey is ready to make the move to a full-frame camera.

She also has a makeshift studio in her home, where Rusty dons outfits from his extensive wardrobe or balances donuts on his head (yes, somehow without devouring them whole). “It’s like he’s posing for me; he just comes in and sits in his spot. He’s a men’s large, so he fits easily into my husband’s clothes,” Kelsey says with a laugh.

The first time Kelsey thought to accessorize Rusty was after she found an old pair of her father’s glasses that happened to fit the Golden Retriever’s face perfectly. She posted the picture to Instagram and immediately Rusty’s fans began talking about the glasses, commenting on “how Portland” they were and asking where they could buy a pair.

Rusty has grown so popular that brands now send in select products, from leashes to watches to hats, hoping Rusty will wear them in his next portrait session and feature them on his Instagram. While Rusty has received gifts from all over, he really prefers to keep it local as much as he can. Portland Gear (@portlandgear) and Shwood Eyewear (@shwoodshop) are two Portland brands that have had their products featured on his account, and he’s even a brand ambassador for Pendleton Woolen Mills (@pendletonwm).

While Internet fame and the occasional free gift would be reason enough for many people to keep up an active Instagram account, Kelsey wanted to do something more. She saw an opportunity to use Rusty’s celebrity status to breathe positivity into the often dark, unforgiving online social sphere.

“There’s so much negativity on the Internet, on Instagram,” Kelsey tells me. “Some accounts are hilarious, but they’re sarcastic. They’re great, but I wanted to make Rusty’s account family friendly.”

Rusty’s motto, kindness is contagious, speaks to that goal. It’s a message that works on several levels, alluding to Rusty’s experience as a rescue dog and even giving a nod to the viral nature of how information spreads online. Given Rusty’s global reach, why not use it to spread kindness?

That motto is also much more than a catchy phrase; Rusty’s not one to just talk the talk, he walks the walk (and yes, he always obeys leash laws). After his tremendous recovery, he now volunteers at Northwest Animal Companions, coaching other rescue dogs through the early stages of their own recovery.

“The way he approaches them and interacts with them, he’s just really good at reading them,” Kelsey explains. One such dog, Scarlett, was rescued from a garbage dump after apparently being thrown away by her owner. When Rusty first met her, “he ran to her, then stopped within 20 feet and realized she was totally freaked out. Then he ignored her, gave her space, until a while later he went and got a toy and dropped it a few feet from her. That was six months ago. Now, Scarlett is Rusty’s girlfriend.”

Kelsey’s parents, volunteering at the shelter, had decided to keep Scarlett, not knowing if she would ever be adoptable. But with Rusty’s help, she has completely turned around. She even has an Instagram account of her own.

When he’s not coaching rescue dogs or posing for portraits, Rusty serves up advice, training tips, and dog food recommendations on his new website, rustyrodas.com. (His favorite foods are organic mashed pumpkin from Trader Joe’s and organic frozen green beans. “He prefers those over dog treats,” Kelsey admits, laughing.)

On the website, you can also find Rusty’s new line of greeting cards. “We’ve gotten so far away from cards in our culture, but now it’s come full circle to where it’s really cool to get a physical card in the mail,” Kelsey says, adding that she just wasn’t satisfied with the current crop of animal-related greeting cards, which tend to focus on over-the-top humor or unrealistic depictions of pets. She acknowledges those cards have a place, but she felt there was something missing and that a simple card with a simple message could make for something powerful. It’s given her another outlet for her photography, as well.

For Kelsey, who only recently turned the mode dial on her Canon Rebel away from “auto,” taking pictures has suddenly become more than just a hobby. “My goal for this next year is to develop more of my photography skills,” she says. She really wants to get to the point where her pictures are as close to perfect as possible, straight out of the camera. Not only does that save time in post production, but she has also noticed that the photos on Instagram that stand out the most are the ones that, somewhat ironically, don’t have filters or serious editing applied to them.

Photography, whether on the walls of a gallery or the screen of a phone, continues to prove itself one of the greatest storytelling devices we have. It’s hard to imagine that just a couple short years ago, serious photographers dismissed Instagram as nothing more than a hoard of shameless selfies and low-quality pictures of lattes.

Rusty Rodas is proof that the medium is what you make of it. His story is that of a literal underdog, who, with a helping hand and his own gentle, photogenic face, beat the odds to go from abandoned pup to canine celebrity. But he’s never forgotten where he came from. He now puts his status and experience to good use, advocating for his fellow rescue animals while spreading a little light into the often dark corners of the Internet.

He sure shows a lot of humanity for someone who walks on four legs. ♥

A photo posted by RUSTY RODAS™ (@rustyrodas) on

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