Why Misidentifying Shelter Dogs as Pit Bulls Shouldn’t Be a Big Deal, But Is

Animal shelter workers often have to identify a dog’s breed based only on appearance – and they’re often wrong, according to a new study.

This really shouldn’t be that big of a deal. But the problem is, they’re misidentifying dogs as pit bulls. And this really shouldn’t be that much of a problem either, but it is. Due to breed-specific legislation (BSL), not to mention all those negative news stories fueling the undeserved “vicious dog” stereotype, pit bulls are either banned or have a harder time getting adopted.

The biggest problem? Just because of how a dog happens to look, that dog is at higher risk of being euthanized.

“Unlike many other things people can’t quite define but ‘know when they see it,’ identification of dogs as pit bulls can trigger an array of negative consequences, from the loss of housing, to being seized by animal control, to the taking of the dog’s life,” said Julie Levy, DVM, Ph.D., a professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and the lead author of the study.

“In the high-stakes world of animal shelters, a dog’s life might depend on a potential adopter’s momentary glimpse and assumptions about its suitability as a pet. If the shelter staff has labeled the dog as a pit bull, its chances for adoption automatically go down in many shelters.”

The umbrella term “pit bull” can refer to a variety of breeds, but generally includes American pit bull terriers or dogs whose heritage was derived from the American Staffordshire terrier or Staffordshire bull terrier.

In the study, published recently in The Veterinary Journal, researchers evaluated the breed assessments of 120 dogs made by 16 employees, including four veterinarians, at four shelters. All the staff members had at least three years of experience working in animal shelters.

The researchers took blood samples from the dogs to determine their DNA, and then compared the findings to the employees’ assessments.

Dogs with pit bull DNA were correctly identified only 35 to 75 percent of the time, depending on who was assessing the dog. Dogs without pit bull DNA were identified as pit bulls up to 48 percent of the time.

“Essentially we found that the marked lack of agreement observed among shelter staff members in categorizing the breeds of shelter dogs illustrates that reliable inclusion or exclusion of dogs as ‘pit bulls’ is not possible, even by experts,” Levy said.

“These results raise difficult questions because shelter workers and veterinarians are expected to determine the breeds of dogs in their facilities on a daily basis. Additionally, they are often called on as experts as to whether a dog’s breed will trigger confiscation or regulatory action. The stakes for these dogs and their owners are in many cases very high.”

Dr. Julie Levy, the study's lead author, plays with a dog at Alachua County Animal Services. Photo credit: Mindy Miller

Dr. Julie Levy, the study’s lead author, plays with a dog at Alachua County Animal Services. Photo credit: Mindy Miller

This study is further proof that the so-called “breedism” inherent in BSL – judging dogs based only on their looks – is unfair and irrelevant.

“A dog’s physical appearance cannot tell observers anything about its behavior,” Levy said. “Even dogs of similar appearance and the same breed often have diverse behavioral traits in the same way that human siblings often have very different personalities.”

As awareness of the ineffectiveness of breed-specific legislation grows, it is being repealed in many places across the country.

Levy said public safety would be better served and dog bites prevented by supervising children around dogs, recognizing canine body language, avoiding unfamiliar dogs in their territory, spaying and neutering dogs, and raising puppies to be social companions.

If excellent suggestions like these are enacted instead of BSL, eventually it won’t necessarily be a death sentence if a beagle or boxer is misidentified as a pit bull.

Until then, if the actual pedigree of a dog is not known, Levy advises shelter workers to indicate the breed as “mixed” or “unknown.”

Photo credit: University of Florida Health

88 comments

william Miller
william Miller1 years ago

thanks

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Mark Donner
Mark Donner2 years ago

What do you expect from kill shelter workers.. they're certified psychopaths and criminals.

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Muff-Anne York-Haley

We had a boxer/Shepard cross that looked like a Staffy!

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Sierra B.
Sierra B2 years ago

There are alot of breeds that look very similiar to pit bulls

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Muff-Anne York-Haley

It's sad that this happens:(

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Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

BSL is stupid.

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry K2 years ago

Many thanks to you !

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Jennifer H.
Jennifer H2 years ago

Animal controls are usually run by unknowledgable people and labeling an animal as a Pit can lead to a death sentence. BSL is wrong.

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saoirse Meenan
saoirse Meenan2 years ago

Pitbulls are sweetheats just depends on how they are raised! I have three. :)

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