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Removing breed labels from adoptable pets

Bubba, a black and white pit-bull-terrier-type dogImagine walking down the row of kennels at your local shelter, admiring all of the dogs looking for a home. Each kennel card has the name of the dog and instead of what would be a shelter employee’s best guess of the breed, that field is either left blank or just says “mixed breed.”

Study after study over the last few years, thanks to the advent of affordable DNA testing for dogs, have confirmed what we’ve all believed for a long time: Visual identification of dog breeds is pure speculation, and incorrect most of the time.

That research has led many to question whether or not we’re doing a disservice to dogs in shelters by attempting to identify their breeds — and they may well be right. Inaccurate breed identification has two possible negative implications: one benign, the other not so much. On the benign side is the adopter who thinks she just brought home a basenji mix (based on the information on the shelter cage card) who, upon DNA testing, turns out to be a beagle and whippet mix. No big deal, unless the adopter really had her heart set on a basenji mix. The not-at-all-benign implication of inaccurate breed identification is those dogs misidentified as any one of a number of breeds that are perceived, based primarily on media hype, as dangerous, aggressive, yappy, nippy or whatever.

A movement is underway to better understand the role that knowing breed information has in the adoption process. Do adopters want to know breeds, no matter how speculative, or would they prefer a blank slate to which they can append their own label, or are they happy to simply get a “shelter dog”? Best Friends and others are currently conducting studies to see if removing speculative breed identification helps or hurts the adoption process. Some shelters around the country are already moving forward on this.

We certainly know that all dogs are individuals. But at the same time, breed information, as best as shelter employees know it, is often the only information that shelter staff have at their disposal to inform adopters about a particular dog. The shelter environment is stressful, and thanks to other studies, we know that the behaviors a dog displays in the shelter environment are not necessarily indicative of who that dog is. So on the one hand, abandoning what little information we have seems like a bad idea. But if our best guess turns off an adopter (and is more than likely incorrect), then maybe we shouldn’t be guessing.

Thanks to Maddie's Fund, Best Friends is working on a study within our own adoption centers in Los Angeles and with some of our valued partners, including Pima County, Arizona. As the information is analyzed from those studies, we will definitely share the results with you.

In the meantime, what do you think? Should shelters be removing breed labels from adoptable dogs?
Francis Battista, Co-founder, Best Friends Animal Society Francis Battista
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society