Great Photos are Important to Dog Adoption

What if the adoption of shelter dogs could be sped up with better photographs?

Great photos catch the eye of potential adopters and speed up adoptions from shelters. Illustratred by a black Lab sitting by a pond.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

The internet is an important part of animal adoptions. Animal shelters and photographers often have opinions as to what photographs should be like, but are they right? A new study by Rachel Lampe and Thomas Witte (Royal Veterinary College, Herts) studies the effect of photographs of black Labrador Retriever crosses on the length of time before they found a new home.

“Better photos may catch the eye of potential adopters and make the dog’s features and personality more visible," say Lampe and Witte.

Some of the things that photographers expect to make a difference, such as wearing a bandana, having a person in the photograph, having a toy, and having a visible tongue (akin to smiling) made no difference. 

For young dogs, the quality of the photograph was very important. A dog with a great quality photograph was typically adopted within 14 days compared to 43 days for a poor photo. If the dog was looking in the direction of the camera, it helped if he or she was actually making eye contact. Standing dogs were adopted faster than sitting dogs, but there was no difference for laying down.

In adult dogs, a photo taken outside led to an average adoption time of 37 days, compared to 51 for a photo indoors. Blurry and small photos led to a longer wait for a home. None of these made a difference to younger dogs, however. It’s also worth noting that for adult dogs, eye contact and standing or sitting did not relate to adoption time.

The study focused on one breed of dog so that only aspects of the photographs would have an effect. They identified 468 black Labrador Retriever crosses that were adopted via Petfinder in the United States during a period of about 18-months in 2011 and 2012. They split the dogs into young (255) and old (213) dogs.

Even though this study only looked at one type of dog, Lampe and Witte say, “these positive photo traits would apply to dog photos at large. This information can begin to be used to easily and cheaply help shelters increase the impact of their online advertising of dogs and to decrease how long the dogs stay in shelters.”

One of the nice things about this study is the large sample size and the fact the dogs came from across the United States. However, an even bigger sample size might have made a difference to some results. For example, only 10% of the dogs were wearing a bandana. Also it may be that some shelters put bandanas on dogs they think will be hard to adopt. So if you’re taking photos and you think a dog looks good in a bandana, go ahead. It seems like the most important thing is to focus on getting a great photo.

Future research that looks at the whole animal adoption experience, including the number of clicks on online photos, would be very helpful.

What are your tips for photographing dogs?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

More posts about Labrador Retrievers:
Are all Labrador Retrievers the same?
The Labrador Lifestyle
If you lead a Lab to water, should you let them swim?

Lampe, R., & Witte, T. (2014). Speed of Dog Adoption: Impact of Online Photo Traits Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2014.982796

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