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Labels That Sentence

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If you are looking for a canine companion this post is for you. Do not bother looking at the breed labels when you go to a dog shelter to adopt,  it won’t tell you much about the dog.

But if you are interested to know if it is true that Pitbull and other PPP (Potentially Dangerous Dog in Spanish) have a bad image, this post is also for you. Keep reading and you will find studies that prove it to you.

Dogs of considerated dangerous breeds share similar identifiable characteristics like body shape, muscle tone, short hair and head size, in addition to their bad reputation. 🙁

In shelters there are many mixed bred dogs labeled as PPP/ Pit bull, to whom if they tested DNA analysis, most would have more than two breeds, not simply PPP/Pit bull mixes or maybe even their PPP part would not be significant. Before putting labels that sentence the life of the animals they would have to be sure.

Studies show that labelling a breed influences the perception and decision of adopters, and removing this label would be a good strategy to increase their adoptions. [1], [2]

In shelters, dogs labeled as Pit bull wait to be adopted 3 times longer than the rest of dogs, according to a study published in PLOS ONE by Lisa Gunter of Arizona State University, USA. [1], [3]

Here is a clear example. Boris and Brendan are from the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA Shelter and they could be twins. They both looked very similar, the two of them wagged their tails when someone came to greet them, and the two were sad when the visitors left. Yet the fate of these two dogs, being both in adoption in the same shelter, has been quite different.

 Image from Study 1

Boris found a home in just a week. Brendan stayed two more months before anyone noticed him. Otherwise he would have been sacrificed, as it happens to a million dogs every year in the United States and many others in the rest of the world, including Spain.

So what is the reason for this result if the two dogs looked so much alike? Well, let me tell you: all because of the labels! Boris was tagged as a boxer resemblance (pictured right) and Brendan as a Pitt bull (pictured left). Sad, isn’t it?

Recent research on behaviour indicates that breeds do not tell us much about dogs. Correctly assigning breeds to mongrel dogs based on their appearance and morphology by eye is very very complex. If we add the negative perception of the PPP/Pit bull breeds, it is a totally inaccurate method to describe the vast majority of shelter dogs.

A study investigating several cases of fatal dog attacks in the United States [4] around the year 2000, showed that many other factors are more important than the breed in determining the possible causes. Factors such as the sex of the dog, whether is neutered or not and evidence of maltreatment or neglect played a much greater role than the dog’s breed (often poorly labeled).

Previous research indicates that breed stereotypes exist (Wright, Smith, Daniel & Adkins, 2007; Bennett & Mornement, 2009; Twining, Arluke & Patronek, 2000) and that the dog guide’s appearance affects people’s perception about the temperament of the dog (Walsh, McBride, Bishop & Leyvraz, 2007).

The results of this study showed that pitbull dogs were perceived more negatively than other breeds, but this impression was positively modulated by the presence of an older woman and a male child (Figure 1 and 2).

These results could be useful for the animal welfare community. Positive perceptions of the closeness, friendliness, intelligence and adoptability of pit bull dogs can be increased and the level of aggressiveness reduced, simply by including a person with a positive stereotype (eg, elderly lady, child) in the photographs with these dogs.

These improved perceptions can contribute to the success of educational efforts on pit bulls and increase public interest in adopting them.

Adopters often ask “What kind of dog is this?” And the shelter is often forced to respond with the name of a breed, even when most of these dogs do not come with papers or genetic tests. Breeds with which dogs are labelled and adoptants see in the cards hanging on the kennels, and on which the fate of the dogs depends so much, are only estimates based on their appearance. It would be something like saying that people of other ethnicities are potentially delinquent.

Since there are more than 200 known breeds and these can be combined in up to 55 trillion different ways, it should not be surprising that breeds that label shelters are often wrong. [1]

So how do we prevent these biases from affecting dogs that do not deserve it? In 2014, the enormous Orange County Animal Services in Florida shelter made a very brave experiment: They removed all labels from the breeds off the kennels!! Not only the adoptions of those who had been labeled as pit bulls rose 75%, overall, all adoptions improved! In all, they found 30% more homes for their dogs. [1] [6]

I am satisfied with this post if you get to remember only this sentence: The physical of a dog can not say much about the behaviour of the dog. Even dogs with similar appearance and of the same breed often have different behavioural traits, just as humans have different personalities. Therefore, it would be advisable for shelters here to join Florida SPCA’s initiative and to remove all labels to see how their adoptions increase.

As for the legal restrictions of PPP/ Pit bull dogs based on their appearance are mainly useless. Public safety would improve by reducing the risk factors for attacks on dogs, supervising children, recognizing canine body language, avoiding unknown dogs in their territory and promoting early education in puppies to be well socialized dogs.

In a nutshell, when you go to the shelter to adopt, SEE BEYOND THE LABELS!

Dogs deserve recognition as individuals 🙂

See you soon!




[1] Gunter LM, Barber RT, Wynne CDL (2016) What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions & Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions & Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs. PLoS ONE 11(3): e0146857. lisa.gunter@asu.edu
, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA.

[2] Purebreds are Like Unicorns: Understanding the Breed Ancestry of Shelter Dogs & the Influence of Breed Labels on Potential Adopter Perception. Lisa Gunter, Rebecca Barber, Clive Wynne. Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA.

[3] Pit bull label may triple length of stay in dog shelters, 2016.

[4] Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite–related fatalities in the United States (2000–2009).

[5] DNA studies reveal that shelter workers often mislabel dogs as ‘pit bulls’, 2016.

[6] Orange shelter no longer will identify dogs by breed to avoid pit-bull stigma, 2014.

[7] Hoffman CL, Harrison N, Wolff L, Westgarth C. Is that dog a pit bull? A cross-country comparison of perceptions of shelter workers regarding breed identification. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2014; 17(4): 322–339. doi: 10.1080/10888705.2014.895904 PMID: 24673506.