The leading cause of death of our companion dogs is euthanasia in shelters. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), about 60% of dogs entering shelters are euthanized (ASPCA 2011). Some of these dogs were in poor medical condition or unsafe to be placed for behavior reasons, but plenty had neither severe medical issues nor problematic behaviors. We can argue that using the word ‘euthanasia’ in this situation is mostly a way to help us cope with the reality of the situation, not an accurate application of the term. According to the medical dictionary, the term defines “the act or practice of killing hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy”, not putting down healthy animals who still had the chance of making good pets. With as many dog lovers as there are, we would hope that these animals would ultimately find a loving home, and for many, the story does have a happy ending. Others however, aren’t as lucky and the road ends at the shelter. When only about a third of the people visiting the shelter leave with a dog, that means most visitors will ultimately go to other sources. Much like in any other business, it’s sad to say but adoption rate seems greatly influenced by how well the goods are presented, and in this case, the goods are the animals that already come with the disadvantage of having been surrendered. So in the end, what makes the difference between the adoption and the lethal injection? Several studies have attempted to identify the factors that influence potential adopters to choose one dog over the others and a brand new study by Potopopova & al. (2014) brings out a few new key predictors that may be able to help us understand how to save more dogs. How much influence does the breed, the size, the age, the color or the behavior, have on the fate of the dogs?
One of the most striking facts that some of studies on the subject reveal, is how little time the average adopter takes to make a decision. When this decision will affect the person’s life as well as that of the animal for a good 10 years on average, it’s surprising how little consideration is given to it. It takes most potential adopters less than 70 seconds to evaluate a dog in the kennel and many only check out about a third of the dogs available (Wells & Hepper, 2001)! So whether a dog is placed towards the front or the back of the kennel may greatly impact its chances of being adopted. Most potential adopters only take out one dog during their visit and will spend an average of 8 minutes interacting with it. When we add it all up, the dogs have just a few seconds to ‘seduce’ a potential human from their kennel and less than 10 minutes when taken out, to convince that person that they’re THE one.
Since dogs adopted are generally reported as more attractive than dogs that are euthanized (Protopopoa & al., 2012), an important question then becomes: what makes a dog attractive and can we influence that factor? What does the potential adopter really look for in a dog when walking through the kennel? Breed type, age and information on the cage card (such as the mode of intake and length of stay) were the most important reasons for a dog to be considered. Breeds in the fighting group have the least chances of being adopted, followed by the sporting dogs. Research has shown that when it comes to identifying breeds, even shelter professionals don’t accurately identify dog breeds from their phenotype only (Olson & al., 2012), so the differences between the breed types may be mostly due to public perception, not on actual genetics. The most popular are the lap dogs. In generally, the smaller the dog, the more likely they are to be adopted. The reason why the dog is in the shelter also plays a role. When the dogs are picked up as a stray or if they’re confiscated, the dogs are less likely to be adopted than when they’re surrendered by their owners (Protopopava & al. 2014). We can only speculate at this point as to why this would make such a difference in the public’s perception of the dogs.
Surprisingly, color does not seem to have much influence on how long the dogs will stay in the shelter. It’s often assumed that light colored dogs have an advantage over darker or even black dogs but the data on the subject isn’t consistent and in a more recent study, red dogs had similar adoption success then brindle or black dogs (Protopopava & al., 2014).
After appearance, breed and age, playfulness, activity level and friendliness were the most important behavior reasons for adopting. If dogs made oral contact with their own body or with their enclosure, or if they rubbed their bodies on the walls, or even tilted their heads, they were perceived more negatively by potential adopters. Those behaviors were often interpreted as a sign of poor physical or mental health and raised concerns. Barking, staying in the back of the kennel may also influence how the dog will be perceived and potentially considered. For those reasons, a few studies looked into ways that dogs could be taught certain behaviors that could help present them in a better light. If a dog comes to the front of the kennel or looks at the visitors, will he/she be seen as friendly and therefore be more attractive? Unfortunately findings vary from one study to the other and overall have not shown any significant effect of such training. There is some influence, but it remains very limited. At this point, it seems that although certain behaviors may determine potential failure, there’s not enough data to confirm that we can positively influence the chances of any given dog of being selected through training. Observations on larger groups of dogs are still needed (Protopopova & al. 2014). But even with limited influence on adoption success, training shelter dogs still has value from a welfare standpoint. Human interaction and exercise help reduce stress levels and contribute to the dogs’ overall wellbeing. When we can associate the presence of visitors with treats for instance, we can also reduce the barking in the kennel, thus decreasing noise and stress levels (see videos below). It’s also possible that training might reduce post adoption relinquishment. So finding ways we can increase training with the use of volunteers, staff, trainers, or through automation, is an important step in helping dogs find good homes.
Once a dog is identified as a good candidate, the potential adopters will generally take the dog out to get to know him/her. At this point, how the dog interacts with the person will be key in the decision to adopt or not. Two behaviors have been recently identified as predictors of the outcome: the dog’s response to invitations to play and whether or not the dog lies down next to the person. Dogs that were adopted responded twice as much to invitations to play and lied down close to the potential adopters twice as much as the dogs that were not adopted. What’s interesting here is that both of these behaviors can be highly influenced by the type and size of the meeting area. In a large and grassy enclosure, the dogs are likely to run around and explore, therefore decreasing their potential of interacting with the people or lying nearby. In a small room, the dog is more likely to connect and because there is no other option, when it’s time to lie down, the dog will automatically be closer (Protopopava & al., 2014).
We can’t change how a dog looks, how old or how big he/she is and more studies on the subject are still needed to understand how to better present the dogs and help enhance their appeal. In the meantime, the shelter staff can still influence the success of any given dog. How and how much they talk about the dogs, what information is presented on the cage, how clean is the cage and what position in the kennel is the dog are all factors that will play a role. Just like in selling any product, how the dogs are promoted has a big influence of getting them a home. Quality pictures and videos presenting the dogs playing could have a big impact. Furthermore, staff and volunteers can help adopters select an animal based on their lifestyle and look beyond the appearance to find the right match. It’s a hard time to be judged on behavior when increased stress levels due to the situation can significantly affect the dogs’ response to people. Staff and volunteers therefore play a critical role in reducing the anxiety of these dogs while helping them develop their social skills and their public appeal. Most of all, we need to all recognize that there are plenty of great dogs that end up in the shelter, from puppies to senior dogs, from purebreds to pure mutts, so that shelters become the first and last place we go to when looking for our next best friend.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.