Shelter Dog’s Fate Can Rest on What Breed He Is Labeled

The labels are often wrong.
By Linda Lombardi, October 2016

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

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.”

Too, we all seem to share an unspoken assumption that a mixed-breed dog is a dog with two purebred parents, when usually nothing could be further from the truth. Gunter is involved in a study that DNA tested more than 900 shelter dogs. Results for nearly 80 percent of the dogs showed two-plus breeds (the plus indicates that no specific purebred could be distinguished for at least one great-grandparent) and ranged up to five-plus breeds. On average, a single breed contributed around 30 percent of a dog’s heritage. Gunter feels strongly that the usual cage cards are a huge oversimplification. “It does a disservice to the complexity of shelter dogs, and to who these dogs are,” she says.

Changing the Conversation

Given that most of the labels are complete guesses, it begins to make sense that some shelters have decided to remove breed from the conversation. “I think the real benefit of not talking about breed is that it allows you to talk about the dog as an individual—that this is what we’ve observed about this dog,” says Hutcherson. Shelters that have eliminated breed labels report having better conversations with potential adopters, conversations that in some cases might not have otherwise happened.

“What this does is … force people to go through the kennels and come back and ask us, ‘What breed is that dog?’” says Lauren Lipsey of the Washington Humane Society (WHS) in Washington, D.C. “Previously, they … wouldn’t have had to engage us in conversation and could just walk out because they didn’t like the answer.” Now, Lipsey says, when people ask about a breed, staff can dig down into what they are really looking for. “What is it about that breed? You want a dog you can run with? Great, we have a ton of those. A dog that is good with children? Let me steer you toward these dogs that have lived with children. Just because that animal looks like a Lab doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good with children.”

Still, some of us really do want a particular breed. Auerbach doesn’t consider that a problem for those people, or those dogs. “In the shelter, people can walk through and they’re going to make their own identification anyway: ‘That looks like a Poodle and I want a Poodle.’”

Gunter suggests that without labels, potential adopters might actually be more likely to find their desired breed. In considering the reasons why adoption rates went up across the board in her study, she says that it’s important to remember that people disagree on visual breed identification. So breed labels may actually steer people away from dogs they’d otherwise consider.

Leave it open, and they may see that dog in the shelter after all. “If they view a dog as a Cocker Spaniel, then the dog’s a Cocker Spaniel, and if someone else views [the dog] as a Springer, and that’s what they would like, then that dog is there,” she says. “By removing the breed labels, the dog can be whatever that person wants that dog to be.”

New Code Needed

One apparent contradiction is that nearly all shelters still display breed labels for the dogs on their websites. This is because most software programs used by shelters require a breed label to create a record, and automatically display the label online. WHS is one of the few to have figured out how to get around that programming demand, which required writing their own code. Still, their dogs still show up with breed labels on search sites.

Auerbach, who has participated in eliminating breed labels at two shelters and gives presentations on the topic at industry conferences, finds shelter software companies’ reluctance to make changes frustrating. Greg Lucas of says that while his company’s software is one of the few to allow a shelter to designate a dog as purely a mix and choose not to display breed labels on their own websites, that’s not the end of the problem. They still have to find something in the search site’s breed list to match up to, or the posting will be rejected. A representative for points out that the site does allow more generic breed group designations like “Terrier” or “Hound,” and says that the company is “looking into” the idea of being able to eliminate breed designation entirely.

It’s possible that people who are looking for a dog via these sites are a different population from those who come into the shelter to browse. “I do think that the audiences are different,” says Lipsey. It’s also true that these search sites aren’t the only way to find a dog online anymore. For many shelters, promoting individual animals via social media has become a big part of their outreach. The Fairfax County Animal Shelter found that 50 percent of adopters came in after seeing a pet on their social media, where they don’t talk about breed. And Lipsey says that while the majority of their adopters come in to adopt a particular animal they’ve seen online, they’ve typically accessed the information on the shelter’s own website, which does not have the breed labels.

Eliminating all breed labels may seem radical, but there’s no reason a shelter has to go all the way. “What we’re arguing is that shelters should have an option,” Auerbach says. Label an obvious Pug as a Pug, but why be forced to make a wild guess about a dog who is probably a mix of many breeds? And it seems that shelters are enthusiastic about the possibility; Auerbach says that the conference presentations she gives on this topic are packed.

In a sense, there’s nothing new about the idea. In fact, it’s the practice of pigeonholing all dogs into a mix of two breeds that’s new. Auerbach thinks that the reason so many medium-sized, short-coated dogs are called Pit Bulls is that we’ve lost much of the vocabulary we used to use to talk about dogs. “We all remember that for our grandparents, the dogs were mutts, they were mongrels. We had more language to describe mixed-breed dogs,” she says. “Pit Bull has kind of replaced mutt, and that’s a problem.”

Our grandparents didn’t need DNA tests to recognize the complexity of mixed-breed dogs. “When they talked about ‘Heinz 57,’ that’s what they meant,” says Auerbach. “Not two breeds mixed with each other, but many.”

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