New Research Sheds Light on Factors That Make Dogs Adoptable

Lori Ennis
by Lori Ennis
With an abundance of animals available for adoption, researchers are looking for ways to increase adoption rates. New research is giving insight that can assist shelter staff ensure dogs put their best paw forward.

You’ve seen the commercials or been to a shelter in person, or at the very least, you’ve seen pictures of dogs in shelters–caged and looking lonely, scared and well, not likely to be welcomed with open arms as a family’s new pet. It stands to reason, as so many dogs in shelters not only suffered possible prior trauma, but simply have trouble thriving in even the best of shelter environments.

Behavioral Analyst and assistant professor in companion animal science at Texas Tech University, Alexandra Protopopova began her doctoral dissertation exploring what traits made dogs more likely to be adopted, and has since allowed that question to become a focus of wide-scale research. As traits that make dogs more adoptable are discovered, shelters can then begin guiding dogs to show the best of themselves as people observe them and consider them for potential adoption.

Protopopova hopes that with her research, and more conclusions she expects to reveal from future research, shelter attendants and volunteers will be able to learn how to best guide dogs in showing situations and in turn, increase adoption rates and therefore, reduce euthanasia rates worldwide.

Because so many animals spend lengthy amounts of time in even the best, most-well funded shelters, the reality is that they are not allowed the opportunity to truly show what their personality traits are like in a ‘normal’ setting. Knowing what traits people looking for pets find desirable is great information that gives all the dogs a little bit of better opportunity to prove who they really are.

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When Protopopova was a graduate student, she, like many other trainers in shelters across the world, held basic assumptions about the type of dog people were looking for when going to shelters to adopt. Myths that the most adoptable dogs would be those who sat and didn’t jump or bark, and were able to look ‘longingly’ in a potential owner’s eyes were actually broken as Protopopova’s research. It showed that people actually paid more attention to whether the dog would lie down near the potential adopter, and or whether or not the dog seemed open to playing with the potential adopter.

Protopopova saw increases in rates of adoption when dogs would lie near and/or seemed open to playing with the possible new pup parent, but dogs who paced in their kennels or clung to a side of their kennel and turned their faces away when a potential adopter attempted interaction were less likely to be adopted.

She theorizes that if shelters can know and play to a dog’s strength, adoption rates can be increased, and with little-to-no additional costs for training programs as guiding dogs to show their ability to play and be near people when under consideration for adoption is more behavior management rather than actual training to do specific actions.

If a shelter employee uses a favorite toy to entice a dog to show it’s better side, for example, a potential adopter may get a more true picture of who the dog is and how he or she would fit in the family. Shelter employees could utilize basic concepts such as simply using treats to encourage a dog to lie near a potential adopter and show the dog’s ability to be part of a unit. In her research, when this was done, adoption rates rose significantly.

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Protopopova partnered with the Maddie’s Fund Foundation, an organization committed to creating a no-kill nation where all pets have healthy and happy homes, to continue research on what makes dogs more adoptable on a larger scale. She plans to utilize the conclusions drawn from the smaller research chase done in Florida in six other shelters across the country to see if these findings are generally true or specific to different types of shelters in different regions.

And while Protopopova acknowledges there are many other factors that people take in consideration when looking at bringing dogs into their family, such as breed and age, she is encouraged by the knowledge that it seems giving adolescent dogs some guidance and training in how to behave when in the presence of a potential adopter can really make an impact. Touting her research as some of the first that has actually seen scientifically measurable increases in adoption rates after behavioral training has been employed, she hopes that this information will carry over world wild, and hopefully, dramatically decrease the number of poor pets who never make it out of shelter situations.

Lori Ennis
Lori Ennis

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