What Helps Shelter Dogs Get Adopted and Stay in Homes?

A new literature review looks at how shelters can increase adoptions and reduce animal relinquishment.

A cute mixed breed dog lies down with a ball in its mouth

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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The review, by Dr. Alexandra Protopopova (Texas Tech University) and Lisa Gunter, looks at the factors that affect adoption rates, the effects of interventions, and how to decrease the numbers of people giving their dogs to shelters (or returning dogs after adoption). The review is important because it will help shelters to know about evidence-based ways to reduce the number of dogs in shelters.

Although some factors vary from one country to another, some things are consistent: people spend very little time looking at a shelter dog before deciding to adopt, and they pay attention to the dog’s size, breed, and colour.

Dogs can arrive at shelters as strays (the most common route in the US), by being surrendered by their owner (about 30% of dogs in shelters in the US), after being seized in an animal cruelty investigation, or by being returned following an adoption that has not worked out.

The review found a dog’s appearance is an important factor in its adoption. People also seem to prefer dogs that were surrendered by their owner rather than strays, and are influenced by breed labels with dogs described as pit-bull types taking longer to be adopted. One study at a Florida shelter found that removing breed labels was successful at improving adoption rates of pit-bull type dogs (adoption rates of other dogs were unchanged).

If people decide to spend time with a dog, then its behaviour becomes more important, with people adopting dogs they describe as showing calmness, friendliness and playfulness. But the decision to adopt a dog or not is typically made after only 8 minutes.

A study by Protopopova et al (2014) found people are more likely to adopt a dog if it plays with them and lies down near them. Following this, Protopopova et al (2016) found adoption rates were increased 2.5 times with an intervention that both encouraged play (using the dog’s favourite toy) and then keeping the dog on a short leash and using treats to lure it into a down position near the potential adopter.

What helps shelter dogs - like this cute mixed-breed - get adopted and stay in homes?
Photo: Tom Feist; top, Emily on Time; both Shutterstock.

Other strategies have looked at reducing the number of dogs relinquished or returned to shelters. Young dogs are more likely to be relinquished, and there are differences between relinquished dogs and those kept, as well as between the people who relinquish dogs and those who don’t. Moving house and difficulties in finding rental homes that take pets, and personal issues, all play a role too, showing how complicated an issue it is.

About 15% of adopted dogs are subsequently returned to the shelter in the US. Again, returned dogs are typically young, and there is a range of reasons including housing, personal issues, and behaviour issues that are typically spotted quite soon after the dog was taken home.

Since so many dogs end up in shelters as strays, microchipping and identification tags would go a long way to being able to return dogs to their owners. Unfortunately, studies of providing education and/or training and behaviour information to people adopting dogs have not always had the positive results you might expect. However, a program that used foster homes (including giving the foster responsibility for finding the dog a new home) had promising results.

The review also looks at the issues with behavioural assessments of shelter dogs, and points out areas where we need to know more (such as the behaviour of people thinking of adopting a dog). Finally, wider community involvement may help too.

Although we know quite a lot about how dogs end up in shelters, a lot more research is needed to help design evidence-based programs to reduce relinquishment and increase adoptions. This paper is a useful summary of what we know so far.

You can follow the researchers on Facebook: Dr. Alexandra Protopopova at the Human-Animal Interaction Lab and Lisa Gunter is part of the Canine Science Collaboratory headed by Dr. Clive Wynne.

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

Protopopova, A., & Gunter, L. M. (2017). Adoption and relinquishment interventions at the animal shelter: a review. Animal Welfare, 26(1), 35-48.

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