Skip to main content

How Breed Labels Penalize Pit Bulls

Losing breed labels in shelters may benefit the oft-stigmatized dogs.
(Photo: Max Schneider/Flickr)

(Photo: Max Schneider/Flickr)

There are more than 80 million pet dogs in homes across the United States. Roughly one-fifth of those pets were adopted from shelters, which take in millions of strays every year. A new study finds that pit bulls stay in shelters an average of 42 days—three times longer than other dogs that look like pit bulls, but aren't labeled as such. Luckily, the results also point to a cheap and easy-to-implement solution for shelters and pit bulls: Don't identify breeds.

There are hundreds of dog breeds, with stereotypical shapes, sizes, and behavioral traits—the result of thousands of years of selection. Shelters generally identify breeds by a dog's appearance, which is not always accurate; most dogs arriving at shelters are actually mutts, and one study found that half of the dogs labeled as pit bulls had no DNA signatures characteristic of any pit bull breeds.

To find out how breed labels influence our perceptions of dogs, the researchers showed prospective pet owners photographs of pit bulls, pit bull lookalikes, Labrador retrievers, and border collies. Compared to Labs and collies, pit bulls were rated as the least approachable, least friendly, and least adoptable breed. They were also rated as the most aggressive and most difficult to train. When the team presented unlabeled photos of pit bulls and lookalikes to participants, they rated both types as equally appealing. Yet the pit bulls in the photos had been stuck at shelters three time longer than the lookalikes, suggesting the pit bull label—and the aggressive stereotypes that accompany it—could be to blame.

The researchers also looked at shelters run by Orange County Animal Services, which stopped using breed labels in 2014. Afterward, the length of stay for pit bulls dropped, while adoptions increased—as did adoptions of all other dog breeds.

Our "preference for certain breed types could have life or death consequences for the dogs," the authors write. Nearly one-third of the dogs that wind up in shelters every year are euthanized. Given the negative stereotypes associated with some breeds, the difficulty in accurately assigning breed type in shelters, and the potential benefits for all kinds of dogs, more shelters might want to consider leaving breed type unidentified.