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Shelter Dogs Often Mislabeled as Pit Bulls

The incorrect assessments harm the animals’ chances of finding homes and potentially put their lives at risk.

A new study has found that animal shelters often mislabel dogs as pit bulls, which can hurt the animals' chances of finding homes and could even put their lives at risk.

A research team from the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine compared DNA samples from 120 dogs at four shelters against shelter staff -- including four veterinarians -- assessments of the animals' breeds.

The results showed that dogs with pit bull heritage in their DNA were correctly identified as pit bulls at best 75 percent of the time. Meanwhile, dogs with no pit bull heritage DNA were labeled pit bulls up to 48 percent of the time.

"Essentially we found that the marked lack of agreement observed among shelter staff members in categorizing the breeds of shelter dogs illustrates that reliable inclusion or exclusion of dogs as ‘pit bulls' is not possible, even by experts," said study lead Julie Levy, D.V.M. and professor of shelter medicine at the university, in a press release.

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There is no formal breed directly called "pit bull." Rather it's a term applied to a type of dog that derives from the heritage (old) breeds of American Staffordshire terrier or Staffordshire bull terrier. Similarly, the American pit bull terrier often falls under the "pit bull" umbrella.

Dogs designated as pit bulls are often considered by the public as dangerous by their very nature, a risk to children and other dogs. The study's researchers suggest, however, that dog breeds have a variety of genetic traits that make it impossible to offer predictions about how one dog will behave.

"A dog's physical appearance cannot tell observers anything about its behavior," said Levy. "Even dogs of similar appearance and the same breed often have diverse behavioral traits in the same way that human siblings often have very different personalities."

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The study's results, according to Levy, "raise difficult questions because shelter workers and veterinarians are expected to determine the breeds of dogs in their facilities on a daily basis. Additionally, they are often called on as experts as to whether a dog's breed will trigger confiscation or regulatory action. The stakes for these dogs and their owners are in many cases very high."

"Identification of dogs as pit bulls can trigger an array of negative consequences, from the loss of housing, to being seized by animal control, to the taking of the dog's life," Levy added. "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."

Levy suggests, in lieu of placing legal restrictions on dogs based purely on appearance, more emphasis might be placed on addressing the risk factors for harmful dog contacts - for example, vigilant supervision of children, recognition of canine body language, neutering of dogs, raising puppies to be social, and keeping watch for unfamiliar dogs.

American Staffordshire terriers fall under the "pit bull" dog type.

DNA analysis, as well as historical information, is helping to reveal the world's most ancient dog breeds. A new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, puts the spotlight on East Asia as being a primary origination point for dog domestication. The earliest known dog-like fossils come from Europe, but it is likely that these dogs did not produce large populations that led to distinctive breeds. Genetic research on existing dogs reveal that certain breeds stand apart from others. "Our results show that these breeds represent lineages older than modern European breeds, and in this sense can be considered as ancient," senior author Wiesław Bogdanowicz of the Polish Academy of Science's Museum and Institute of Zoology, told Discovery News. Afghan hounds fall into the ancient group. In fact, they were called "ancient" long before the advent of genomics. In 1925, an article published in "The Dog Fancier" had the declarative title: "The Afghan Hound Is an Ancient Breed." Canine experts at the time even thought that the dogs "entered the ark with Noah" and were the world's first ever dogs. According to the historical record, Afghan hounds date back to the pre-Christian era of northeastern Afghanistan. The original name for the breed, famous for its silken coat and fashion model thin build, was "Tazi."

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Basenjis look remarkably like dogs featured in ancient Egyptian art. Drawings found in the tombs of the 2700 B.C. Great Pyramid of Khufu show such dogs seated near the feet of their owners, or under chairs. The cat-loving Egyptians might have taken to the dogs because, like felines, these canines tend to be relatively quiet and wash themselves regularly with their tongues. Most researchers, including Bogdanowicz and his team, still believe that domesticated dogs largely arose in Asia and migrated to other regions. "It is very likely that migrating populations of early farmers were followed by dogs," he said, explaining that these dogs were not feral, but were originally free-breeding. Basenjis possess a very distinctive suite of characteristics, which must have been maintained by human breeders. While the official breed only dates back 60 years, these dogs clearly have been in existence for centuries.

