Here’s Why Your Shelter Dog’s Breed Is Probably Wrong

If you adopted your dog from an animal shelter, odds are shelter staff took a guess at its breed. But a new study shows just how inaccurate those breed labels can be. Here’s why your shelter dog’s breed is probably wrong — and why breed labels aren’t such a positive thing anyway.

The most common dog breeds in animal shelters

Roughly 3.3 million dogs enter U.S. animal shelters each year, according to the ASPCA. Upon arrival, most likely have some sort of breed label added to their information. Based on the adoptable dogs listed on Petfinder, here are the top 10 most common breeds waiting for homes right now:

  1. Labrador retriever
  2. Pit bull terrier
  3. Mixed breed
  4. Chihuahua
  5. Boxer
  6. German shepherd
  7. American Staffordshire terrier
  8. Beagle
  9. Dachshund
  10. American bulldog

Before your mind jumps to the conclusion that these breeds must have something wrong with them to land in shelters so frequently, it could be quite the opposite. Several of these breeds also rank in the top 10 of the most popular dog breeds in America, according to the American Kennel Club. Thus, because they’re more commonly kept as pets, more of them will inevitably land in animal shelters.

But are their breed labels truly accurate?

That dog’s a what?

puggle sitting in grass

So you want to adopt a dog that the shelter says is a pug-beagle mix. But is it really? A new study by Arizona State University researchers genetically tested shelter dogs and compared the results to how shelter staff had visually identified them. It found staffers were only able to correctly identify a dog’s primary or secondary breed 67 percent of the time, and when staff guessed more than one breed (for a mixed-breed dog) the accuracy fell to 10 percent. In other words, your dog probably isn’t a puggle.

“On average, purebreds represented less than 5% of dogs tested with individuals most often having three breed signatures identified within their genetic heritage,” the study says. “… American Staffordshire Terrier, Chihuahua, and Poodle were the most common breeds identified.”

Because most animal shelters don’t genetically test their dogs, they have to rely on visual traits to determine a breed. But, according to the National Canine Research Council, “Research has consistently shown that visual breed identification is very often inaccurate, and scientists have known for decades that even first generation crossbreeds usually look dramatically different than either parent.” One study even found that “over 90% of the dogs did not have their visually identified breeds as the predominant breed in their DNA analysis.”

So your shelter dog’s breed label is likely at least partially inaccurate — and that could have more consequences than you might think.

The pitfalls of ‘pit bull’ and other breed labels

black and white pit bull mix

Although it might be fun to speculate about your dog’s breed, categorizing shelter dogs has a much darker side. It could actually mean the difference between life and death for some.

According to Best Friends Animal Society, there are two pitfalls when shelters inaccurately label dogs. First, adopters might not actually end up with the breed they thought they were getting. That might be a little disappointing, and it could spell further trouble if the adopter lives in an area with breed-specific bans.

But the real issue occurs when shelter dogs are stereotyped based on breed labels that might not even be correct. “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,” Best Friends says. Those dogs might miss out on finding forever homes based on these judgments.

Consequently, more and more shelters are experimenting with removing breed labels to see whether it helps or hurts adoptions, but more research still must be done in that area.

Don’t underestimate a mutt

mutt smiling

At the end of the day, hopefully you love your shelter dog no matter what breed it is. And if your dog is simply a mutt, consider it even more special.

There are too many homeless mixed-breed dogs out there that are entirely too awesome to be bothered with breed labels. “Since they are likely to have a lower risk for receiving a high dose of specific purebred genetic material that can lead to inherited disease, I believe they’re healthier than purebreds in this particular sense,” veterinarian Patty Khuly writes for Vetstreet. This means mutts could cost you less money over the years in vet bills. Likewise, their genes for behavioral traits, such as heel-nipping in herding dogs, also might be diluted. Plus, purebred dogs often have issues thanks to irresponsible breeders.

Ultimately, the bottom line is when you adopt a mutt, purebred dog or anything in between, you’re saving a life.

Main image credit: Mexitographer/Thinkstock


hELEN h4 months ago


Alex S
Alex Scarlat5 months ago

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Just snap a picture and send it to and it returns with the top 3 dog breeds in the image. has super human capabilities in identifying dog breeds in an image which could be useful to dog owners, veterinary clinics, kennels, etc. as a much cheaper and faster alternative to a DNA analysis.

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Trish K
Trish K5 months ago

Ultimately, the bottom line is when you adopt a mutt, purebred dog or anything in between, you’re saving a life. This was the last statement of the article Renata B.. We all love shelter pets and don't care about their pedigree, just like people.

Renata B
Renata B5 months ago

Ms Daly, PLEASE!!!! A bit of decency. You are talking of dogs D-O-G-S, they are sentient, conscious beings, not a piece of furniture or a gadget. Stop using IT: "IT" is for inanimate objects only. And we own only objects, not living being, unless they are slaves, but I thought we went beyond that stage.

Renata B
Renata B5 months ago

I like mutts. They are unique. I hope to have one day a wiry girl, whatever is the combination that made her in that way.

Renata B
Renata B5 months ago

When we got our dog we were told that he was a JRTxCorgi. Ridiculous: he is clearly a JRTxCollie. Both in his behaviour and look we got it right more that those who rescued him. One thing is clear: he is definitely not a Corgi. But after all: who cares? He is what he is. I am sure he has a beaver ancestor, considering the amount of things he has chewed in his life, and he loves to go into the water, at least as long as it's the river and not the bathtub!

Rosslyn O
Rosslyn O5 months ago

This article is so right as we have almost always had cross bred rescue dogs over the generations and a couple of pure bred but all made broken hearts when they passed away from our lives. All had their own special ways to enhance our lives. In Australia we often refer to our mutt as a Heinz 57 variety as the company advertised its range way back in the old

Janis K
Janis K5 months ago

Thanks for sharing.

Chris C
Chris C5 months ago

Thank you for sharing

Camilla V
Camilla Vaga5 months ago