A Shocking Number Of Dogs In Shelters Are Misidentified As 'Pit Bulls'

A Shocking Number of Dogs in Shelters Are Misidentified as 'Pit Bulls'

Using DNA analysis, researchers have shown that shelter workers frequently mislabel dogs as "pit bulls". They say this is a serious problem given the social stigma surrounding the breed -- which, technically speaking, doesn't actually exist. The new study, published in The Veterinary Journal, shows that animal shelter staff -- and even some veterinarians -- consistently misidentify dogs, particularly those classed as pit bull-type dogs. Much of this has to do with the fact that animal shelter staff are expected to guess the breed of dogs strictly based on physical appearance alone. And even when dogs are assessed at the same time, staff members often disagree on what breed it actually is.

"Unlike many other things people can't quite define but 'know when they see it,' 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," said study lead author Julie Levy in a press statement. "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. If the shelter staff has labelled the dog as a pit bull, its chances for adoption automatically go down in many shelters."

There's really no such thing as a purebred "pit bull", which makes the findings of this study all the more problematic. The catch-all term "pit bull-type breeds" describes any dog derived from the heritage breeds American Staffordshire terrier or Staffordshire bull terrier. The purebred American pit bull terrier is also descended from these breeds, and is often included in the loose definition of "pit bull."

A Shocking Number of Dogs in Shelters Are Misidentified as 'Pit Bulls'Via YouTube

For the study, University of Florida researchers observed four staff members (including some veterinarians) at each of four different animal shelters, recording how they identified incoming dogs. In total, there were 120 dogs involved in the study, comprising 16 different breeds (admittedly, not the greatest sample size, both in terms of staff members and dogs analysed). After this, the researchers took blood samples from the dogs for DNA analysis; their genetic profiles were then compared to the staff's assessments.

The researchers learned that one in three dogs lacking DNA for pit bull heritage were labelled by at least one staff member as being a pit bull-type dog, while one in five dogs who actually had some kind of pit bull DNA were missed by all shelter staff. Dogs with pit bull heritage were correctly labelled only 33 to 75 per cent of the time, depending on which staff member did the judging. And dogs with no relevant DNA were mislabelled as pit bulls anywhere from zero to 48 per cent of the time.

According to the ASPCA, nearly four million dogs enter animal shelters in the United States each year, of which 1.2 million are euthanised. About 1.4 million dogs are adopted each year. How many of these dogs are not being adopted because they have been mislabelled?

A Shocking Number of Dogs in Shelters Are Misidentified as 'Pit Bulls'A muzzled pit bull-type dog. Tatiana via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Many jurisdictions are enacting legislation restricting certain breeds, including pit bulls and dogs that resemble them. "The restrictions are based on the assumptions that certain breeds are inherently dangerous, that those breeds can be reliably identified, and that restricting these breeds would improve public safety," the authors wrote in their study.

But many dogs are identified based on their physical appearance alone, and these assessments are often wrong -- even when made by experts. It's quite difficult, if not impossible, to predict a dog's behaviour even when its genetic profile is known.

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

Previous studies have shown that injuries from dogs have not decreased in jurisdictions where certain breeds have been banned. Public safety would be better served, argue the researchers, by focusing on other variables, including the supervision of children, recognising a dog's body language, not approaching an unfamiliar dog in its territory, neutering dogs, identifying "dangerous dogs and reckless dog owners" and raising puppies to be social companions.

As for animal shelter staff, they should simply enter "mixed breed" or "unknown" in their records when a dog's actual pedigree is unavailable.

[The Veterinary Journal]

Top image: Black and white American Pit Bull Terrier. Credit: Shutterstock

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    Dog aggression has little to do with breed and is almost always caused by how it's raised.
    Also odd that people are wary of bull terrier type dogs: they were bred not for aggression but tenacity and to fight other dogs/animals but love people.
    It's hard to find a more people loving dog that a staffie.

    Last edited 21/02/16 7:21 pm

      My staffie is the most submissive, person loving dog ever. He would let robbers in to take my stuff if he thought they'd play with him.

      It does have a lot to do with breed. Over hundreds of generations the aggressive behavior starts to become instinctual.

        That problem is human intervention though, not the breed itself. If people kept breeding the most aggressive dogs, you'll end up with an aggressive dog after a dozen generations, regardless of the breed (imagine a Saint Bernard going for your throat each time).
        On the flip side, I remember watching a documentary of a Soviet program to breed wild (aggressive) foxes into pets. The most passive ones that didn't attack humans were kept and bred. After a few generations, voila! Fox pups for pets.
        But, if you bring up a dog to discourage aggressive behaviour, then you/they generally can control that aggression.

          Yeah and that's what we need responsible caring owners to breed the traits out. But respecting the fact that while they might not show aggressive tendencies it is still possible to happen because of the trained instincts.

      Actually, the breed can be a problem. Tho, its not generally a behavior thing, its more to do with the excessive amount of inbreeding the so called 'pure breeds' get, and there for, the medical problems that tend to happen. It dose not help when dog competitions exclude the mix breed dogs, on the basis of them not being inbreed enough.

    My two Jack Russells, after Corgis, are the most aggressive dogs I've been around. They only seem to hone in on dogs that are 3 times their size. As a team they have an attack mode (circle 3 times then one for the muzzle and one for the balls) that leaves staffies, rotties. Dobermans screaming in frustration and the owners threatening litigation. (like who's gonna believe them) they eat manure when we put it in the garden and roll in vomit and ibis carcasses every chance they get and they can't be left alone with children. I friggen hate them! d'love a little staffie though.

      You hate your own dogs? You sound like a terrible owner. All of that behaviour can be trained out. I feel sorry for your dogs. Plus, if you let them act aggressively around other dogs and people, then you shouldn't have a dog at all, let alone a staffy.

      Last edited 25/02/16 12:44 am

    Wait, I'm confused - the 4th paragraph starts with "There’s really no such thing as a purebred “pit bull” and ends with a link to "The purebred American pit bull terrier"
    Do they exist or not?

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