Picking a New Dog is a Complex Choice

It’s not a case of ‘any puppy will do’ - the whole package counts.

A thoughtful Chinese Crested dog against the greenery in the park
Photo: DragoNika / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Surprisingly little is known about how people choose a new dog considering how popular they are. While it’s a personal choice, it has wider implications – humane societies would really like to know how to increase adoptions from shelters and decrease purchases from puppy mills. Could relocation programs, where dogs are brought in from out of town, be part of the solution?

A new paper by Laurie Garrison and Emily Weiss (ASPCA) surveyed 1009 people who had either acquired a dog in the last year or were planning to get a dog. People were shown fake profiles of dogs and asked to say how likely they would be to choose it.

The results showed people take many factors into account, and while specific details are important – such as wanting a puppy and not wanting a senior – they can be mitigated by other aspects of the dog.

The authors say, “People considered the entire set of features and made trade-offs based on the combination. A positive feature such as puppy was often overridden by the relative influence of one or more of the six other features in the profile. Sometimes a negative feature such as senior dog was overcome by the relative positive influence of the other features.” 

“Overall, these results show that people have complex preferences, and which features are important vary widely across people. If an animal shelter has a great variety of dogs available, it is more likely that the set of features of a particular dog will match an adopter’s preferences.”

The dog’s profiles were mostly not what people were looking for. The least popular dog had only 4% of people say they would choose it. Preferred attributes were a black or dark-coloured puppy of a medium-sized, unusual breed, from a shelter, originating from the local community and at high risk of euthanasia. 

Some people were prepared to drive a long way for the right dog, with 40% willing to drive 60 miles or further. Some of those who had obtained a puppy from a breeder had travelled more than 90 miles.

In common with previous research, the survey found a difference between the number of people who would consider adopting from a shelter and the substantially lower number who actually did so.

Amongst people who would not consider a shelter, the main reasons were they wanted a purebred dog and they thought the shelter would not have the kind of dog they wanted. 

The authors say increasing the variety of animals available at a shelter and publicizing this would encourage more people to consider it. It also might mean that some people would be prepared to wait for the right kind of dog to appear at the shelter, since they would know the choice of animals was always changing. However, since people  had a preference for a local dog, it may be necessary to explain why dogs are brought in out-of-state or out-of-country.

Of course, when people say ‘not the right kind of dog’ it’s possible they are referring to stereotyped beliefs about shelter animals.

For example, in an Australian survey Kate Mornement et al found that about a third of respondents thought shelter dogs have a behaviour problem. In this case campaigns that emphasize the positives might help – for example the dogs are vaccinated, have had a behavioural assessment, behaviour and training advice is available, and highlighting the benefits of adult dogs.

This study did not look at friendliness, which some research has found to be the most important factor when considering a dog (Mornement et al 2012; Siettou et al 2014). Another drawback is that the sample is not representative of the US population as a whole, tending more towards the northeast and to have a higher income and education level than average. 

The findings will be very useful to humane societies looking to increase canine adoptions. The authors say relocation programs make a wider variety of dogs available at the shelter, which may also benefit animals already there, since more people will come down to look at the dogs. 

The results show our choices in dogs are as individual as we are. 

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 look for when choosing a dog?

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:

Garrison, L., & Weiss, E. (2014). What Do People Want? Factors People Consider When Acquiring Dogs, the Complexity of the Choices They Make, and Implications for Nonhuman Animal Relocation Programs Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 18 (1), 57-73 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.943836
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  
Siettou, C., Fraser, I., & Fraser, R. (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 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.883924

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