Labeling a dog as being a "pit bull" can triple the time that the dog spends in an animal shelter and can even cause people to view these canines as being less attractive than other lookalike dogs, according to new research.
The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, illustrate the powerful impact that labeling has on people, even if the labels are incorrect. They also suggest how costly misperceptions can be. It's estimated that only 1 in 600 dogs labeled as being a pit bull are adopted. In the United States alone, approximately 800,000 of the dogs are euthanized each year.
"We were surprised how very similar-looking dogs sometimes get labeled ‘pit bull' and other times as something completely different," lead author Lisa Gunter of Arizona State University said in a press release. "These dogs may look and act the same, but the pit bull label damns them to a much longer wait to adoption."
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Gunter and colleagues Rebecca Barber and Clive Wynne conducted four studies to investigate the matter. In the first, they examined how test subjects recruited from psychology classes at Foothill College in CA perceived the attractiveness of three dog breeds: Labrador retriever, pit bull and Border collie.
Pit bulls received the lowest ratings in perceived approachability, intelligence, friendliness and adoptability, and the highest in aggressiveness and "difficulty to train."
For the second study, the researchers examined the influence of breed labeling on length of a dog's stay in a shelter. (In this case, it was the shelter of the Animal Welfare League and SPCA in Arizona.) The scientists also looked at potential adopters' perceptions of the attractiveness of these dogs. This involved comparing the fates of dogs labeled as being pit bulls versus those that were lookalikes, but carried another type of label, such as "boxer."
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During the third study, potential adopters viewed pit bull-type dogs and lookalikes in videos with and without breed labels to assess the effect those labels had on perceived attractiveness.
For the final study, the scientists gathered data from an animal shelter in Florida both before and after breed assignment was no longer made available to the public on kennel cards and online adoption profiles.
The researchers predicted that removal of breed labels would increase the adoption of pit bull-type dogs, and sure enough, twelve percent more were adopted when this happened. The increase in adoptions corresponded with a twelve percent reduction of euthanasia of these kinds of dogs.
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In each of the experiments, the "pit bull" label therefore had a negative impact on the dogs that were stuck with that description.
As for where the term "pit bull" comes from in the first place, the researchers explained: "Conventionally in the United States, the term ‘pit bull' has been applied to breeds such as American and English bulldogs, Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers and American Pit Bull terriers, as well as mixes of these and other breeds."
So the term is often very loosely applied.
On top of that, dog breed identification practices in animal shelters are usually based upon information provided by the surrendering owner, or by staff determination just based on appearance. Prior research that used DNA testing to check the reliability of such labels found that they are often incorrect.
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There is yet another problem. The researchers mention that "expectations about behavior associated with certain breeds may not be as consistent as was once thought."
While they admit that reliable behavioral differences between dog breeds do exist, there is also incredible within-breed variation attributed to genetic and environmental causes, as well as to individual experiences. That is why some true pit bulls are gentle and loving, while some corgis - normally known for their easygoing ways - can be aggressive. (Queen Elizabeth, who loves corgis, reportedly hired a pet psychologist in 1989 to curb her pets' frequent biting of the royal staff.)
It would be impractical at present to call for all animal shelters to conduct DNA testing of their charges, so the authors of the paper offer an easy solution that could be implemented immediately.
They wrote: "We conclude that breed labels in animal shelters are not providing adopters with the useful information they purport to, and removing them would be a relatively low-cost intervention that would improve adoptions and reduce lengths of stay for many - and perhaps all - breed groups, including pit bull-type dogs."