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Choosing the perfect pooch (it’s a lot like dating)

According to a group of psychologists at Indiana University, the way people select their ideal dog is uncannily similar to the way we choose prospective human companions.

A recent study published in Science Daily, set out to examine the way people choose a companion animal (in this case, a dog) to help forge better owner–pet matches. Along the way they discovered something they hadn’t anticipated—that the process we use to select a pet is much like the process we use to select a mate.   

The study examined 13 canine traits—age, sex, color, size, purebred status, previous training, nervousness, protectiveness, intelligence, excitability, energy level, playfulness, and friendliness—and surveyed over 1200 prospective pet owners who had visited a shelter to adopt a dog (including 145 who did adopt). In the course of compiling and analyzing the results, the investigators found some unusual parallels to the dating world.

Why is choosing a dog like human dating?

Physical appearance means a lot. Just as we seek physical beauty in a prospective mate, it seems we do the same when selecting a canine companion. Most respondents who adopted felt they’d chosen a “handsome or good-looking dog” and were pleased with the appearance of the pet they’d chosen.

We search for “the one.” Many prospective adopters reported arriving at the shelter with a clear mental image of the “perfect” dog and often turned away possible matches that did not align with this image.

Perceptions vary. Shelter workers and adoptive owners often used very different descriptors to describe the same animal—suggesting that what attracts someone to a pet (or a mate) isn’t easily quantifiable.

We see the signals we want to see. When a prospective adopter’s mind was set on a specific idea of the “perfect pet,” they sometimes missed (or misinterpreted) signals. For example, a dog that was seen as energetic and might actually have been stressed or anxious.

Artificial environments affect choices. If you’ve been to an animal shelter, you know they can be busy and noisy places. In these environments, a pet won’t always behave in the same ways it would at home. Some dogs that seem gregarious in the shelter may become shy or skittish at home. And others that seemed playful may turn out to have some destructive habits. Like speed dating, the animal shelter environment is not representative of day-to-day life, and so can exert influences on the behavior of both the animals and humans involved.

Conclusion

As with dating, the solution to successful pet adoption seems to reside in understanding how and why people make the choices they do, and then reconciling those with the realities of day-to-day life. The study investigators suggested that special measures (such as temporary placements) could help animals that are anxious or under-socialized animals to put their best traits forward, making them more adoptable. And they also warned against online or blind pet adoptions, where prospective owners do not have the chance to engage with an animal prior to adoption.

Editor’s Note: With so many dog breeds to choose from, trying to find the right fit for your home and family can be overwhelming. Here are tips for finding the right-sized dog for you.


Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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