Attitudes to Rescue Dogs in Australia

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Last week, I 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?

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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.

A dachsund surrounded by autumn leaves
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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.

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 award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Mornement, K., Coleman, G., Toukhsati, S., & Bennett, P. (2012). What do current and potential Australian dog owners believe about shelter practices and shelter dogs?. Anthrozoös, 25(4), 457-473.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2008). How does intergroup contact reduce prejudice? Meta‐analytic tests of three mediators. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(6), 922-934.

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