Pit bull label for shelter dogs may triple length of stay

Previous research has found that pit bulls are the most common breed in animal shelters across the US. How breed identification was influencing the potential adoption of pit bulls was unclear until now.

In a new PLOS study, Lisa Gunter at Arizona State University found that dogs labeled as pit bulls may wait three times longer to be adopted than lookalike dogs with a different breed label. In addition, she found that by completely removing breed labels adoptions increased and time spent in the shelter decreased for all breed groups.

Assigning breed labels in dog shelters can be inaccurate because of misleading appearances, meaning very similar looking dogs are sometimes labelled “pit bull” while other times something completely different. Given that most shelter dogs are mixed breed and breed-specific information has limited usefulness in describing the behavior of mixed breed dogs, Gunter recommends removing breed labels and assessing the behavior of shelter dogs individually.

ResearchGate: What motivated you to study the adoption rate of pit bulls?  

Lisa Gunter: In previous animal sheltering studies, dogs labeled as pit bulls were found to be the most prevalent "breed" available for adoption and the most commonly evaluated in animal shelters here in the US. Studies examining adoption success have found breed designation to be associated with differing outcome rates, such as increased euthanasia and length of stay. Exactly how breed identification influences potential adopters’ decisions to take a dog home with them remained unclear and motivated us to undertake these studies.

Left: lookalike labelled "Boxer". Right: labelled "Pit bull". Courtesy of Lisa Gunter.

RG: Can you explain your study’s design?

Gunter: We conducted four studies. Our first study investigated perceived attractiveness of three dog breeds (Labrador Retriever, pit bull and Border Collie) and the influence of different human handlers on that dog’s attractiveness when viewed in photographs. In the second study, we compared length of stay and potential adopters’ perceptions of unlabeled photographs of pit-bull-type dogs and dogs that looked similar to those dogs but had been assigned to a different breed (“lookalikes”) by staff at an animal shelter. In the third study, potential adopters viewed pit-bull-type dogs and lookalikes in videos with and without breed labels to assess the effect of these labels on perceived attractiveness. For the data analysis, data was collected from an open admission animal shelter in Orlando, Florida before and after breed assignment was no longer made available to the public on kennel cards and online adoption profiles. We analyzed lengths of stay and outcomes for all breed groups, including pit bulls.

RG: What were your results?

Gunter: In our first study, we found that the pit-bull-type dog was perceived more negatively than the other breeds, but that impression can be made more positive by the presence of certain human handlers like an elderly woman and a male child. In our second study, shelter length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs was longer than for lookalikes; however potential adopter perceptions did not differ when viewing these dogs in photographs without breed labels. In the third study’s video recordings, perceptions of attractiveness were altered when dogs were labeled or unlabeled. Pit bull breed labels had a negative effect on the dogs’ perceived attractiveness, while lookalike labels did not have a positive impact on attractiveness compared to no label at all. In our data analysis, removing breed labels was found to be associated with increased adoptions and reduced length of stay for all breed groups, particularly pit-bull-type dogs.

Left: lookalike labelled "Cattle Dog". Right: labelled "Pit bull". Courtesy of Lisa Gunter.
Left: lookalike labelled "Cattle Dog". Right: labelled "Pit bull". Courtesy of Lisa Gunter.

RG:  Why are pit bulls perceived negatively and is there any truth to this perception

Gunter: Conventionally in the United States, the term “pit bull” has been applied to a collection of 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. Negative perceptions of certain breeds of dogs, particularly about pit-bull-type breeds, are likely 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 can demonstrate an increased propensity for aggression towards other dogs and other animals. 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.

RG: Which breed was the most attractive to potential dog owners? And how fast were they adopted on average?

Gunter: In our first study, the pit-bull-type dog was perceived unfavorably in all the behavioral and adoptability characteristics. The attractiveness of the Labrador Retriever and Border Collie were higher than the pit-bull-type dog but did not differ statistically between them. In the second study, the average length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs awaiting adoption at Arizona Animal Welfare League was 42 days but for lookalikes was only thirteen. In the data analysis at Orange County Animal Services, the average shelter length of stay with breed labels was close to nine days and eight days without labels. With and without breed labels, pit-bull-type dogs had the longest length of stay (although removal of breed labels significantly reduced their length of stay) with dogs in the toy breed group consistently having the shortest stay at the shelter.

Left: lookalike labelled "Shepherd Cattle Dog". Right: labelled "Pit bull". Courtesy of Lisa Gunter.
Left: lookalike labelled "Shepherd Cattle Dog". Right: labelled "Pit bull". Courtesy of Lisa Gunter.

RG: How do shelters usually assign a dog’s breed, especially for mixed dogs?

Gunter: In animal shelters, dog breed identification practices are often based upon owner reports or staff determination according to the dog’s appearance. However, research has found that discrepancies exist between breed identification by animal shelters and DNA analysis.

RG: What do you recommend? Should shelters stop labelling dogs as pit bulls?

Gunter: In our data analysis at Orange County Animal Services, removing breed labels was associated with increased adoptions and reduced length of stay for all breed groups. Given the inherent challenges of breed assignment based on morphology and the likelihood that most dogs in animal shelters are mixed breed, removing breed labels from kennel cards and online adoption profiles may be a simple, low-cost strategy to improve shelter outcomes for all dogs. With the limited usefulness of breed-specific information in describing the behavior of mixed breed dogs, a validated behavioral assessment would likely be a better way to inform potential adopters about the behavior of individual shelter dogs and improve our adoption abilities.

Featured image courtesy of Erick Pleitez.