Behaviour has long been regarded an important influencer in the adoptability of dogs, especially in shelter environments. Less emphasis, however, has been given to the human element and our tendency to attribute different personality and behavioural traits to dogs based on their appearance, and the influence this might have on how adoptable we perceive a dog to be.
Previous research has identified that the adoption rates of Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, and pit bulls is negatively affected by the stigma commonly associated with these breeds1. The current study aimed to expand on these findings by determining what factors affected the perceived aggression of discriminated breeds.
Isgate and Couchman (2018) used eye-tracking technology to investigate how humans perceive a dog based on its breed and pose. Three stereotypically aggressive dog breeds (Doberman Pinscher, Rottweiler, pit bull) and one control breed (Golden Retriever) were used in this study. Each dog was photographed in four different poses; passively sitting alone, passively sitting with a person, standing alone, and walking on a leash with a person. The authors asked 43 undergraduate psychology students to rate the dogs in the photographs according to the perceived level of friendliness, aggressiveness, and adoptability.
Using these ratings in conjunction with eye-tracking technology the authors were able to identify which poses and physical features were of predominant interest to the participants and therefore had the greatest impact on the overall judgement of the dogs. Unsurprisingly, the Golden Retriever was rated highest in friendliness and adoptability and lowest in aggressiveness, and the pit bull was rated lowest in friendliness and adoptability and highest in aggressiveness.
It was found that dogs sitting alone were favoured among the participants, contrary to the authors hypothesis that dogs pictured sitting with a person would be most favourable of the poses. Eye-tracking technology showed participants paid more attention to the dog’s facial features when pictured alone, suggesting the presence of a person in the photograph is distracting to viewers and may have negative consequences for adoptability.
The eye-tracking technology also revealed that 92.7% of participants paid more attention to the dog’s face across all poses, compared with other parts of the body. The eyes appeared to be the first facial feature fixated on by participants whereas the mouth area was fixated on for the longest duration. Furthermore, participants spent more time looking at the mouth region of the Rottweiler and pit bull than the other two dog breeds. The authors suggest this finding may have been due to these breeds being pictured more often with open mouths compared with the Doberman Pinscher and the Golden Retriever. Indeed, open and closed mouths appeared to be an important factor to participants; the pit bull was considered most friendly and adoptable, and least aggressive when pictured alone with the mouth closed.
While this research produced some interesting findings, there are some important limitations that should be considered. Firstly, the 43 participants were all female college students with a mean age of 18.9 years. Future research should include males and females from a wider age range to capture data from a more varied demographic. It is also noted that the handler pictured with all dogs was a male and since the presence of a handler was identified as a meaningful factor, future research should investigate the impact of a female handler. Finally, the poses represented by each breed in each photograph were not identical and as it was discovered, variations in poses (e.g. mouth open vs mouth closed) was an important factor to participants therefore future research could expand on this finding.
This research has produced valuable findings with the potential to change the way animal shelters advertise dogs for adoption using photographs e.g. via social media. Shelters can use this information to market and advertise dogs for adoption using the most advantageous poses to provoke the most favourable perceptions of friendliness and adoptability by potential adopters. There is an opportunity for further research to identify optimal pose, setting and dog expressions in relation to perceived adoptability.
Isgate, S. and Couchman, J. (2018). What Makes a Dog Adoptable? An Eye-Tracking Investigation. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 21(1), pp.69-81.
 Twining, H., Arluke, A. and Patronek, G. (2000). Managing the Stigma of Outlaw Breeds: A Case Study of Pit Bull Owners. Society and Animals, 8(1), pp.25-52.