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Arizona Animal Welfare League/EurekAlert!

Dogs labeled as ‘pit bulls’ are damned to longer shelter stays

Study finds that adoptions go up when shelters don't attempt to label breeds.


Cynthia McKelvey


Posted on Mar 23, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 1:22 am CDT

It’s no secret that pit bulls have a bit of a bad reputation. But a new study finds that dogs labeled as pit bulls may be victims themselves, awaiting adoption in shelters for up to three times longer than their non-pit-bull cousins.

A study published March 23 in the open access journal PLOS One found that people had negative perceptions of dogs labeled as pit bulls, even compared to similar looking dogs with different labels like “boxer.” The researchers found that study participants—pulled from Foothill College in Los Altos, California, and Reddit—labeled pit bulls as more aggressive and difficult to train, and less adoptable than either a labrador or a border collie.

Pit bulls are not a specific breed, but rather a general term for different types of bull terriers, according to Pit Bull Rescue Central. Some of these breeds have a history with dog fighting and a negative portrayal in the media. But Pit Bull Rescue Central insists that breed has nothing to do with aggressiveness and that pit bulls consistently perform as well on temperament tests as poodles and labradors.

Nonetheless, the researchers also found that people perceived pit bulls as less attractive than similar-looking dogs that were not labeled as pit bulls. When the researchers removed the breed labels from both dogs, people rated the dogs as equally cute.

In a final study, the researchers monitored what happened when an animal shelter in Florida removed the breed labels from all their dogs for adoption. All types of dogs, no matter the breed, saw an increase in adoption after the shelter removed breed labels.

Prior to the removing of labels, people adopted about 52 percent of all the pit bulls from the shelter. But after they removed the breed labels, people adopted 64 percent. However, this increase in adoption rates was seen across the board.

The good news for pit bulls, though, was removing the label correlated with a lower length of stay for the pit bulls. Researchers saw the same effect for all types of dogs, however, so it’s unclear exactly why removing the breed label helped all dogs. Perhaps people, without having a specific breed in mind, were more open to meeting more types of dogs and adopting the most personally compatible dog without preconceived ideas about what the breed is like. The researchers suggested that it’s possible people are simply less biased toward any one breed these days, expecting a wide range of behaviors that are not isolated to any one breed.

The researchers also added that most breed labeling at shelters is based on how the dog looks, and little else. These observations may not actually correlate with the dog’s pedigree, the researchers noted, suggesting that the continued practice of breed labeling at shelters is “at worst, untenable.” They suggested that shelters adopt a validated behavioral assessment test to help potential adopters determine which dogs will fit best for their lifestyle and family.

Photo via Arizona Animal Welfare League/EurekAlert!

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*First Published: Mar 23, 2016, 8:10 pm CDT