What’s the experience like at your shelter when a potential adopter meets a dog outside his kennel? According to a new study, that may be the key to increasing the likelihood of adoption. Dr. Emily Weiss discusses the research here.
One of the most crucial moments for a successful live outcome for dogs in our shelters is the moment in which a potential adopter meets a dog she is interested in outside of his kennel. Most often dogs are taken from their kennel to an outdoor or indoor space where an interaction occurs. Often within a few minutes, a decision is made—and we just may have some tools to help increase the likelihood that decision is “Yes, I want to take him home.”
Dr. Alexandra Protopopova et al published a nifty study early this year focused on the impact of a structured adopter-to-dog interaction on the likelihood to adopt.
This study builds on earlier research by Drs. P and Wynne that was focused on factors that increase the likelihood of adoption. That earlier research found that dogs who laid down in close proximity of the adopter while in a meet-and-greet area were more likely to be adopted, and dogs who ignored the play initiation by the adopter were less likely to be adopted. You can read my blog about it here—pretty chewy stuff!
This more recent study takes the learning from the first and may become a good guide for successful dog-adopter interactions (when success is defined as adoption—which it should be!). First, the authors developed a simple technique to determine play preference in dogs. Understanding what toy and how the dog plays can lead to an increased likelihood of successful engagement. For dogs who did not engage in play with toys, the experimenters used a game where a treat was tossed and the dog would engage in searching for the treat. Essentially they developed ways to ensure an interaction between adopter and dog that would be lasting in the home as well. Neato!
They placed dogs in two groups—one group of dogs who had structured interactions with potential adopters, and a control group. In the control group, the experimenter was present and available for questions from the potential adopter, but the experimenter did not guide the experience at all.
In the structured interaction group, the experimenter started the interaction in the meet-and-greet yard by suggesting to the adopter that the dog likely needed a few minutes to eliminate. This alone is actually quite smart—setting up the expectation for the adopter that Buddy may not pay attention to you right away AND demonstrating that Buddy knows the outdoors is for elimination all in one simple communication!
Next, the experimenter communicates to the adopter about Buddy’s favorite toy (one which they already know Buddy will likely engage with), demonstrates how Buddy plays with that toy, and then suggests the adopter do the same. For dogs who did not play with toys, they played a game where the dog searched for food treats. Both scenarios easily and elegantly model the behavior that should increase engagement, and then give the adopter the power to engage themselves. In the final part of the interaction, the experimenter and adopter sit down, and the experimenter lures or cues the dog to lay near the adopter.
The proof is in the pudding and—at least with this group of dogs and adopters—the proof was that dogs in the structured interaction group were 2.49 times more likely to be adopted than the dogs in the control group (23% in the control group and 39% in the structured interaction group). When they surveyed adopters about the experience, they found that the vast majority of the adopters did not find the experience to be intrusive. As the interactions were respectful and focused, I can see how this would be the case.
I am so excited about this study. It not only builds on earlier findings, but the model they test is quite doable for most sheltering organizations using staff or volunteers. I am so enthusiastic about the model clearly focusing the communication on what the adopter asks and wants to know—this gives adoption staff a guide to not to “overtalk” our adopters.
I also love that the interaction they set up is not one that lays out a path for unrealistic expectations. Some shelter training programs can do this by teaching dogs behaviors that will likely not transfer to the home without continued training. Instead, the experimenters identified a behavior that the dog engages in (and will likely engage in when home) that increases interaction for the adopter and, in this case, quite significantly increases likelihood to adopt.
Interested in trying on this model in your shelter? Please share your thoughts here—I would love to know what you think!