Annette Shaff/Shutterstock.com

Labels are often inaccurate and could be driving off potential adopters, researchers say.

The dogs America loves to hate, pit bulls, encounter enough stigma when they’re owned. The New York City Housing Authority straight-up bans tenants from keeping them, for instance, and other property owners require pooches to undergo DNA testing lest an “aggressive” pit bull slip under the radar and into the building.

When they’re ownerless, their troubles mount. Dogs labeled as pit bulls languish in animal shelters more than three times longer than differently labeled breeds, according to a study today in PLOS ONE, even if they might not actually be pit bulls.

Shelters typically assign breed labels to new arrivals based on appearance or information from owners. These tactics are practical but can lead to false profiles, as a hound’s features don’t always match its DNA. Lisa Gunter, a psychology grad student at Arizona State University, and others wanted to see if these labels had any effect on whether pit bulls get adopted. After all, the dogs don’t have the best reputation in the two-legged world, as the study relates:

Negative perceptions of certain breeds of dogs, particularly about pit-bull-type breeds, may be influenced by reports of aggression towards humans, including incidents of dog bite injuries and deaths. With the Pit Bull Terrier’s bullbaiting and dogfighting history, this breed often demonstrates an increased propensity for aggression towards other dogs and other animals, with an intensity of destructiveness in its attacks, which likely contributes to such perceptions. While an association may exist between certain types of dogs and human-directed aggression, the reliability of breed characterization in positively identifying dogs involved in these types of incidents is controversial and debated.

In a previous experiment, shelter employees working off appearance mislabeled half of their dogs as “pit bulls” when genetics proved otherwise. Such false designations have obvious implications on whether dogs are rescued or become one of the roughly 1.2 million euthanized each year in the U.S. So Gunter’s team obtained photos of mutts adopted from an Arizona shelter that the staff had labeled as "pit bulls” or other breeds like boxers, despite their resemblance to pit bulls. They then showed these photos to people wanting to adopt, surveying their opinions on whether the animals appeared friendly, aggressive, smart, and suitable for the home environment.

A graphic used in the study showed a pit bull-type dog labeled as “pit bull,” at left, and a lookalike labeled as “boxer.” (Arizona Animal Welfare League)

What they discovered was the dogs labeled “pit bull” incurred more negative feedback from potential adopters. When the researchers went through the shelter’s records, they also noted these dogs spent the longest time in caged limbo. Here’s more from their press release:

They found that pit bull breeds were perceived by study participants as less adoptable than other breeds such as Labradors, considered less friendly, and more aggressive. In shelters, compared to lookalikes that were unlabelled or labelled as other breeds, dogs labelled as “pit bull” breeds were again seen as less “attractive,” and waited over three times as long as lookalikes to be adopted.

Lisa Gunter notes: “We were surprised how very similar looking dogs sometimes get labelled ‘pit bull’ and other times as something completely different. These dogs may look and act the same, but the pit bull label damns them to a much longer wait to adoption.”

Removing the labels, as the researchers did in another test, prompted no measurable difference in how attractive the dogs seemed to potential adopters. So that’s what they suggest shelter managers do in the future: stop assigning breed labels as an “easy way to improve the experience of pit bull-type dogs in animal shelters.”

Top image: Annette Shaff/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. An aerial photo of downtown Miami.
    Life

    The Fastest-Growing U.S. Cities Aren’t What You Think

    Looking at the population and job growth of large cities proper, rather than their metro areas, uncovers some surprises.

  2. Transportation

    When a Transit Agency Becomes a Suburban Developer

    The largest transit agency in the U.S. is building a mixed-use development next to a commuter rail station north of Manhattan.

  3. a photo of a BYD-built electric bus.
    Transportation

    A Car-Centric City Makes a Bid for a Better Bus System

    Indianapolis is set to unveil a potentially transformative all-electric bus rapid transit line, along with a host of major public transportation upgrades.

  4. a photo of a woman on an electric scooter
    Design

    A Bad New Argument Against Scooters: Historic Inappropriateness

    The argument over whether electric scooters belong in Old Town Alexandria reflects an age-old rationalization against change.

  5. a map of London Uber driver James Farrar's trip data.
    Transportation

    For Ride-Hailing Drivers, Data Is Power

    Uber drivers in Europe and the U.S. are fighting for access to their personal data. Whoever wins the lawsuit could get to reframe the terms of the gig economy.

×