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Nearly all DNA studies of dogs find that Arctic breeds, such as the Alaskan malamute, stand apart from modern breeds. An extensive genomic investigation conducted by senior author Robert Wayne from the University of California at Los Angeles and colleagues found that Alaskan malamutes, as well as American Eskimo dogs and Siberian huskies, "are highly divergent from other dog breeds." This means that they have evolved on a slightly different path than other, more modern dogs. Wayne and his team added that "historical information suggests that most have ancient origins, greater than 500 years ago."

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"Saluki" is thought to derive from two early Sumerian words meaning "plunge-earth." What that means exactly, in reference to the dogs, remains a mystery, but it is known that Salukis were historically bred in the Fertile Crescent where agriculture is widely believed to have originated. Like Afghan hounds, Salukis tend to have long legs and a thin build. They are known as sight hounds, meaning that they hunt primarily by sight as opposed to by smell or other senses. Today, they are bred with coats in a veritable rainbow of colors ranging from red to tricolor (white, black and tan).

The Greenland sled dog, also sometimes referred to as a sledge dog, is yet another early East Asian breed. The recent DNA analysis conducted by Bogdanowicz and his colleagues "revealed post-divergence gene flow from grey wolves to Greenland sledge dogs," they wrote. This determination reminds that free-breeding dogs can still interbreed with wild canines, such as grey wolves, coyotes and golden jackals. The resulting offspring can be fertile, and conservationists are concerned that we may one day lose the uniqueness of wild canine species due to hybridization.

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Wayne and his team found that only two East Asian breeds, the chow chow and Akita, "had higher (genomic) sharing with Chinese wolves" than other breeds. Researchers can therefore see past wolf contributions to the modern dog genome. Other wolf populations noted in the dog DNA studies include those from North America, the Middle East and Europe.

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The Samoyed, as a distinctive breed, originated in Siberia, where nomadic reindeer herders bred them as sled dogs and to help with herding. Their historical past is much deeper, however, as these primitive dogs descend from an even earlier, founding population of Russian dogs. According to an American Kennel Club fact sheet, "Of all modern breeds, the Samoyed is most nearly akin to the primitive dog. No admixture of wolf or fox runs in the Samoyed strain."

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The genetic analysis of Wayne and his team defined three basic groups of "highly divergent, ancient breeds." They are: *Asian group: dingo, New Guinea singing dog, chow chow, Akita and Chinese Shar Pei *Middle Eastern group: Afghan hound and Saluki *Northern group: Alaskan malamute and Siberian husky All of these dogs were found to be genetically "distinct from modern domestic dogs."

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Bogdanowicz and colleagues' study suggests that the Shiba Inu belongs on the ancient dog list. The DNA of this dog shows that it is related to yet another East Asian breed, the Chinese Shar Pei. The American Kennel Club, though, reports that "Shibas are considered the oldest and smallest of Japan's dogs." The AKC only officially recognized this breed in 1992, demonstrating that the actual origin of a breed can happen hundreds of years prior to such designations.

The word "spitz" refers to several different breeds that loosely share common ancestry and traits. They are believed to descend from very ancient dog populations. Bogdanowicz told Discovery News that he and his team "found that spitz-type breeds of European origin -- Keeshond, Elkhound, Finnish Spitz, German spitz and Schipperke -- are genetically distinct from other European dog breeds, suggesting that they may have a distinct origin and possibly may be related to spitz-type breeds from East Asia and the Arctic." A closer look at the friendly dog shown in this photo reveals many wolf-like characteristics, such as a dense and waterproof insulating coat. Dog breeders even categorize spitzes in a unique group that stands apart from the other umbrella terms that they often use to describe dogs: ancient, toy, spaniels, scent hounds, working dogs, mastiff-like breeds, small terriers, retrievers, herding and sight hounds. The spitzes are in a league of their own.

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