Adopting Shelter Dogs: Should Fido Lie Down or Play?

If you go down to the shelter today, will you bring home a dog? New research finds that interactions between dogs and potential adopters predict the likelihood of adoption.

Shelter dogs are more likely to be adopted if they lie down - like this one - or play with potential adopters
Photo: Alexey Shinkevich / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Every year in the USA, 3-4 million healthy, potentially-adoptable, homeless animals are euthanized (AHA and PetSmart 2012). Many would be saved if there was a better understanding of how to increase adoptions from animal shelters. Previous studies have looked at whether it is possible to train dogs to behave in ways that will increase the likelihood of adoption, but so far there is a lack of consensus. The new study by Protopopova and Wynne study is a welcome addition to the literature since it focusses on interactions between dogs and potential adopters.

The study took place at the Alachua County Animal Services in Florida. A researcher observed 250 interactions between dogs and potential adopters. About a third of the people saw more than one dog, and some dogs were seen by more than one person, so this involved 154 potential adopters and 151 dogs. The dogs were almost all mixed-breeds and a range of ages, sizes, colours etc. Interactions took place in one of an indoor room, outdoor concrete pen, or outdoor grassy area.

The interactions typically lasted 8 minutes. The researchers say “Our results suggest that adopters make a decision to adopt prior to interacting with a dog, but this decision can be reversed based on the dog’s behavior outside of the kennel.”
In fact, out of the many canine behaviour variables that were looked at, only two made a difference to whether or not a dog was adopted. If the dog ignored an attempt by the person to initiate play, or if it did not lie down near to the person, then it was not likely to go home with them. Future research can investigate whether training specific to these two behaviours will make a difference to adoption rates.

Some of the behaviours that had no effect included jumping, mouthing, licking, leaning on, obeying commands (or not), and taking food (or not). This includes a number of agreeable and less agreeable behaviours that were surprisingly unimportant.

Potential adopters were asked about the decisions they made. The scientists say, “To the best of our knowledge, no previous research has asked people to report on why they did not adopt a particular dog after an interaction. We found that shelter visitors reported behavior as the main reason for not adopting. Specifically, the two most common responses were that the dog was not attentive and too active.”

Another interesting finding is that almost half of visitors said they did not intend to adopt a dog on that visit to the shelter, even though they had asked to meet a dog. About 10% of those with no intention to adopt nonetheless went home with a dog. Of those who intended to adopt, 59% actually did. This suggests there is potential to increase adoption rates amongst both groups of visitors.

Why do people visit an animal shelter if they don’t want to adopt? On the one hand they are taking up staff time and potentially stressing the animals who are required to interact with a complete stranger. On the other hand, perhaps shelters could design educational programs for such people as part of their community outreach (if the programs were entertaining, they might also be fund-raising).

There was an effect of location, with interactions in the small outdoor concrete pen most likely to lead to adoption. Other shelters could investigate whether different locations (e.g.  indoor adoption room, outdoor pen or on-leash walk) have an effect on their adoption rates.

This is a valuable study that improves our understanding of the factors affecting adoption or non-adoption of dogs at a shelter. Protopopova and Wynne conclude that “as long as the dog spends time lying in proximity to and not ignoring play initiation by the adopter, the likelihood of adoption is high.” The next step is to find out how to make this happen more often, whether by targeted training or simply more interaction with humans.

If you’ve adopted a shelter dog, what led you to choose one dog in particular compared to the others available?

P.S. Research resources for animal shelters and rescue and shelter dogs live up to expectations (mostly).

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:

Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C. (2014). Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 157, 109-116 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2014.04.007

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