What breed is that pup? 'Pit bull' label may mean longer wait for shelter dogs.

New research suggests that the 'pit bull' label could doom a dog to wait in a shelter three times as long as a lookalike dog.

Dawn Majors/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP/File
In this Sept. 14, 2009 photo, Belle, left, and Nellie, right, 8-week-old Pit Bull puppies were born after the July 8 multi-state federal dog fighting raid and are seen in St. Louis.
Courtesy of Arizona Animal Welfare League
Shelter lookalike dogs.

Today, March 23, is the 10th annual National Puppy Day. The unofficial holiday is intended to promote adoption of dogs from animal shelters rather than from breeders, but some shelter dogs face more challenges in adoption than others.

Dogs labeled as pit bulls wait to be adopted more than three times as long as dogs that look the same but are labeled as a different breed, according to a new study published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

Pit bulls are often stereotyped as aggressive dogs, and the dogs have been banned in some states and cities. The evidence that pit bulls, or any dog breed, is inherently ferocious has been shown to be faulty, but the reputation remains. 

The term "pit bull" often refers to a group of breeds including the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Terrier, the American Bulldog, the Bull Terrier, and the Miniature Bull Terrier. When a dog comes into an animal shelter, staff have to go off of appearances to label the dog's breed, so a dog that may not even belong to any of these breeds may be labeled as a "pit bull mix" or something along those lines. 

And, thanks to the animal's negative reputation, those labels can influence how potential adopters perceive an individual dog.

"Pit bulls are perceived unfavorably," study lead author Lisa M. Gunter, a PhD student in the department of psychology at Arizona State University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. But "there is potentially a solution here. We don't have to be beholden to perceptions that may or may not be true for that individual."

Removing labels from dogs can allow potential adopters to see the dog without preconceptions about its behavior, explains Ms. Gunter. 

And that could make all the difference. Gunter and her team found that adoptions of pit bulls rose from 52 percent to 64 percent at a shelter that had decided to do away with breed labels. That corresponded with a 12 percent drop in the number of pit bulls euthanized.

Pit bull-type dogs weren't the only pups that benefitted from this change. Adoptions increased across the board, although pit bulls did see the most significant jump.

Gunter admits that there may have been other factors at play, as the shelter had increased advertising and was open for more hours, but, "I do think that the removal of the breed labels allows the dogs to be whatever that person wants them to be."

"It could be that when folks walk through the shelter, they use labels just to say I don't want that type of dog," Gunter says. So "maybe what we're seeing here is there's actually an increase in perceived inventory because the dogs are open to interpretation in who they are."

In that case, the pit bull label would be used as a way to eliminate adoptable dogs based on negative preconceptions. 

Gunter's research supports that explanation. In a series of four studies, she examined how pit bull-labeled dogs were perceived and the influence of that label.

First, the researchers asked participants to evaluate the aggressiveness, intelligence, friendliness, trainability, and adoptability of a dog in a picture. The dogs were a Border Collie, a Labrator Retriever, and a pit bull-type dog. The pit bull-type dog scored the lowest, although images with human handlers helped mitigate that.

In the next two studies, pit bull-type dogs were up against dogs that looked the same but were different breeds. The second study showed images of the dogs while the third used video. When the dogs were labeled, the pit bull-type dogs fared worse. But without labels, and the pit bull-type dogs were actually perceived as more attractive.

The fourth study looked at the success of removing labels at Orange County Animal Services shelter in Orlando, Fla. 

"We want to help people find dogs that are good matches for their families," Gunter says. "I don't know if breed labels are giving the information that we think they are" particularly for mixed breed dogs that make up the majority of shelter dogs. So Gunter suggests developing better behavior assessments of dogs that are up for adoption may be a better way to match potential adopters with pets.

"As human beings we tend to stereotype dog breeds just as we stereotype people," James A. Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania who was not part of the study, tells the Monitor.

"We should guard against this as far as possible because it causes unnecessary prejudice and all kinds of knee-jerk reactions from policymakers like breed bans," he says, "Which are very hard to justify if you look at the evidence."

In particular, "pit bulls are a very controversial breed in the sense that it has been implicated in some very highly publicized dog attacks," Dr. Serpell says. And although the finger has been pointed at pit bulls, some of these ferocious attacks have actually been by other breeds. And that has led to legislation banning pit bull-type dogs from towns or even states.

For example, he says, the United Kingdom enacted the Dangerous Dog Act in response to such attacks. "This was related to testimony given by people that this was an inherently dangerous animal," Serpell says. But "there was simply no scientific evidence to support that position."

Serpell agrees that removing breed labels in shelters could help improve adoption rates in the face of this negative reputation.

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