What Do People Look for When Adopting a Dog?

A study of over 2000 shelter dogs investigates the physical and behavioural characteristics that help dogs get rehomed. Some of the results may surprise you.

Close-up of a happy young boy with his pet dog
Photo: Melissa King / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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A recent study by Christina Siettou et al (University of Kent) uses techniques from consumer analysis to gain a better understanding of people’s choices when adopting a dog from a shelter.  The researchers looked at the different characteristics of dogs waiting for homes and compared it to the likelihood that a new home is found. 

The online profiles of 2,037 dogs, described as available on the Dogs Trust website, were tracked from first appearance until they were adopted. Dogs Trust was chosen because it has 18 re-homing centres across the UK and takes care of more than 16,000 dogs every year. Their rehoming procedure includes a thorough behavioural assessment that typically lasts 7 days, including time spent in ‘real life’ rooms at the shelter that mimic homes. Dogs Trust also have facilities where dogs can receive specialist behavioural training, have a respite from kennels, or even live out their lives; they say “we never destroy a healthy dog.”

Some American studies (though not all) have found that black dogs and cats take longer to be adopted than those with different coloured fur. It’s not clear why this is the case. However, in this study, coat colour made no difference to the likelihood of adoption.

Another factor that did not make a significant difference was the presence of an existing medical condition. This seems surprising. However, Dogs Trust has a scheme that gives financial support to people who rehome a dog with a medical problem. These results suggest the scheme is successful in encouraging people to consider such dogs. Perhaps also some medical conditions are not considered problematic by potential adopters.

So what did make a difference? The size of a dog was important, with small dogs more likely to be adopted, and large dogs the least preferred. Not surprisingly, age was also a factor - puppies were more likely to be chosen. Pedigree dogs were also preferred over cross breeds.

Behavioural characteristics were important too. Being friendly to children, friendly to other dogs, and friendly to other pets all led to higher rates of adoption. 

In contrast, needing training or having behavioural problems led to less likely adoption. This is despite the fact that Dogs Trust provides extensive training and behaviour advice and support, including classes at adoption centres and individual sessions in adopters’ homes. It could be that potential adopters were not fully aware of this support, or that they were still not willing or able to take on the commitment required.

This study shows the importance of training and behaviour, both within the shelter environment and following adoption. Unfortunately many rescues and shelters around the world provide limited behavioural support, or rely on outdated training methods. This could be due to lack of resources or a belief that behaviour does not fall within their remit. But, if behaviour is a significant factor influencing adoption, then it is intertwined with welfare issues.

The researchers say “Shelter personnel could derive useful information regarding preferences for dog characteristics that could help in understanding some of the factors that influence the adopter’s choice in selecting a dog. More specifically, this article provides quantitative evidence of what the shelter personnel may intuitively know.  This information could therefore serve as a guide for which dog characteristics to highlight when advertising dogs for adoption. Highlighting a preferred characteristic for each dog could potentially positively influence a possible adoption even if the dog has some ‘undesirable’ traits.”

For example, since friendliness to children, dogs and other pets were all important, this could be highlighted in the description of a friendly dog.

This study used a large sample from an organization that is the largest dog welfare charity in the UK. However, in other countries – or at different locations within the same country – there may be some variation in what adopters want. Shelters can use their own records to check what is preferred, or not, in their own community.

This is a fascinating study that sheds light on people’s preferences when looking to adopt a shelter dog. The results will help rescues and shelters develop their adoption programs. 

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

What do you like to see in descriptions of shelter dogs, and what do you find off-putting?

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 

P.S. Why do people choose certain dogs?

Siettou, C., Fraser, I. M., & Fraser, R. W. (2014). Investigating some of the factors that influence “consumer” choice when adopting a shelter dog in the United Kingdom. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 17(2), 136-147.

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