Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies™

A Behavior Analyst Goes to the Animal Shelter

By Alexandra (Sasha) Protopopova

What does it mean to be an applied behavior analyst? Currently, this term seems to imply work with human subjects. However, behavior analysts are needed in all aspects of our society including work with companion animals. My research at the University of Florida has used behavior analytic principles to foster positive societal changes in the field of companion animal welfare.

Approximately 5 to 7 million pets are admitted to shelters each year and approximately 60% are ultimately euthanized (ASPCA, 2015). The high risk of death coupled with the sheer number of animals held in shelters under suboptimal conditions presents a significant animal welfare concern.

In the last five years, my research has centered on systematically developing behavioral interventions by first identifying observable behaviors that influence and predict adoption rates in shelter dogs and then developing training programs that target the identified behaviors.

To systematically approach the development of behavioral training programs, we first needed to find which behaviors were actually important to adopters. We observed close to 300 dogs throughout their stay at a municipal animal shelter and found that several behaviors predicted a longer length of stay. We found that dogs that leaned or rubbed on the enclosure wall, faced away from the front of the enclosure, and engaged in back and forth motion stayed longer at the shelter (Protopopova et al., 2014). After discovering which behaviors were potentially important to adopters, we found that simply tossing food in the kennels when people walked by (non-contingent food-delivery) decreased these inappropriate behaviors. Furthermore, when this simple method was applied to an entire shelter containing 70 dogs, we saw a 68% decrease in the number of dogs behaving inappropriately (Protopopova & Wynne, under review).

However, training dogs to behave in the kennel was not enough. After all, adopters also take the dogs out of their kennels prior to making the final adoption decision. Therefore, we observed 250 spontaneous interactions between shelter dogs and potential adopters and found that dogs, which lay down in proximity and did not ignore the adopter’s play solicitations, greatly improved their likelihood of adoption. (Protopopova & Wynne, 2014). This research was recently summarized by the popular professional blog Companion Animal Psychology [].

Whereas training a shelter dog to lay down next to an adopter was relatively straight forward, training a dog to enjoy play with a stranger was a more difficult task. In fact, Scientific American [] highlighted our research together with research by Rooney et al. (2006) that suggested that people are not very good at playing with their dogs. Therefore, instead of training dogs to play, we decided to give dogs a voice by asking what kinds of games dogs preferred and then training the adopters to play those specific games. We found that encouraging potential adopters to play with the dogs’ preferred toy resulted in more social play during interactions and in almost a 70% higher adoption rate (Protopopova et al., in prep).

This systematic and behavior analytic approach to the problem of shelter dogs resulted in the first validated behavioral program to increase adoption rates. Most importantly, the technological aspect of our science allows professionals within the animal sheltering industry to directly use our findings. Recently, the professional branch of the ASPCA [] highlighted our research and encouraged animal shelters to utilize this intervention. I hope to continue developing, evaluating, and promoting programs that may bring about benefits to both humans and animals.


The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Pet statistics, 2015. Available at: Accessed January 9, 2015.

Protopopova, A., Mehrkam, L. R., Boggess, M. M., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2014). In-kennel behavior predicts length of stay in shelter dogs. PLoS ONE, 9(12), e114319.

Protopopova, A., Brandifino, M., & Wynne, C. D. L. (In prep). Preference assessments and structured adopter-dog interactions increase adoptions.

Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2014). Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 157, 109-116.

Protopopova, A., & Wynne, C. D. L. (Under review). Improving in-kennel presentation of shelter dogs through response dependent and independent treat delivery. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Rooney N.J., Bradshaw, J.W.S. & Robinson, I.H. (2001). Do dogs respond to play signals given by humans?, Animal Behaviour, 61 (4) 715-722.

Alexandra (Sasha) Protopopova, is an applied animal behavior scientist focusing on the welfare and behavior of companion animals. Sasha holds a BS in Veterinary and Animal Sciences, a BS in Neuroscience, an MS in Behavior Analysis, and is about to defend her PhD in Behavior Analysis at the University of Florida.The goal of Sasha’s research is to increase adoptions and decrease euthanasia and return rates in animal shelters through the development of targeted training programs. Other research includes decreasing problem behavior in pet dogs, as well as studying pet dogs as animal models for human psychological disorders. Sasha spends her days conducting behavioral research, teaching undergraduate classes, mentoring veterinary students in behavioral research methods, and cuddling with her adopted bull terrier named Sonya!