Science killed another myth today.
This one has been around for a while and is almost universally accepted by shelter staff, rescue folks and dog trainers alike (including me). This is the belief that I am talking about:
“Shelter dogs who have been trained to sit on command are viewed more positively by potential adopters and are more likely to be adopted into homes.”
Makes perfect sense, of course. The “sit” command is usually one of the first things that owners teach to their new dog and is used by many trainers as the alternate behavior to reinforce not jumping up. As such, “sit” appears to have become the universal barometer for good dog behavior.
It has also become an informal litmus test for measuring shelter dog adoptability. The assumption that responding to a sit command enhances a dog’s prospects for adoption has become so commonplace that it has led to the development of shelter programs that train adoptable dogs to sit (among other commands). The goals of these programs are to increase adoption rates for the dogs who are so trained.
While there is absolutely nothing not to like about shelter programs that increase dogs’ interactions with people and introduce (positive) training, the assumption that they rest upon, that obedience training increases adoptability, has not been clearly demonstrated. Intuitively, I think most dog professionals (including myself) have believed that it does.
However, what does the science say?
Recently Alexandra Protopopova of Texas Tech University (and formerly of the University of Florida) and Clive Wynne of the University of Arizona teamed up to study the relationship between dogs’ morphology (appearance), their in-kennel behavior, and their length of stay in the shelter prior to adoption. Here is what they found:
It’s more about misbehaving: A group of 289 dogs living at a county animal shelter in Florida were videotaped for one minute daily throughout their stay (1). The one-minute time frame was selected because prior research has shown that potential adopters view a dog for only 20 to 70 seconds before moving on to the next dog. Videotaping took place as one or two visitors, behaving either passively (not interacting with the dog) or actively (interacting with the dog) visited the front of the kennel. Behaviors were classified using a validated ethogram composed of 41 standardized actions. The number of days that the dog remained at the shelter prior to adoption was used as a measure of adoptability. Results: Independently of appearance, several behaviors were significantly correlated with longer shelter stays (decreased adoptability). These included leaning passively on the kennel wall without interacting with the observer (+ 30 days), facing away from the observer (+ 15 days), and frequent movement of shifting back and forth (pacing/stereotypies) (+ 24 days). Conversely, neither sitting for greeting nor showing eye contact influenced how long a dog was at the shelter prior to adoption.
These results suggest that kennel behaviors that reflect fear or a lack of sociability are more predictive of a dog’s likelihood for adoption than are trained behaviors such as sitting to greet or offering eye contact.
Protopopova and Wynne then did what all good dog researchers do. They ran a follow-up pair of experiments to find out how best to reduce the behaviors in kenneled dogs that were shown to contribute to increased shelter stays (2).
Experiment 1: The first experiment was a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery as methods to reduce the undesirable kennel behaviors identified previously. Twenty-four shelter dogs were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups, (1) Response-independent group; the appearance of a person was paired with a treat, regardless of the dog’s behavior; (2) Response-dependent group; the experimenter Differentially Reinforced “Other” [DRO] behaviors that were incompatible with the unwanted behaviors; (3) Control; no treat delivery. Exp. 1 Results: Interestingly, they found that both treat delivery methods reduced undesirable behaviors in the kenneled dogs, with no statistical difference found between the two methods. (The control dogs continued to show undesirable behaviors).
Experiment 2: Their second experiment tested the effectiveness of the response-independent method on the entire kennel of shelter dogs. Different sections of the kennel area were used as the treatment group (visitor to kennel predicts treat) and control group (visitor does not predict treat). Between 56 and 70 dogs were enrolled each day of the 14-day experiment period. Exp. 2 Results: More than 40 percent of the shelter population regularly engaged in undesirable kennel behaviors at the start of the study. Within a few days, simply pairing the appearance of a visitor with treat delivery led to…..wait for it……a 68 % reduction in undesirable behaviors in the group of dogs as a whole.
Trainers and shelter staff everywhere should be excited about these results. While DRO is a technique that many trainers regularly use (a common example is teaching a dog to offer “sit” for greeting as an alternate behavior to jumping up), its use in a shelter environment is labor-intensive and not always feasible. However, simply pairing the appearance of a staff person with treat delivery, without requiring the treat to be contingent on the dog’s behavior is a rapid and simple technique that can be easily incorporated into daily shelter routines.
Does Sit Matter? Recently, a graduate student at Emporia State University in Kansas tested potential adopters’ inclination to adopt a dog based upon whether or not the dog sat on command (3). Her study asked a group of 79 college students to interact with a dog who they believed to be available for adoption at a local shelter. Participants were randomly assigned to a dog and then either visited with the dog as he/she sat in response to a handler’s command or interacted with the dog naturally, with no commands given to the dog. Participants then completed a questionnaire regarding their interest in adopting the dog. Results: A person’s willingness to adopt the dog that they visited with was not influenced by whether or not the dog sat on command. Similar to Protopopova’s study, sitting on command was not related to potential adoption success.
Bottom line, while responding to a sit command is a great behavior to have in our dogs, sit may not mean (much) in terms of helping shelter dogs who are looking for their forever homes.
Take Away for Dog Folks
Sad as it may seem, when it comes to a dog’s behavior, potential adopters appear to be more concerned with avoiding dogs who demonstrate behaviors that they don’t like rather than seeking dogs who show behaviors that they do like (such as responding to sit). The good news in this story is that the behaviors that people generally avoid (and which may signal a lack of sociability on the dog’s part), were demonstrated to be reduced in a substantial number of dogs without the need for a detailed and labor-intensive training program. This is classical conditioning at its best folks. Pair the approach of a visitor with yummy treats (visitor predicts treat) and over time, the appearance of a person flips the dog’s emotional response from apathy/distraction/fear to happiness, joy and interaction. The fact that the researchers improved in-kennel behaviors that were related to poor adoption rates in almost 70 percent of dogs using a simple, non-contingent procedure of food delivery is an enormously important bit of evidence. And it is evidence that can and should be used to encourage shelters everywhere to invest in treat pouches, arm their workers with a pouchful of yummy goodness and get going.
Don’t get me wrong. I personally think that training shelter dogs is a great thing. Shelter programs that teach dogs to sit, down, and walk nicely on lead are to be commended for their work and certainly should continue. However, the current science suggests that this type of training may not be as essential as we once believed and that it may not influence adoption rates. Paying more attention to reducing unwanted kennel behaviors is not only simpler, but it may be more effective as an approach to reducing shelter stays and helping dogs to be adopted into forever homes.
- Protopopova A, Mehrkam LR, Boggess MM, Wynne CDL. In-kennel behavior predicts length of stay in shelter dogs. PLOS One; 2014; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114319.
- Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Improving in-kennel presentation of shelter dogs through response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2015; 48:1-12.
- Hajek V. The Effect of Watching a Large or Small Pseudo Shelter Dog Sit on Command on College Students’ Self-rated Willingness to Adopt. Master’s Thesis, Emporium University, 53 pp. 2016.