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Can Human Psychology Help Shelter Dogs Find The Right Homes?

Written by: Dina Fantegrossi
Dina Fantegrossi is the Assistant Editor and Head Writer for HomeLife Media. Before her career in writing, Dina was a veterinary technician for more than 15 years.Read more
| Published on July 5, 2019

Potential adopters tend to enter animal shelters with some idea of their perfect pup. However, according to psychologists at Indiana University Bloomington, their final decision is often based on only a few specific traits.

The discrepancy between what a person says they want and what they actually choose is referred to as the stated–revealed preference gap. It is the basis for Dr. Samantha Cohen’s research on the adoption process.

The Problem

Currently, 13% of adopted dogs end up back at the shelter where they face a 56% chance of being euthanized. Cohen hopes her research can help reduce these numbers.

As a volunteer adoption counselor at her local animal shelter, she made recommendations on which dogs best fit a family’s wants and needs.

“It was my responsibility to match dogs to people based on their preferences, but I often noticed that visitors would ultimately adopt some other dog than my original suggestion,” Cohen said. “What we show in this study is that what people say they want in a dog isn’t always in line with what they choose. By focusing on a subset of desired traits, rather than everything a visitor says, I believe we can make animal adoption more efficient and successful.”

The Research

Cohen asked potential adopters to state their preferences in regards to 13 traits: age, sex, color, size, purebred status, previous training, nervousness, protectiveness, intelligence, excitability, energy level, playfulness and friendliness. age, size, sex and coat color.

She documented their responses, took them through the adoption process, and compared the traits of the dogs they chose with those of the “ideal dogs” they originally described.

The traits most commonly listed as desirable by potential adopters were friendliness, playfulness, and energy level. The least common were sex, purebred status, and color.

“At our shelter, most visitors wanted a dog with some training, a dog that was not very nervous, a somewhat protective dog, a somewhat excitable dog, a medium size dog, a medium energy dog, a somewhat playful dog, and a very friendly dog,” Cohen told iHeartDogs. “Very few visitors (7%) indicated a preference for a senior dog. Most visitors had no preference on color, purebred status, or sex.”

The Results

145 of the study participants adopted dogs. Cohen noted:

“When we compared what visitors who eventually adopted said that they wanted in a dog to the traits of the dog they chose, we found that these two measures of preferences were more consistent than expected due to chance–suggesting those preferences do play some role in decision-making.”

The traits fulfilled more often than chance were intelligence, playfulness, sex, size, and age. Cohen also found that, like our mate choices, looks matter when it comes to choosing a dog.

“As multiple psychologists have shown in speed-dating experiments, physical attractiveness is very important,” she said. “Most people think they’ve got a handsome or good-looking dog.”

What Can Adopters Do To Ensure They Make The Best Pet Choice?

  • Do not put too much stock in breed. Someone set on adopting a Golden Retriever may miss out on a mixed-breed dog with the same traits.
  • Understand canine behavior. Adopters may be able to overlook puppy biting at the shelter, but dealing with teething and training at home may become a deal breaker.
  • Allow time for decompression. The dog you meet in the shelter is not necessarily the one you will live with weeks later. Shelter pups often need time to adjust to their new home before their true personality can shine through.

What Can Shelters Do To Better Match Adopters With The Right Dogs?

  • Understand that people tend to rely more strongly on certain traits when choosing a dog. Play up a dog’s friendly nature when meeting with potential adopters.
  • Do not allow adoptions based on online descriptions alone. Adopters must meet the animal to ensure the dog meets their expectations.
  • Push for foster placements and “shelter vacations” for stressed-out dogs to help them decompress. The more calm the dog, the better chance they will put their best paw forward!

Learn more about Dr. Cohen’s research on the IU Bloomington blog.

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