How About that Doggy at the Hair Salon?

Can we speed up the process of re-homing shelter dogs by getting the dog out of the shelter and into the community?

Two JRTs play fetch on the lawn near daffodils in Spring
Photo: AdamEdwards / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Every year, many dogs find new homes through animal rescues and shelters, but some have a long wait and many are never re-homed.  What if there was a way to free up shelter space and encourage people who would not visit the shelter to adopt? A new paper by Heather Mohan-Gibbons et al (2014) assesses the success of a scheme in which dogs were moved to foster homes that had the job of finding a suitable new home for the dog.

The background to this research is the high rate of euthanasia of shelter dogs in the US (and other countries). Although there are no official national figures, Mohan-Gibbons et al report a range of estimates from previous research, including that only a quarter of such dogs are re-homed. So ways of increasing the adoption rate are urgently needed.

At the same time, many more people say they would consider adopting from a shelter or rescue than actually do.This suggests there is a lot of potential to persuade more people to adopt, rather than buy, a new dog.

The research took place at the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans (a pilot study) and at the Charleston Animal Society in South Carolina. In both cases, dogs were assigned to either a shelter group or a foster group based on their intake number to avoid bias. When dogs were in the foster group, then the foster homes could choose which dog they would foster. Although it is potentially a confound in the research to allow foster homes a choice instead of random assignation, it’s a sensible part of the plan since they need to pick a dog that will fit in with their family and pets.

The foster homes were called Adoption Ambassadors. As the authors explain, Adoption Ambassadors “were volunteers who cared for the dog in their home, found an adopter for the dog, and performed the adoption.“ They were trained by a coordinator and given supplies for the dog, including food, leash, crate etc. 

AAs used social media and asked friends and family to help find a home. The dogs wore an ‘adopt me’ vest in public, and the AAs had business cards to hand out to anyone who expressed an interest. It was important the AAs took the dogs to dog-friendly places where they would be seen by members of the public, and so they took dogs with them to places like parks, stores and the hair salon. 

The criteria for adoption were the same as for the dogs in the shelter. The person adopting the dog did not have to visit the shelter at all; the AAs were trained in how to carry out the adoption, which was usually done in a public place. 

The AA dogs were compared to the group of dogs that were re-homed in the shelter as usual. At both locations, fewer dogs in the AA group were returned than those adopted via the shelter.  The length of stay before adoption was longer for dogs in the AA group, but of course they spent this time in a home, rather than a shelter.

Whereas most people who adopted shelter dogs first found out about the dog by visiting the shelter, the range of sources for the AA dogs was much wider, including the internet, hearing about the dog from a friend, or seeing the dog out in public. This suggests that the program successfully reached people who might not have visited the shelter. Analysis of the location of adopter’s homes showed that in New Orleans, new AA homes were significantly further from the shelter than the other group. This was not the case in Charleston but different areas of the city were involved.

Another interesting finding is that 93% of people who adopted at the shelter made a decision in less than a few hours, compared to 78% for the AA group. Significantly more of the AA adopters took longer than a day to decide. This could be one reason why fewer dogs in this group were returned, but it could also be that since the dogs were living in a home, the foster parent could give a realistic description of what the dog is like.

There are always difficulties in conducting real life research, and some dogs initially assigned to one or other condition were not included in the final results for various reasons, including the dog becoming sick, the foster parent going away, or because they took part in a special ‘free adoption’ event at the shelter. Nevertheless the overall sample size was 84 dogs in the AA group and 64 in the shelter group, both with an average age of 0.8 years. 

The results of this study are very encouraging and suggest that more shelters should try a similar scheme. The authors say few resources are needed other than those for any foster scheme: some co-ordination from the shelter, ‘adopt me’ vests and business cards for the dogs. For more details of how the scheme worked, you can read the paper in PLoS One (open access). 
Do you think an Adoption Ambassador scheme would work in your community?

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, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Mohan-Gibbons, H., Weiss, E., Garrison, L., & Allison, M. (2014). Evaluation of a Novel Dog Adoption Program in Two US Communities PLoS ONE, 9 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0091959

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