Posted on July 18, 2022

Racialized Names and Time to Adoption in a County Dog Shelter

Natasha Quadlin and Bradley Montgomery, Social Psychology Quarterly, June 6, 2022

Racialized names carry both penalties and premiums in social life. Prior research on implicit associations shows that racialized names tend to activate feelings of racial bias, such that people are more positively inclined toward White-sounding names than they are toward Black- and Hispanic-sounding names. But to what extent do racialized names continue to matter when they do not belong to people? In this article, we use an original data set collected over six months at a high-volume shelter where dogs are frequently given racialized names (N = 1,636). We also conducted a survey with a crowdsourced sample to gauge the racial perceptions of each dog’s name. We combine these data sets to examine how racial perceptions of names are associated with time to adoption, a meaningful outcome that captures people’s willingness to welcome a dog into their family. We find that as dogs’ names are increasingly perceived as White, people adopt them faster. Conversely, as dogs’ names are increasingly perceived as nonhuman (e.g., Fluffy), people adopt them slower. Perceptions of Black names are likewise tied to slower times to adoption, with this effect being concentrated among pit bulls, a breed that is stereotyped as dangerous and racialized as Black. These findings demonstrate the remarkable durability of racialized names. These names shape people’s behavior and their impressions of others even when they are attached to animals—not just humans.

Research has pointed to consistent results when it comes to the effects of racialized names. Whether the outcome is in the realm of hiring, housing, or a range of other areas that affect well-being and daily life, those with White-sounding names have an advantage over those with non-White-sounding names—including, but not limited to, those with Black- and Hispanic-sounding names (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004Deming et al. 2016Quillian et al. 2017).1 These studies, many of which use audit methods or other experiments to examine the effects of racialized names, are considered strong evidence of the extent and prevalence of racial discrimination in the United States (Pager and Shepherd 2008Quillian 2006Small and Pager 2020).

While we know that racialized names affect humans’ outcomes, what happens when these racialized names are not tied to humans? Do the premiums that are typically associated with White names, and the penalties that are typically associated with Black and Hispanic names, continue to persist despite the names being attached to nonhuman entities? This study tests the effects of racialized names in a novel context: dog adoptions. Dogs, by definition, exist outside the human racial hierarchy—the unequal distribution of social resources and treatment that advantages Whites and disadvantages populations of color, particularly Blacks, darker-skinned Hispanics and Asians, and Native populations (Bonilla-Silva 2004). In short, dogs are not humans, so it follows that racialized names may not influence the adoption process. But at the same time, pet adoption is a deeply intimate social exchange, and adopters may rely on subtle cues, including implicit biases that have been shown to affect people’s behavior elsewhere in social life. Research also shows that dogs are racialized, such that some breeds are stereotyped as “dangerous” and therefore “Black,” whereas others are perceived as “cute” and therefore “White” (Mayorga-Gallo 2018Tesler 2020), making race even more salient to dog adoption.

We test these possibilities using data from a high-volume dog shelter that routinely assigns racialized names to dogs. Many of these names are commonly perceived as White (e.g., Maggie), Black (e.g., Leroy), or Hispanic (e.g., Santiago), and some are nonhuman names that are common for pets (e.g., Fluffy). To assess whether these racialized names affect adopters’ behavior, we collected longitudinal data on 1,636 dogs that were adopted over a six-month period. These data included their name, sex, breed, weight, personality, and other characteristics. We then conducted a survey with a crowdsourced sample to gauge the racial perceptions of each dog’s name. We combined these data to determine how racial perceptions (from the survey) are related to time to adoption, or the amount of time the dog spent at the shelter before being adopted (from the shelter data).