Who should you believe — some reporter or your lying eyes?
Have you ever taken the ubiquitous “pick the pit bull” quiz online? If you’ve never done it, you should.
How’d you do? According to the website, it takes the average person eight guesses to find the pit bull from among the 25 dogs on the page. Those are not very good odds at all, especially if the stakes of correctly labeling a shelter dog’s breed are literally a matter of life and death.
We’ve known for a long time that visually identifying the breeds of dogs in shelters is nothing short of a crapshoot. Numerous studies have confirmed exactly what just happened to you in the pit bull quiz. Looking at a block-headed dog and calling him a pit bull happens a lot, and quite often, that ID is actually wrong.
A recent study, conducted by Julie Levy at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, shows that shelter workers get it wrong an awful lot. While dogs with some pit bull heritage were identified correctly 33-75 percent of the time (depending on the staff member making the call), more disturbingly, dogs with no genetic evidence of it were identified as being pit bulls up to 48 percent of the time.
So how does that play out in a shelter? Many animal lovers will tell you that breed doesn’t matter and that it’s all about the match. But another new study — this one in PLOS One — reports that dogs labeled as pit bulls remain in shelters longer and are perceived as less attractive to adopters.
We know the impact of media on the stereotypes associated with pit-bull-terrier-like dogs. But the results of this study are simply heartbreaking.
In the study, when breed labels were not placed on the dogs, potential adopters ranked pit bulls and non-pit-bulls as “equally attractive.” But once the breed label was applied, the pit bulls were ranked as much less attractive. Such is the power of the shorthand, negative narrative that it pushes aside firsthand, personal perceptions.
Dogs are individuals, and there is as much variation in the personality of a given breed as there is between breeds. Basing the decision about which dog to adopt on a sensational storyline designed to sell newspapers or their digital equivalent results in a disproportionate number of dogs with a certain look dying in our nation’s shelters.
It also means that the adopter is likely making a choice based on an alternative narrative on another breed or type of dog, as well as an assumption of safety, ease of handling, ease of training and demeanor of that breed — all of which may be as misleading as the popular negative narrative regarding pit-bull-terrier-like dogs. Golden retrievers for example, which many uninformed folks regard as safer at home and more responsive to training, are frequently out-performed by pit-bull-terrier-like dogs on tests administered by the American Temperament Test Society. Again, dogs are individuals and should be considered as such in all circumstances, rather than as a category.
There are no easy answers here, and our work to dislodge a negative stereotype continues. In the meanwhile, we all might want to give careful consideration to the PLOS One study and possibly remove breed names from shelter kennel cards to allow the public to make choices based on interactions with individual dogs rather than sensationalist headlines.
With that said, the dog pictured here is named Ireland, and she’s available for adoption from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in southern Utah (yes, we ship). She’s a sweetheart — pit bull genetics and all. Ireland is simply a dog. Just like Petunia or Kingsly, Ireland would make a great companion for the right family. The size of her head doesn’t matter any more than the color of her eyes. She’s just a nice dog looking for the right home.
Ireland, Petunia and Kingsly are safe at Best Friends, but many dogs who look similar to them are not — for no other reason than misinformation, but together, we will Save Them All.
P.S. The author of the PLOS One study, Lisa Gunter, will be speaking at this year’s Best Friends National Conference. Register today and attend her session titled “All Shapes and Sizes: Smashing False Assumptions About Dog Breeds.”