Shelter Dog Adoptions Influenced More by Morphology Than Behavior

November 23, 2016
Einav Keet

Improving a shelter dog’s behavior in the kennel may not improve their chances for adoption, according to a new study by Texas Tech and Arizona State University veterinary researchers.

Going to a pet shelter in search of a dog is a bit like shopping at a thrift store. While what shoppers find may not be the newest selection, they’re likely to encounter what feels like a hidden treasure. As such, a recent study from researchers in Texas and Arizona aimed to find just what potential adopters are looking for in a dog when they visit pet adoption centers.

With dogs in 37% to 47% of all households in the United States, pet adoption shelters and centers play a critical role in keeping animals off of the streets and finding them homes.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), animal shelters in the United States take in about 7.6 million companion animals each year, including around 3.9 million dogs and 3.4 million cats. Of those, approximately 1.2 million dogs are euthanized and 1.4 million dogs are adopted. About 542,000 dogs are returned to their original owners. Of all dogs that enter shelters each year, 35% are adopted into new homes, 31% are euthanized, and 26% of dogs brought in as strays are reunited with their owners. Overall, twice as many animals enter shelters as strays, compared to those brought in by their owners.

Researchers from Texas Tech University and Arizona State University recently conducted an investigation on the behavior of individuals visiting animal shelters and the traits they seem to favor when adopting dogs. In their paper, which was published in Anthrozoös, a multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals, the researchers detail a set of experiments they conducted to see how shelter visitors interacted with kenneled dogs. They wanted to see if potential adopters showed any preference for dogs trained to not engage in behaviors seen as undesirable. The researchers knew that many factors go in to matchmaking dog to owner, and that previous studies showed that behavior training for shelter dogs ultimately did not greatly impact visitors’ adoption decisions.

In the new study, the researchers examined dog behaviors found to have a link to an animal’s length of stay in a shelter and assessed if training focused on those behaviors helped dogs get adopted. Such behaviors linked to longer shelter stays in dogs included:

  • Spending time at the back of the kennel,
  • Facing backward, leaning, or jumping on kennel walls,
  • Barking or howling.

The researchers knew that shelter visitors have a primary interaction with dogs while they’re in their kennels, which influences the potential secondary interaction of a visitor requesting to interact with a dog outside their kennel, and so, their focus assessed visitor behavior toward kenneled dogs.

Over the course of the study, the researchers observed 63 shelter visitors along with 47 unique dogs. They found that after training, dogs spent less time engaging in the undesirable in-kennel behaviors, but that training did not seem to affect the behavior of shelter visitors. Instead, only morphology seemed to influence visitors, with potential adopters preferring puppies, long-haired dogs, small dogs, and certain breeds.

“Furthermore, a lack of undesirable behavior of the dogs, regardless of condition, did not affect visitor behavior when aggregated across the different phases of the study,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Therefore, our data suggest that in-kennel training, although effective at decreasing inappropriate behavior, might not affect visitor behavior.”

The authors continued, “Our findings, together with previous research, suggest that visitors might be influenced by the dogs’ behavior outside of their kennels, but potentially not by their in-kennel behaviors. However, a more thorough investigation of all in-kennel behavior, and not just ‘undesirable behavior’ as defined in this study, is warranted prior to reaching this final conclusion.”