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Dogs are Often Mislabeled as Pit Bulls

University of Florida study compares shelter breed assessments and DNA tests.
By JoAnna Lou, February 2016, Updated June 2021
My local shelter is filled to the brim with homeless bully dogs, but because of the stigma around these breeds, these dogs are often overlooked. It's such a problem that some area rescue groups transport non-bully breeds from the South to make available for adoption.

A recent study at the University of Florida found that shelter pups are often mislabeled as Pit Bulls, which can adversely affect their chances of being adopted. According to Julie Levy, a professor at the school and the lead researcher on the study, animal shelter staff and veterinarians are frequently expected to guess the breed of dogs on appearance alone.

"In the high-stakes world of animal shelters, a dog's life might depend on a potential adopter's momentary glimpse and assumptions about its suitability as a pet. If the shelter staff has labeled the dog as a pit bull, its chances for adoption automatically go down in many shelters."

The researchers evaluated breed assessments of 120 dogs made by 16 staff members, including four veterinarians, across four area shelters. These staff members had at least three years of experience working in a shelter environment. The researchers took blood samples from the dogs, developed DNA profiles, and compared the findings against the staff's initial assessments.

There was a wide range of skill when it came to correctly associating a dog to a predominant breed. Dogs with Pit Bull heritage breed DNA (defined to include the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier), were identified only 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on the staff member. They also found only a moderate level of agreement among staff members who evaluated the same dogs.

While there's a larger problem at play--changing the unfair perception of bully breeds--inaccurately labeling dogs as Pit Bulls can have significant implications like reduced adoption rates, higher insurance fees, and even exclusion from living in certain cities or buildings. Animal shelters have hundreds of pets come in every month, making it hard to spend more than a few minutes determining a pup's predominant breed. This is no easy feat for overwhelmed rescue organizations. However, this study shows how important the label can be in determining a dogs' fate.

 

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.