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What Do People Look for When Adopting a Dog?

A study of over 2,000 shelter animals investigates, with some surprising results, the physical and behavioral characteristics that help dogs find new homes.
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(Photo: Robert Hoetink/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Robert Hoetink/Shutterstock)

A recent study led by Christina Siettou at the University of Kent uses techniques from consumer analysis to gain a better understanding of people’s choices when adopting a dog from a shelter. The researchers looked at the different characteristics of dogs waiting for homes and compared them to the likelihood that a new home is found.

The online profiles of 2,037 dogs, described as available on the Dogs Trust website, were tracked from first appearance until they were adopted. Dogs Trust was chosen because it has 18 re-homing centers across the U.K. and takes care of more than 16,000 dogs every year. Their re-homing procedure includes a thorough behavioral assessment that typically lasts seven days, including time spent in "real life" rooms at the shelter that mimic homes. Dogs Trust also have facilities where dogs can receive specialist behavioral training, have a respite from kennels, or even live out their lives; they say “we never destroy a healthy dog.”

Some American studies (though not all) have found that black dogs and cats take longer to be adopted than those with different colored fur. It’s not clear why this is the case. However, in this study, coat color made no difference to the likelihood of adoption.

"This information could serve as a guide for which dog characteristics to highlight when advertising dogs for adoption."

Another factor that did not make a significant difference was the presence of an existing medical condition. This seems surprising, but Dogs Trust has a scheme that gives financial support to people who re-home a dog with a medical problem. These results suggest the scheme is successful in encouraging people to consider such dogs. And perhaps some medical conditions are not considered problematic by potential adopters.

So what did make a difference? The size of a dog was important, with small dogs more likely to be adopted, and large dogs the least preferred. Not surprisingly, age was also a factor—puppies were more likely to be chosen. Pedigree dogs were also preferred over cross breeds.

Behavioral characteristics were important too. Being friendly to children, friendly to other dogs, and friendly to other pets all led to higher rates of adoption.

In contrast, needing training or having behavioral problems led to less likely adoption. This is despite the fact that Dogs Trust provides extensive training and behavior advice and support, including classes at adoption centers and individual sessions in adopters’ homes. It could be that potential adopters were not fully aware of this support, or that they were still not willing or able to take on the commitment required.

This study shows the importance of training and behavior, both within the shelter environment and following adoption. Unfortunately many rescues and shelters around the world provide limited behavioral support, or rely on outdated training methods. This could be due to lack of resources or a belief that behavior does not fall within their remit. But, if behavior is a significant factor influencing adoption, then it is intertwined with welfare issues.

"Shelter personnel could derive useful information regarding preferences for dog characteristics that could help in understanding some of the factors that influence the adopter’s choice in selecting a dog," the researchers write. "More specifically, this article provides quantitative evidence of what the shelter personnel may intuitively know. This information could therefore serve as a guide for which dog characteristics to highlight when advertising dogs for adoption. Highlighting a preferred characteristic for each dog could potentially positively influence a possible adoption even if the dog has some ‘undesirable’ traits.”

For example, since friendliness to children, dogs, and other pets were all important, this could be highlighted in the description of a friendly dog.

This study used a large sample from an organization that is the largest dog welfare charity in the U.K. However, in other countries—or at different locations within the same country—there may be some variation in what adopters want. Shelters can use their own records to check what is preferred, or not, in their own community.

This is a fascinating study that sheds light on people’s preferences when looking to adopt a shelter dog. The results will help rescues and shelters develop their adoption programs.