In addition to finding forever homes for the pooches, a Texas Tech researcher hopes to take what is learned from these events and apply them on a national scale.
The little girl clings tightly to her father's hand as she walks through the garage door-sized opening and into the Texas Tech University Livestock Arena, then turns right to go around the arena fencing, all the while keeping an eye on the variety of dogs lining the inside of the arena fence.
Immediately after her parents check in with the volunteers running the pet adoption event, she is drawn to the two smallest dogs, just the right size so she could cuddle with them in her lap while sitting cross-legged next to their crate.
Meanwhile, a couple walks straight up to an Akita mix that comes up to their waist. After spending some time with the dog, they take it over to the other side of the arena where they determine if the dog is a good fit, while graduate students observe both the actions of the dog in response to the potential adopter, and the adopter's response to the dog's initiation of play or desire for affection.
Even further down the line, a mixed breed is extremely eager to get out of his pen – and does so a couple of times – while the handler standing next to the pen does all she can to keep the vivacious and athletic pooch from escaping.
Back at the check-in table, another volunteer helps another couple fill out the adoption paperwork after they've decided to take a chance on the pointer mix that caught their eye. A few minutes before, another adopter carried out a brown mix breed, headed for the canine's future forever home.
Those were scenes that were repeated throughout the day, sometimes with success and a dog being adopted, other times with it being passed over. But while finding homes for all the dogs was the underlying goal, the purpose of the adoption event hosted by the Companion Animal Science Program in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences within the Texas Tech College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources was much greater.
The goal of the program, headed by assistant professor Alexandra Protopopova, is to observe and enhance the practices by both dogs and humans that increase the likelihood of adoption. In other words, what makes the dog and the potential adopter most attracted to each other?
“There isn't a single other research study that has explored this,” Protopopova said. “We have absolutely zero best practices established for these adoption events, so we are looking at everything. In the adoption event setting, we really don't know anything about human behavior, and we don't know why people are making certain choices. So we want to identify what it is people are looking at in dogs. Is it the look of the dog? Is it the behavior of the dog? It's all about the influence the dog's behavior has on the adopter's behavior.”
The project is the continuation of research published earlier by Protopopova that also examined what behaviors increase the likelihood of adoption when a potential adopter visits a shelter. Does the dog lie down next to, or initiate play with the potential adopter? Does that help make the dog more attractive to the adopter? If the dog ignores play initiation, does that turn the adopter off?
This latest project is being backed by Maddie's Fund, a national foundation created in 1994 that has awarded more than $208 million in grants toward improving shelter conditions and increasing pet adoption so every shelter dog and cat finds a forever home. There will be five more adoption events throughout the spring semester.
“With the information from the previous research, this was the first time we really had a good understanding of what people want in dogs from shelters,” Protopopova said. “Maddie's Fund wanted to extend these findings into the adoption event setting.”
So many observable factors exist that influence dog adoption that it's impossible to study them all in a single, four-hour setting.
That's why there will be more than one adoption event where researchers will study dog and adopter behavior. These other events are scheduled for Feb. 17, March 17, March 31, April 28 and May 12 for the spring semester. More are planned for the fall.
There also will be new dogs and some repeat canines throughout the events, depending on not only how many dogs are adopted at an event but also what dogs certain rescues offer up for the events. In addition to the events directed by Protopopova, these dogs also are available at their various shelters and rescues that put on their own adoption events.
Protopopova said it is up to the various shelters they are working with as to which dogs are part of the research, and she is hoping that, along the way, some of the dogs undergoing training through assistant professor Nathan Hall's Canine Olfaction Lab will participate as well.
“Because we work with the local shelters and rescues, we never know the exact number of dogs that are coming, so we have to play it by ear and be flexible,” Protopopova said. “We don't want to turn anyone away. If a rescue volunteers its dogs, we want to take them.”
There are more factors, however, than just what kind and how many dogs show up for the event.
Throughout the study and over the course of the many scheduled events, researchers will be looking at and influencing the factors that lead to interaction, interest and initiation of play between dog and adopter.
“We are looking at everything about the dog,” Protopopova said. “Its color, its breed, its size, the length of its coat and the behavior while crated and during the meet-and-greet session with the potential adopter. We also are looking at other aspects of adoption events that have nothing to do with the dog, like how it's housed. Later on, we're going to look at whether or not it matters how the dogs are talked about.”
During the adoption events, some dogs are in crates, some are in pens with an open top and others are simply on a leash next to the volunteer handler. For the first adoption event, the volunteers were instructed to be passive, only offering information on the dog when asked by a potential adopter.
Later on, some volunteers will be instructed to try to actively sell the dog's qualities to the potential adopter, and others will be instructed to pretend to be distracted by their smartphone and basically ignore the potential adopter. All this is designed to see what behaviors, not only of the dog but also of its handler, can influence a potential adopter's interest in a certain dog beyond the dog's physical features.
“There are so many variables we have to look at,” Protopopova said. “We're going to be having about eight to 10 events here, and every event is an experiment itself. We will manipulate one variable during each event, but there are so many variables. We're almost never going to be done, essentially.”
Implementing best practices
Protopopova said once she is satisfied they have accumulated enough information to determine what the best practices for dog adoption events could be, the hope is to take those practices and test them on a national level. The goal is to partner with shelters across the country to implement the best practices and determine their effects.
All the while, the ultimate goal is to find a forever home for every dog that comes through the study.
“It's not only increasing adoptions in our community, but this research also really strives to develop these best practices so the whole world can use this knowledge to increase adoption rates,” Protopopova said. “Maddie's Fund shares the goal with us of trying to make sure we find each dog a home. And maybe not in the next few years but, hopefully, we will soon reach a situation where we are capable of adopting out every dog.
“In fact, there are some projections that in a couple of decades, we won't even have brick and mortar facilities anymore, that all the shelters will be foster-based. That means we're going to have to rely on adoption events like this 100 percent to get these dogs out, and yet we know nothing about them. That's why it's so important to conduct this type of research.”
For more information on the adoption events, visit its Facebook page.