Could Dogs Ever Learn to Game the Adoption System?

October 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

Photo by Liana Aghajanian/Flickr

If you’re a russet lapdog puppy, life in an animal shelter will probably end reasonably well for you. This is not to say it would be fun, but the odds of a happy adoption ending would be heavily in your favor.

Grand for the lapdog puppies, but what about the rest of the animals? Every year, anywhere from five to seven million pets go into animal shelters across the US and three to four million of them are put down. Yeah, that’s down from the 12-20 million euthanized in the 70’s, but it’s a whole lot more than I can think about without wanting to cry.

Despite the numbers though, not a lot of hard research has actually gone into exactly what makes someone adopt an animal. It’s general belief in the shelter community that sociability trumps all, but evidence is touch and go, based largely on basic surveys on which animals get adopted (lapdogs, neutered dogs, and younger animals of both species) and which don’t. A few studies tried to go a little further: a couple years ago, for instance, a pair of Indiana veterinarians found that undergoing obedience training seemed to increase a dog’s adoption chances, although the study was neither blinded nor tightly controlled.

But what if there were something a dog could do that would give him a leg up? Help him out even if he is larger or older than his oh-so-adoptable puppy peers? That was the question asked by a recent study that caught my eye in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researchers here used the previous studies as a launching pad from which to say, ok, given that behavior and training seem to be involved, is there something specific within that that would make him more adoptable?

They went for the soulful eye gaze:

Not a dog used in the study, but you get the point. Photo by maplegirlie/Flickr.

It’s a behavior we humans imbue with social, communicative meaning from one person to the next, and even from, as past studies have shown, human to dog.

In this study, 180 dogs at a Florida shelter were split randomly into three groups: control, feeding, or training. The control got, well, business as usual. The training group was trained via doggy treats six days a week throughout their stay to hold eye contact with a human; the feeding group got all the perks of the training group, but didn’t have to do the work. Along the way, the experimenters pulled together everything else they could about the dogs, from size, breed, means of arrival (stray, surrendered…), age, kennel position, and so on and threw it in the statistics machine.

At the end of the day, it didn’t work. Sorry folks, but I’m reporting on a negative study here. Long looks from a dog did nothing obvious to sway potential owners. Breed and size were still the most significant predictors of a dog’s success. (Weirdly, kennel location also mattered, which is grist for future studies: kennel positions one through 10 had higher adoption rates than 11-15. Could the puppies go in the back?)

“We did go into it more optimistically,” the study’s lead author, Alexandra Protopopova, wrote to me in an email. “But since, unfortunately, I have turned into somewhat of a pessimist when it comes to adopters selecting dogs in a shelter.”

BUT… don’t go out and adopt the current population of your neighborhood shelter yet (or do, actually. I mean, if you have the space, the food, and the chew toys, make’em happy). There’s a lot of reasons to be hopeful for the big, old, strays still out there. First, this was one step removed from pilot study stage: the population was small, which left the experimenters little statistical power to see an effect. More important, it made the researchers realize they they were falling into a glaring logical chasm.

“We assume what people want, and then train the dogs based on that assumption,” writes Protopopova. “However, besides a few surveys, no one has attempted to actually directly study what it is that people want in a dog in terms of behavior.”

They’re back to the drawing board now running follow-ups to find out what actually turns people on and off of a dog, behavior-wise. As it turns out, based on a little preliminary work, some of the behaviors you or I might think would be ideal, like sitting and gazing calmly, don’t do anything one way or another. But expressing weird behaviors—e.g. kennel wall-licking—that’s starting to look like an adoption dealbreaker. And that’s an easy behavior to stop.

At the end of the day, it might not be the longing gaze that gets a dog adopted, but there might be something else a dog can or can’t do that’s going to be his ticket out. Until then, I wonder if I can just bring them all home with me…

Protopopova A, et al. The effects of social training and other factors on adoption success of shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2012.09.009.
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§ One Response to Could Dogs Ever Learn to Game the Adoption System?

  • Wow, love the last two paragraphs. That makes sense with human nature. If we can’t identify a surefire behavior for shelter dogs that operates as a human attractant, there are certainly some behaviors as you mention that humans are instantly going to dislike. So teach the dogs not to do those. That’s why people end up going to trainers. Not usually to get the dogs to do something. It’s to get them to stop doing something…. Good dog behavior is almost invisible to lots of people. Thanks for a good post.

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