Over one million pets are re-homed in the United States every year. Some of those circumstances are unavoidable, but PawsLikeMe is hoping to negate the other issues with an algorithm that pairs people with their ideal four-legged companion.
Finding a friend
The mission of PawsLikeMe is to place pets in a forever home that makes life better both for the pet and the people who open their home. Through a concerted effort to work with shelters and individuals, the organization is improving the process of matching pets and owners with the use of algorithms.
The system that powers PawsLikeMe was conceptualized in 2014 by Elizabeth Holmes. After spending eight years running a pet rescue and a career of helping design and refine technology and user experience for massive companies like JPMorgan Chase and Nationwide Insurance, Holmes found the perfect cross-section of her two passions.
One of the primary lessons learned from running the rescue, she told the Daily Dot, was that people, “want a lot of advice as far as what pet to get and what exactly they were looking for—especially first time owners.”
Giving the guidance to help people pick the perfect pet is invaluable, but it’s also immensely time consuming. “We wanted to bring that to an online platform that would be engaging and easy to use,” Holmes said. She and her partners in the project turned to the model of online dating to bring pet personality matching to the masses.
One of the primary inspirations for the algorithm was eHarmony. Holmes cited how users “could create a profile that would create the matching without anybody having to know or consume all of the information” about other people.
The comparison to online dating might concern folks who have a horror story or two to share that stem from miscalculated compatibility scores, but that hasn’t been a problem for PawsLikeMe; the organization boasts a 90 percent accuracy rating.
The continued success is largely thanks to many rounds of fine-tuning and tweaks to the matching algorithm, which is dressed up as a simple quiz that asks questions about the owner’s lifestyle and personality as well as what they think they want from an animal companion.
Holmes and her team built a beta product that was heavily tested to “create a matching algorithm that would essentially look at the characteristics of the dog and match that to the needs of an individual looking for a pet.”
Don’t dismiss the method as some glorified clickbait quiz you’d see your friends post on Facebook; there’s a much more complication analysis going on behind the scenes.
Holmes said the questions are specifically designed so people can respond “without feeling like there’s a wrong or right answer.” The process breaks down personalities into four distinct quadrants: energy, focus, confidence, and independence. Each one tilts the scales and effects the matches that are shown to the aspiring pet owner.
To reach the perfect balance for the quiz, PawsLikeMe ran extensive testing on pet owners, asking them to assess their own personality and the personality of their pet. Three different test sessions were run with approximately 1,000 participants in every batch, each time with more refining applied to the questions and the weighting of the answers.
The quiz is currently geared toward dogs, but a crowdfunding effort launched by PawsLikeMe aims to expand the algorithm to cats as well.
Holmes said cats were “more of a challenge than dogs because they’re less outward and forthcoming with their personality,” but found that the four quadrant system worked with the personality of cats as well; it just required an overhaul to the weighting system. “Most of our weighting goes into our independence and confidence quadrants,” Holmes explained, as opposed to dogs where the focus leans more toward energy and focus.
Pets looking for their new home are put through a similar quiz, generally filled out by the original owners when they decide they have to surrender the animal, which ensures the most accurate information from the people who know the pet best. When that’s not possible, the shelters fill out the personality profile once the pet has had a chance to adapt to its surroundings.
Each bit of data from the pet is unique; there is no generalizing using breed stereotypes. Holmes said this is because breed characteristics can be misleading. Plus, it often doesn’t apply; many rescue pets—about 75 percent of dogs, according to the Humane Society—are mixed breed.
Leaning on breed information is a special problem, especially for dogs, who are regularly mislabeled. According to a study from the University of Florida, dogs surrendered to a shelter were labeled as “pit bull-type” dogs when no genetic evidence was present 48 percent of the time.
This type of mistaken identification, while generally understandable, can literally be a death sentence. Research from Arizona State University found that dogs labeled pit bulls remain unadopted three times as long as lookalikes not referred to as pit bulls, and are more likely to face euthanasia.
It’s an unfair and unintended consequence of shelters, many of which are overworked and understaffed. Julie Levy, DVM, Ph.D., professor of shelter medicine at the University of Flordia College of Veterinary Medicine, pointed out, “a dog’s physical appearance cannot tell observers anything about its behavior,” and “even dogs of similar appearance and the same breed often have diverse behavioral traits in the same way that human siblings often have very different personalities.”
An alternative to surrender
PawsLikeMe can help not only combat the unfortunate stereotyping that costs pets a shot at a longer and happier life, but can also help alleviate some of those strains on the current adoption process with its own re-homing program.
Built into the platform of PawsLikeMe is an effort to help people find new homes for their pets without surrendering them to a shelter. According to Holmes, it “allows owners to act as foster parents and essentially find a home for their own dog using all of our resources.”
For most people, moving a pet isn’t an easy task but may be necessary. In those situations, the PawsLikeMe re-homing program gives the current guardian the utmost control over where their pet lands. The vast majority of people, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, give the animal over to another person or organization to place it with a new owner.
Most shelters have the best of intentions to put pets in good situations, but without access to all the necessary information, re-homed pets can find themselves abandoned. The American Humane Association (AHA) found more than one in ten pets are no longer in their adoptive homes after six months, and are often given up to someone else or returned to the shelter.
Aligned with the Best Friends Animal Society and other no-kill shelters that aim to cut down on the over 7.5 million pets euthanized every year, PawsLikeMe is already working with more than 150 organizations and currently working to expand that number.
The next step for PawsLikeMe is helping increase the retention rate for adoptive animals. It plans to address that issue with its just-launched parenting platform, which Holmes calls “the last piece of the puzzle.”
“We’re trying to maintain a long-term relationship with the adopter once they become a pet parent,” she explained.
The parenting platform is designed to alleviate some of the issues that arise in the early months of pet ownership while extending the personalized touch of PawsLikeMe beyond the adoption process.
Once a pet finds its new home, the owner can choose to receive an adoption package that will contain products and services from pet industry partners. Holmes said the package will include short-term insurance, basic care items, and more.
The goal is to make the box more than just a one-time delivery; PawsLikeMe will offer a monthly subscription box, priced at $20 a month, but wouldn’t go the same generic route that many other services offer. Instead, the Paws Kit is set to include products geared toward improving the life of the individual animal.
“Let’s say you have a senior dog and that senior dog’s needs are primarily focused on health,” Holmes said. “Then the box will likely contain more supplements and vitamins and maybe a chew toy that is safe for a senior pet that has bad teeth.”
The $20 price point also presents the possibility of overcoming some of the biggest obstacles in pet retention. Cost and time commitment the most cited causes of abandonment, according to the AHA, with health conditions ranking highly as well. The low entry price for the Paws Kit, which should provide necessary and relevant products to ease some of those concerns.
There’s still plenty of responsibility required, from day-to-day care to potential veterinary costs—it’s suggested to have $2,000 set aside for a pet emergency fund if possible—but the Paws Kit offers a care package for owners who need or want it.
“At the heart of it all,” Holmes said, “what we’re looking to do is really focus people’s attention on personality and compatibility. We want to give them the right advice and the right products and things that really target their needs, which is something that I think is a real gap in the pet industry today.”
Pets provide people with all kinds of benefits. Studies have found pet owners report greater self-esteem, improved physical fitness, less loneliness, more social interactions, and had healthier relationships. It’s even been suggested that pet owners receive as much support from their pets as from family members. PawsLikeMe gives people the opportunity to give back at least some of the betterment they get when they welcome a pet into their home.
Illustration via Max Fleishman