Is the dog that you are adopting actually a pit bull?
In the United States, pet dog ownership has soared to over 70 million, and mixed breed dogs are fast becoming more popular than purebreds. Even when purebred dogs are acquired, it’s typically for companionship rather than their historical working roles. Nevertheless, breed assignment continues to shape how dogs are perceived and managed, even when the actual breed is unknown. Guessed breed designations appear in various records, from veterinary documents to housing applications, often without any reliable basis in reality. Breed-based restrictions and bans have been imposed in many places, assuming that certain breeds are inherently dangerous and can be easily identified, supposedly improving public safety. However, a recent study sheds light on the inaccuracies of visual breed identification.
The Pit Bull Predicament:
One term commonly used in breed designations is “pit bull.” However, it’s crucial to understand that “pit bull” doesn’t denote a recognized breed but rather encompasses a diverse group of dogs, including purebreds and presumed mixes. This term is employed loosely and officially across various contexts, even though there’s no universal definition. Breed restrictions and bans often list “pit bull” as a regulated breed, along with others like Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, and Chow Chows, among others.
Visual Breed Identification:
Since pedigree information is rarely available for shelter dogs, breed assignments are typically based on subjective assessments of their appearance. This visual identification process can have high stakes for both dogs and owners, especially in regions with breed-specific legislation. Shelter staff members and veterinarians play a significant role in making these assessments, and their judgments can have unintended consequences.
A study was conducted in four Florida animal shelters to determine the level of agreement among shelter workers in designating pit bull-type breeds for shelter dogs. They also compared these visual breed assignments with DNA breed signatures. Shelter staff members, including veterinarians, participated in the study, but the results raised concerns about the reliability of visual breed assessments.
Inconsistent Visual Identification:
The study revealed that even among shelter staff members evaluating the same dogs at the same time, there was only moderate agreement in breed assignment. This inconsistency among experts emphasizes the unreliability of visual identification, especially for pit bull-type dogs. A substantial number of dogs identified as pit bull-type based on visual cues did not have DNA evidence to support this designation, and vice versa.
The Complexity of Breed Identification:
Visual breed identification is a complex process, as inherited genes do not always determine the physical traits or behaviors expressed in mixed-breed dogs. Breed designations are often subjective and prone to error, which poses challenges when making decisions related to breed-specific regulations or policies.
Animal shelter staff and veterinarians are frequently expected to guess the breed of dogs based on appearance alone.
Even when observing the same dogs at the same time, shelter staff had only moderate agreement with breed designations.
One in five dogs genetically identified with pit bull heritage breeds were missed by all shelter staff.
One in three dogs lacking DNA for pit bull heritage breeds were labeled pit bull-type dogs by at least one staff member.
Lack of consistency among shelter staff indicates that visual identification of pit bull-type dogs is unreliable.
Olson, Kent R., et al. “Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff.” The Veterinary Journal 206.2 (2015): 197-202.