Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – but a picture is worth a thousand words!


Who among us hasn’t had the experience of seeing a photograph of a pet and sighed with pleasure, amazed at the adorable sweetness of that animal? Even folks not in animal welfare are bombarded daily with cute pictures of pets, through email, Facebook, and Twitter. For those of us in animal welfare, make that hourly! Yet, just what makes us sigh and want to reach through the virtual airwaves and snuggle with that pet? Some photos are universally acclaimed to be chock full of that “sweet” factor, while others are more to an individual taste. Certainly the animal pictured is part of it – but how much is the animal and how much the photo? And how important are photos to the adoption process?

Results from multiple research studies can help us answer these questions. First, though, it’s important to recognize how important appearance is to the adoption process. Research conducted by the ASPCA, and described in a blog post by Dr. Emily Weiss, found that appearance was the most important factor explaining why adopters chose the dog they did. In a pilot study conducted by the Center for Shelter Dogs at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, we found similar results, with appearance/looks being one of the top reasons for selecting the pet visitors adopted. So appearance is important. In fact, it’s especially important for first impressions, when an opinion is formed quickly based on minimal information. During what I like to call the “browsing stage”, when an adopter scans a cage full of potential companion animals or pages through tens or hundreds of thumbnail photos on an online adoption listing site, first impressions help narrow the field of options. And first impressions are remarkably accurate (read more here)! So we need to help our adoptable animals put their best foot forward, so to speak, right at the start, in order to attract interest and encourage potential adopters to take the next step and interact with them.

So a picture really is worth a thousand words! Recent research by Julie Hecht and Alexandra Horowitz at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College found that people preferred photos of dogs which emphasized the dogs’ puppy-like characteristics, such as big eyes, small noses, or big paws. The principle of neoteny, the preference for infant-like features, is at work here. Knowing this, photographers of shelter dogs can choose angles and poses which emphasize the puppy-like features of their adoptable dogs and hopefully create positive first impressions at that critical browsing stage which then translates into more interest and interaction.

To investigate this more directly, the Center for Shelter Dogs has launched an experimental study in conjunction with to determine the effect of various dog poses and photo quality on adopter interest and perception. Stay tuned: We plan to report results in just a few months! Meanwhile, here are some helpful resources for making and taking great photographs of your adoptable animals. Please share any you know of, most especially any grants for photographic equipment or training. Happy Clicking!

The Real Me

Nanette’s Top 10 Hints for Better Pet Pics

For a free toolkit, email

How to Get Great Shelter Pet Photos from Petfinder

Tips and videos from Seth Casteel

More Tips for Great Shelter Pet Photos

Bro & Tracy’s Tips

William Wise’s Tips

Tips from Hair of the Dog blog

Grants for Photography Equipment: