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Training Us

What can you do to increase the likelihood that a person will adopt? Dr. Emily Weiss shares 4 simple ways.


She was grinning from ear to ear, squealing and giggling as she tugged the rope. On the other side of the glass sat an orangutan, who was enthusiastically pulling that very same rope. She was in a game of tug of war… one she had no chance of winning. But in some ways she won more than mostthe chance to interact with another primate one-on-one!

I was doing consulting work for a zoo, and it all started with the problem of how can we ensure that those who come to the orangutan exhibit stay at the exhibit. So we developed a simple tool with the hopes of enriching and engaging the primate on this side of the glass…the human. The simple rope with special stops to keep fingers and faces safe allowed for a back-and-forth with the orangutans and increased the time folks spent observing the orangutans—we had modified visitor behavior!

Many of us in this field really get a charge from training the dogs and cats in our care. The intrinsic reward of teaching a cat “high five” or a dog to not bum rush a door is real for us. There is reward not just in the interaction we get to have with the dog or cat, but also the added value that maybe that behavior will increase his chances by just a bit.

While modifying the behavior of dogs and cats is rewarding, shifting some of that energy toward modifying the behavior of our potential adopters may be more impactful in getting more animals home. What motivates humans to adopt?

Remember, we are really trainable creatures. We are a highly responsive species, and shifting our behavior to increase or decrease likelihood of a particular response can be quite easy. I had a professor in college who gave us the assignment of going into an elevator full of people and standing the “wrong way”—facing inward. I was obsessed in watching how I could shift the behavior of people in an elevator simply by changing which way I faced—looking in toward the back of the elevator rather than facing front. Doing so with a smile vs. a straight face could make the difference between a really fun interaction and a really long uncomfortable elevator ride…

How about joining me in an experiment—to see what changes we can make to increase the likelihood someone leaves with a dog or cat? Here are a few simple behavior modification techniques to try in your facility:

Greet someone with a real genuine open smile. And ask them who they are looking for to bring home as a new best friend today. Motivation triggers: There is a theory in animal behavior called the approach/withdrawal theory—essentially animals (including the human animal) approach weak stimuli and withdraw from strong stimuli. Weak vs. strong may mean small vs. big, smooth vs. thorny, soft vs. loud or, you guessed it, a smile vs. a frown.

Don’t pull out the paper first thing. Forget all the paperwork until they have had a chance to get a hand on the dog or cat they are interested in. Motivation triggers: We are not the only game in town—put too much in between them and the reason they are there, and they may just leave as the reward is too far away. By allowing the interaction first, those who will bond will now have the motivation to sit through the paperwork and leave with their new best friend.

Let them do it. To increase the likelihood of someone adopting or keeping a new pet, don’t stop at telling and showing the adopter how to do things, like nail trims, stuffing a Kong or cleaning an ear—have them actually do it. Motivation triggers: The human animal (and other animals for that matter) learns best by doing. In fact, retention increases from 20% to 80% when we move from telling to doing.

Nod enthusiastically. Okay—another quick story. When I was teaching a learning course, the students in my class played a little trick on me. They trained me to stand on one side of the room—it was pretty cool and I was completely unaware of what was happening. I pace when I speak and they had slickly split the group so that one half of the room would smile and the other half of the room would just passively nod or remain neutral. In less than 40 minutes, I stood firmly on the smiling side… When potential adopters speak of potentially meeting or bringing home a pet, affirm that with smiles and nods. Motivation triggers: Smiles and nods of affirmation feel good! Reinforcing the feeling of giving a homeless pet a chance in a new home just may increase the chances he will get home.

Let me know what you try and how it works!


Related Links

“Look ‘Em in the Eye (and other ways to help increase adoptions)”
“How to Train a Cat”