John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
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.
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.”