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Shelter Dog’s Fate Can Rest on What Breed He Is Labeled
The labels are often wrong.
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In most shelters, each dog’s kennel run or cage has a card on which the dog’s likely breed (or breeds) is indicated. Sometimes, they’re generic: Shepherd mix or Terrier mix. Sometimes they’re more specific—Husky/Dalmatian cross, say. And sometimes, they indicate a specific single breed. These labels can also be found on shelter websites and search sites like Petfinder.com.

The fact is, nearly all of these labels are guesses. Yes, there are DNA tests, but shelters can’t afford to DNA test every dog. Instead, they rely on staff members’ judgment; they look at a dog, pull out a breed book or consult an array of mental images, and choose a breed or two off the list required by their software.

Some shelters have changed their labels to try to make this clear: “Looks like …” or “We guess that …” However, others go further and eliminate breed labels entirely. As a result, they say, the adoption process has been improved; in some places, adoption rates have improved as well.

What’s the argument for eliminating breed labels? For many, the issue started with Pit Bulls.

Looks vs. Genes

Most shelters are full of the mediumsized, short-coated, blocky-headed dogs who tend to get labeled as Pit Bulls—a type for which there is no legal or kennel club definition. But a number of studies have shown that people’s guesstimates often don’t match a dog’s true genetic heritage. In one study, staff members at four shelters were asked to guess the breed of 120 dogs. Fiftyfive of the dogs were identified as some kind of Pit Bull, but when they were DNA tested, only 36 percent had ancestry from one of the recognized bully breeds (generally, American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier). Five of the dogs who did have one of these in their DNA hadn’t been labeled as such; the guesstimates missed 20 percent of the 25 actual Pit Bulls.

In this context, making a mistake about breed type is a big deal. There are places where it’s against the law to own a Pit Bull, or where you can’t get home or pet insurance if you have one. Even where that’s not the case, the name still carries a stigma.

A recent study—“What’s in a Name: Effect of Breed Perceptions and Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions and Length of Stay for Pit Bull-type Dogs” —showed that in a shelter where breed labels were eliminated, the adoption rate for Pit Bulls went up, their euthanasia rate went down 12 percent and their length of stay at the shelter was reduced. Another interesting finding was that while adoption rates increased the most for Pit Bulls, they went up for other dogs as well. “All the dogs benefited,” says Lisa Gunter of Arizona State University, Tempe, one of that study’s authors. “That was something that we weren’t anticipating.”

Others who’ve seen the effect labels can have might not be surprised by those results. “We would notice that people would walk through the kennel and they weren’t looking at the animals inside, they were looking at the kennel cards,” says Kristen Auerbach of Austin Animal Services. “And then, depending on the breed, they literally never even looked inside the cage. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t a Pit Bull issue, it was a bigger issue.”

It’s frustrating for many reasons to watch shelter dogs being rejected purely on the basis of breed stereotypes, particularly since most breeding now selects for appearance rather than function. “The more that we breed purebred dogs for looks, the less likely those things we started the breed for are going to hold true,” says Barbara Hutcherson of Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Herndon, Va. “So you might have a dog in front of you that’s a lovely quiet dog that you’ve had in foster and you know [the dog’s] not noisy—but try convincing someone, when you say ‘Beagle’ and they think ‘noise.’”

Relying on traditional breed characteristics is even more absurd when you’re looking at a mix. “We don’t understand how individual breeds play out in the behavior of the dog,” says Gunter. “A first-generation cross of Labrador and Border Collie doesn’t mean [the dog is] going to swim well and herd sheep. That’s not how genetics works.”

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Photo by Eric Isselée/lifeonwhite.com

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