Attitudes to Rescue Dogs in Australia

By Zazie Todd, PhD
Last week, we looked at a study which found that attitudes to cats predicted public preferences for Trap, Neuter and Release programmes, but knowledge about cats and experience with feral cats did not. But does knowledge and experience predict attitudes to rescue dogs?

A recent study by Kate Mornement and colleagues in Australia answers this question. In Australia, 36% of households have at least one pet dog, but as in other countries, a lot of dogs are in rescue and in need of homes. Understanding perceptions of rescue dogs is important as it can help in finding strategies to increase adoptions.

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The internet survey had 1,622 participants and included sections on demographics, attitudes to getting a dog, and beliefs about animal shelters and how they operate. Details of the survey were distributed via social networking, and both dog-owners and non-dog owners were invited to take part. Since some large dog and rescue organizations shared links to the survey, the sample included a mix of participants with and without rescue experience. 30% of participants either worked or volunteered at an animal shelter. Over 80% of respondents currently owned a dog, and only 3% had never owned a dog.

The results showed that 76% of respondents were likely or very likely to get a new dog in the future. Most of the participants said it was likely or very likely that their next dog would come from an animal shelter (85%), rescue organization (86%) or council pound (65%), and only 40% said it was likely or very likely that it would come from a breeder. Another interesting finding is that people think the most important attribute for a new dog is friendliness (rather than, say, obedience).

On the whole people had positive views of shelter dogs. Most people agreed with the statement that family and friends would approve of them getting a new dog from a shelter. This is good news, especially since subjective norms (beliefs about other people’s beliefs) play a role in determining whether attitudes predict behaviour.

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There were some areas where shelters could improve. About a third of participants said that shelter dogs are likely to have a behavioural problem.  When participants were asked about how shelter dogs should be assessed, aggression was seen as the most important factor, including aggression towards people, dogs, other animals, and around food.  It seems that shelters could do more to explain to the public how they assess dogs, and how they deal with dogs that fail the behavioural assessment. Many participants did not realize that dogs are euthanized if the assessment finds them unadoptable. I think having a wider discussion about this would be beneficial, not least because many people seem to be unaware of the scale of the problem of homeless pets. 

Since the sample included many people with rescue experience, comparisons were made between them and the other participants. Rescue experience made a significant difference to people’s beliefs: people with such experience were significantly more likely to say a future dog would come from a rescue, and to have positive attitudes towards shelter dogs. Mornement suggests that encouraging people to volunteer at animal shelters could give them a better understanding of what shelter dogs are like. Of course, it is also possible that people who already have a better understanding of animal rescue are more likely to volunteer. Nonetheless, since shelters are always in need of extra volunteers, it’s a good approach to take. 

It reminds me of the contact hypothesis in social psychology. This says that contact with members of another group reduces prejudice since it increases knowledge, reduces anxiety about the other group, and increases empathy for them (see Pettigrew and Tropp 2008 for a metanalysis). Perhaps the same process applies to contact with rescue dogs. For people, it seems that the emotional aspects (anxiety and empathy) are more important than knowledge for prejudice reduction. I would be interested to see future research explore which aspects of experience with rescue dogs improve people’s attitudes towards them. 

This is a fascinating and valuable article for those working in dog rescue. If you would like to read the full paper, the journal has free trial access until the end of the month; follow the link from the reference list below and sign up for the free trial.

Do you have any experience with rescue dogs? And if so, has it changed your perceptions of them?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
You might also like: Research resources for animal shelters and rescues and the ultimate dog training tip.

Mornement, K., Coleman, G., Toukhsati, S., & Bennett, P. (2012). What Do Current and Potential Australian Dog Owners Believe about Shelter Practices and Shelter Dogs? Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 25 (4), 457-473 DOI: 10.2752/175303712X13479798785850
Pettigrew, T., & Tropp, L. (2008). How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice? Meta-analytic tests of three mediators European Journal of Social Psychology, 38 (6), 922-934 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.504

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  1. I've been volunteering with, fostering, and adopting dogs from shelters and rescues for many years. Prior to my hands-on involvement, I had adopted most of my previous dogs from the SPCA, though two came from backyard breeders prior to my learning the scope of the pet overpopulation problem.
    I do homechecks for many rescues, and I know sometimes people feel frustrated with the process - applications, home visits, questions questions questions. Some applicants seem to feel they are doing the rescue or shelter a favour and we should be willing to just hand over the dog, preferably without a fee. Volunteering with those organizations highlights not only the expense involved in preparing them for adoption (vet checks, vaccinations, spay/neuters, often other health problems, food, physical care, transport, etc etc etc), but also highlights how essential it is to make a good match for the dog - and that means getting to know the applicants carefully and choosing the best match.
    It is also really important to note that dogs in shelter situations are in stressful situations and feed off each other's anxiety. Therefore, while those dogs you see may all seem to be barky and boistrous or terrified rather than friendly, there's a good chance the dog will be completely different in a home environment - especially a home that is willing to work with the dog in a positive way.


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