What Makes A Dog Adoptable?

Training dogs to get adopted: Study reveals behaviors that predict longer stay in shelters

By Patrick Cullen

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Growing up, we had a rescue named Jake. He was a mixed-breed, black lab and came with a lot of baggage, as most rescues do. We suspect he was abused in one of the four homes he lived in before we found him. He was difficult at times, through no fault of his own. Jake was ultimately a lovable dog with a funny personality and more than a few goofy quirks. He was my home-based sidekick, until we had to put him down at age twelve.

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And to think that such a great pet and important family member, almost wasn’t. When we first visited him at the farm where he was being fostered, Jake was hyperactive and inattentive. He wanted little to do with the five of us no matter how much we tried to interact with him. At the end of a fifteen minute visit, we thanked the woman and left, having decided Jake wouldn’t be a good fit.

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Disheartened that we wouldn’t be getting a dog just yet, I was the last one out of the gate. As it closed behind me, Jake jumped up and stared directly into my eyes as if to ask if we’d forgotten something. When I saw him looking at me like that, with our family in front of him and this newest, temporary home behind him, I knew he was meant for us. We took him home that day.

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As the timeless expression goes, first impressions are everything. From dating to job interviews, you want to present your best self and do so quickly. Snap judgements can often make or break these sensitive interactions. As it turns out, we should be relaying this important advice to the millions upon millions of dogs who find themselves in shelters around the world. Shelters in the United States take in 3.3 million dogs every year. Many of those, sadly, will never find a home.

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Euthanasia rates are staggering and although they are in slight decline, the odds remain stacked against shelter dogs. Luckily, science is stepping in as researchers have turned their attention to this problem in hopes of increasing the odds of adoption for these homeless pets.

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Over the past few years, the concept of behavior modification leading to higher adoption rates has caught on. It’s now in the hands of researchers and dog experts to study these programs and help shelter dogs put their best paw forward with good behavior.  A study conducted by the University of Florida’s Psychology Department has figured out a program that could work.

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University of Florida researchers looked at over 300 dogs housed at a Gainesville shelter. The study took eight months and involved painstakingly recording and coding dog behavior against potential social stressors. The dogs were expected to interact with one then two persons, moving up to interactive audiences that were meant to imitate potential adopters. Researchers observed 42 separate behaviors in the dogs, then statistically analyzed these to determine if they increased, decreased, or had no effect on the dog’s length of stay at the shelter.

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At the end of the study, it was found that only a few behaviors had a significant effect. Behaviors that increased the length of stay include: pacing in a back and forth motion in the kennel; leaning or rubbing on the kennel wall; facing away from potential adopters; and simply standing.  Sadly, there weren’t any behaviors that statistically lessened a dog’s stay in the shelter.

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This is an important finding as many current behavior modification programs are focused on training dogs to sit or be more social with potential adopters. Alternatively, this UF study shows that training these positive behaviors might be futile. The attention of training programs should be on “training out” behaviors that may be subconsciously interpreted as negative.

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This, and studies like it, are a big step for shelter dogs. Obviously, the goal is to find as many of them homes as possible, which naturally reduces euthanasia rates. As science and kennels team up to do their part, you can also do yours. The next time you’re walking from kennel to kennel at a shelter, even if you haven’t found your new pet, maybe suggest to each passing dog, “sit up straight!” or “don’t lean on that wall!” You just might help them find a home.

 

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