For every 10 dogs that enter an animal shelter in the United States, approximately five are adopted, two are returned to their owner, and two never leave because they are euthanized or die at the shelter.

To increase dog adoption, animal shelters often photograph dogs and share the photos online. As a member of HeARTs Speak’s Artists Helping Animals program and a volunteer that photographs these dogs, Mary Wood recognized that there was little to no academic research behind this practice.

To learn more about how online photos impact the decision to adopt a dog, Mary collected data from 123 individuals that had recently adopted a dog. This blog post summarizes the findings from this study as well as the implications for animal shelters and volunteers.

65% of adopters viewed photos of dogs online before adopting

The majority of survey participants (65%) viewed a photo of a dog online before adopting. The most common locations for seeing these photos were: the animal shelter’s website (60%), PetFinder (17%), and Facebook (15%). This finding underscores the importance of sharing photos across multiple online channels.

Online photos are important in the decision to adopt a dog

Of the participants that viewed photos prior to adopting, 64% said online photos were extremely important or very important in their decision to adopt a dog.

Online photos are used to compare multiple dogs

95% of adopters used online photos to compare several dogs for adoption. 55% of survey participants compared 1 to 4 dogs, while 23% compared 5 to 10 different dogs using online photos.

Dogs that appear happy in photos are most likely to be considered for adoption

Photos in which a dog’s ears are up, the dog appears to be smiling, and the dog’s head is up, increase the likelihood that the dog will be considered for adoption. Dogs that looked sad or neutral were not likely to sway someone either toward or against adoption. This study also found that online photos can create an emotional response in adopters and that positive emotional responses are associated with a higher likelihood of considering a dog for adoption.

Different types of photos are important to potential adopters

When making a decision to adopt a dog, a photo clearly showing the dog’s face was rated as the most important type of photo. The next most important photos were those that showed the dog’s full body, photos that showed the dog’s personality, and more than one photo of the dog.

Overall, this study validates the practice of using online photos to increase dog adoption. This study also suggests that animal shelters need to devote the necessary staff or volunteer resources to photograph dogs and post photos online.

Animal shelter staff and volunteers can be trained to photograph dogs using methods that are most likely to encourage these behaviors. For example, treats and noises can capture a dog’s attention and result in an expression that appears happy to potential adopters. Check out the HeARTs Speak EDU library for more free tips, tricks, and educational resources for getting great photos. Or visit the Find An Artist map to find a volunteer photographer in your area!

By focusing on capturing, displaying, and promoting images that are most likely to lead to adoptions, animal shelters can not only prioritize their resources but can also increase rates of dog adoption.

Note: Because this study used a relatively small sample from two animal welfare organizations in Virginia (United States), the results cannot be generalized to the entire population.