I live in a small town in central California. There are rules about what kinds of signs shop owners can hang, and it ensures that tourists experience—and want to come back for—the “feel” of the town. This sign at our local outdoor bookstore is a great example of my town’s feel, and it has a clear message to send: Trust. It instructs people to leave money for a book if the shop is already closed for the night. The owners create an optimal, inviting environment so that all their books can go home.
The words we use matter.
What about the signs in our shelters?
Once when visiting a shelter, I saw signs in the adoption room in red bold font that stated “ADOPTERS—DO NOT TOUCH CATS.” Now, this is probably one of the first pieces of information communicated to prospective adopters when they entered the room, and I would suggest an alternative for a couple of reasons. For one, did you know that we have important evidence that shows the opposite is true?! Interacting with cats is a driving force for adoptions. Cats who are touched and talked to have a lower incidence of disease. And the UC-Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program found that staff’s clothing are 35 times dirtier than adopter’s hands. So, let them touch cats!
Even though the shelter thought they were keeping their cats healthy, signs like this do not create an inviting environment to help ensure their cats go home (remember the bookstore sign?). Signs can be more impactful and effective when they instruct the person rather than relaying what not to do. And the more instructive, the better! For example, many shy dogs will cower or go out their guillotine kennel door when adopters approach with direct eye contact and bending over. As a result, I often see notes on these dogs’ kennel cards that say:
Instead, try rephrasing the sign in a softer tone with more instruction. Can you see how the example below creates a different emotional response to a potential adopter?
Instead, try rephrasing the sign in a softer tone with more instruction. Can you see how the example below creates a different emotional response?
In this second example, the shelter might also change the environment to help people do the desired behavior. They can put this sign on a towel across the top half of the kennel, intentionally blocking the view of the dog from a person when standing. A placement of a small stool next to the kennel will direct people to sit or crouch. Attach a cup with tasty treats to the kennel or chair (easily reached while sitting on that stool), and you may have an adoption!
As an animal behaviorist, I can say sometimes it is easier to change the behavior of the people than the animal. Case in point: My dogs would pull packages under the fence when deliveries were left against the side gate. As I am often on the phone, I was unable to train them in that moment, and restricting access to the doggie-door would reduce their quality of life. The solution? I put up a sign on the gate to change the delivery person’s behavior:
Look around your shelter. Are your signs instructive? Do they support policies that benefit your animals, create an inviting space for staff and public, and result in the behavior change you are seeking? If not, what signs could you remove, change, or add?
Heather Mohan-Gibbons, MS, RVT, CBCC-KA, ACAAB
ASPCA Director, Applied Research and Behavior
In her role at the ASPCA, Mohan-Gibbons empowers shelters across the country to implement research and programs that save the lives of horses, dogs and cats. She has over two decades of animal behavior work and research experiences with a wide variety of species and organizations, and has lectured extensively to veterinarians, behaviorists, dog trainers and the general public to improve quality of life for domestic animals.
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