The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Being labeled a pit bull can doom a shelter dog’s chances of adoption

(Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Pit bulls are pretty much Public Enemy No. 1 of American dogs. They’ve got a reputation for being dangerous, though whether that’s due to nature or nurture is the subject of much debate. In any case, pit owners who want to live in San Francisco have to sterilize their dogs. If they fancy moving with their dogs to Miami or Denver, well, they’d best forget it: Laws ban pit bulls from setting foot — er, paw — in either city.

That scorn persists even though many dogs labeled pit bulls — which isn’t a breed, but a category that includes American pit bull terriers and Staffordshire terriers — aren’t genetically pit bull-types at all. In fact, according to a new study, in animal shelters it persists in part because of that labeling.

Shelters typically identify dogs’ breeds based on information from owners or appearance. Some research indicates dogs labeled American pit bull terriers are the most prevalent breed at U.S. shelters, though one study found that half of those deemed pit bulls don’t have any pit bull-type DNA. Many end up among the 1.2 million shelter dogs euthanized each year.

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Researchers at Arizona State University wanted to know how the negative pit bull label influenced dogs’ chances at adoption. The answer, in short: a lot. They found that pit bulls languish far longer at shelters, and potential adopters view them as much less attractive. The authors of the study, published in PLOS One, concluded that removing breed labels would be best for the so-called pit bulls seeking families, and for all shelter dogs.

“We were surprised how very similar-looking dogs sometimes get labeled ‘pit bull’ and other times as something completely different,” Lisa Gunter, the lead author, said in a statement. “These dogs may look and act the same, but the pit bull label damns them to a much longer wait to adoption.”

Here are the takeaways from the study:

1. Dogs labeled “pit bull” spend more than three times longer in a shelter than similar-looking dogs not deemed pit bulls

Gunter and her colleagues looked at the records of 30 dogs that had been adopted over more than two years from an Arizona shelter. Fifteen had been labeled pit bulls; 15 were “lookalikes” — dogs with similar coats, head shapes, stature and length — that were labeled another breed.

Those in the first group lingered in shelter cages for 42 days, compared with about 13 days for the second group. What’s more, potential adopters at the shelter who were shown unlabeled photos of the 30 dogs found them all equally attractive. That was further indication that the breed designation had probably made a big difference in the “pit bulls'” shelter stay.

2. People view pit bull-type dogs as less attractive than other breeds

The researchers showed photos of a Labrador retriever, border collie and a pit bull to 49 California college students and to 179 posters on Reddit and asked them to what degree the dogs looked approachable, smart, friendly, aggressive, difficult to train or adoptable. The pit bull-types ranked lowest in all categories except for two: Participants deemed them most aggressive-looking and difficult to train.

In a separate study, Gunter’s team showed 15-second videos of shelter pit bulls and “lookalikes” to 51 potential adopters at the Arizona shelter. When the dogs in the videos were labeled, viewers ranked the lookalikes as more attractive. When the labels were removed, they ranked the pit bulls as more attractive.

3. The company a pit bull keeps influences how it’s perceived

The same college students and Reddit members were shown photos of each of the same three dogs next to a human — an elderly woman, a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair, a boy, a middle-aged athletic-looking man and a “rough”-looking man with tattoos. Survey respondents judged pit bulls to be friendlier and more adoptable when they were next to the boy or the elderly woman. These results are the first, the study’s authors said, to show what’s called “trait contagion” from a handler to a dog. (Previous research showed it going the other way.)

4. Pit bull-types at shelters are more likely to be adopted if they’re given no breed label — and so are all dogs

To see how an Orlando shelter’s decision to do away with breed labels influenced adoption rates, the researchers analyzed more than 17,000 adoption records from before and after the change. They found that 52 percent of pit bull-types — such as American bulldogs, American pit bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers and miniature bull terriers — were adopted when their breed was listed, and 64 percent were adopted after the shelter no longer used breed labels. Those adopted spent 1.5 fewer days at the shelter, and the pit bull-types’ euthanasia rate dropped 12 percent. All other breeds also were adopted at higher rates; Mastiff adoptions went up 15 percent.

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