Karen B. London
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Behavioral Predictors of Adoption
What dogs do influences potential adopters

We know that millions of shelter pets are available for adoption each year, but that many are never selected. Most previous research into the choices that people make about which dog to adopt has focused on what the dog looks like and the dog’s behavior in the kennel.

The recent study “Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption” investigated whether dogs’ behavior during an interaction outside of the kennel had any impact on the likelihood of adoption. (Potential adopters chose which dog or dogs they wanted to spend time with in a session out of the kennel.)

There were only two behaviors that influenced adoption: 1) Dogs who ignored people’s attempts to initiate play were far less likely to be adopted than those dogs who played when people attempted to initiate play with them, and 2) Dogs who spent more time lying down close to potential adopters were fourteen times more likely to be adopted than those who spent less time lying down near the people. Dogs who were adopted spent half as much time ignoring people’s attempts to play and twice as much time lying down near potential adopters than dogs who were not selected for adoption.

This research suggests that even in a short interaction—the average in this study was 8 minutes and did not differ between people who chose to adopt the dog and those who did not adopt the dog—people were making choices based on dogs’ behavior. Specifically, they chose dogs who played with them and who spent time lying down near them. This study suggests that people are selecting dogs who act in certain ways and that training dogs to behave in these ways has the potential to increase their chances of being adopted.


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

photo by John Haslam/Flickr

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Submitted by Broke_Daddy | May 20 2014 |

There's nothing surprising in this, really. People expect dogs to immediately relate to them and then to trust them. I'd hope that some could realize that asking certain dogs to do this is unreasonable.
The last shelter dog we got was laying in his cage on an upper level. As I got closer, he stuck his leg/paw under the cage door and made a motion as to pull me closer.
We took him into a visitation room, along with my two daughters and he came over to me, siting cross legged, got into my lap and pushed his head up under my chin.
We had him 14 years before he was hurting just too much. It's hard just to type this.

Submitted by maggie98765 | May 22 2014 |

So sorry for your loss. I agree that some dogs just aren't going to naturally act this way, and I wonder if training them to do it is a kind of false advertising... if someone wants a dog who is naturally playful and affectionate, and ends up with a dog who has to be urged to act that way, will any of them be happy?

Submitted by Becky | June 2 2014 |

Please Please don't let too much time go by before you go get another forever friend. We, my daughter and I stopped counting how many we have rescued at 7-8. Some have gone to heaven, some are still with us, each one teaches us something more about ourselves. Me it was my Jewel Boxer mix she got cancer in 2008. Hard to type with out crying but I have to believe she is waiting for me up there with a crew of others. The ones that need you the most tug at your heart strings. I would do it all again just to know for 6 1/2 years one special dog had a really terrific life and made a family's house a home. We were the home were the brown dogs lived happy healthy and safe.

Submitted by Jane | May 22 2014 |

My heart goes out to you, Broke Daddy. I chose my dog at the RSPCA in Sydney when he snuck his little snout under my hands as I was crouching down to meet him. The attendant was saying something about "Why not, he likes you!" and I was trying to say, "No, I just came to have a look because I will get a dog when I move house but I'm not allowed to have dogs where I live now," but the words dried up when he did that. Also, when a whole paddock of dogs started barking at another enclosure of larger dogs, he didn't. He just turned and looked and made a careful assessment of the situation before slowly uttering the word "Wrrroooooof" once and once only. I thought, "This is my kind of dog". Thus began 14 years of moving house because landlords and dogs are a recipe for trouble in this real estate-mad city, but it was also 14 years of bliss with my darling 45kg honey bear of a labrador x bullmastiff, the gentlest and most intelligent dog in the world. He never put a paw wrong. I had to let him go last November and I'm still just beginning to feel the hurt. I used to say they trained them to do things like that at the RSPCA. I think there is definitely an area of overlap in the natural behaviours of puppies and the expectations of humans, and when they grab hold of your heartstrings they don't let go.

Submitted by Nora Edwards | May 23 2014 |

It's so sad to see some dogs that are slow to warm up to people not get a chance in a shelter environment.

Submitted by Lisa Brown | May 28 2014 |

My heart goes out to the dogs who where not adopted because they didn't play by the rules. What happens to them?

Submitted by lisa white | May 30 2014 |

I want to first say I'm so sorry for your loss I know the heartbreak of losing a furbaby.
I volunteer at a shelter and I always tell people to please not judge our dogs by their actions in their kennels. I see potential adopters leave because the dog did not show them much interest. People need to understand some dogs are abused, have never had love, just been dumped or have never had structure and they can't help the way they act. Sometimes the dogs have not been out since the morning so they are concentrating on potty time. Some dogs handle the shelter environment without any problem but some do not do well so it's hard for them to show interest. They just need some time and patience. When we have time our volunteers spend time with the scared dogs, we spend time playing with them when we can. We try so hard to make them as adoptable as we can but I do agree some dogs are not people dogs they would be happy on a farm with other animals. I am a believer dogs pick us we don't pick them. Another thing I wish for is for potential adopters to look past a dogs appearance and see their personality. So many dogs get overlooked because they are not cute and fluffy or they look like a "pit" it makes me sad. I wish people could see what I do and give a less adoptable dog a chance. God bless you all for adopting and saving lives.

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