We’ve picked this random group of dogs from Petfinder to illustrate three things:
1. There is no agreed upon or standard definition of a “Pit Bull.” Through our work we have come to understand that the phrase “pit bull” means something different to everyone. Animal welfare workers don’t agree on how to define “pit bull”. Law enforcement officers don’t agree. Legislators don’t agree. Even dog owners don’t agree on exactly what a “pit bull” is! So, the use of that label, “pit bull” is subjective, as you can see in the photos above. That’s why we put it in quotes.
2. The goal is not to get better at breed labeling. We can’t get better at it, so there’s no use wasting time trying. Peer-reviewed studies have proven that the visual identification of breeds is unreliable. Did you know that only 50 of a dog’s 20,000 genes determines what they look like on the outside? That means we’re making a breed guess based on seeing less than 1% of a dog’s DNA. No wonder we’re wrong so often (particularly in shelters where the population of dogs has been estimated to be up to 75% mixed breed)! Don’t bother trying to get better at it – we can’t, because we don’t have super powers.
3. A dog’s label, right or wrong, doesn’t tell us who they are or how they will behave. This is true whether we are accurate or not in our labeling. This is true whether the dog is a pure breed or a mixed breed dog. The labels we assign to dogs don’t tell us what they need as an individual or whether or not they are safe to live in our communities. We cannot accurately predict a dog’s future behavior based on breed or breed label alone. Dogs are complex individuals whose behaviors are influenced by a number of external and internal factors. Above all else, dogs are individuals.
Finally, some advice for anyone using Petfinder.com or another shelter software program:
Since they require you to list the breed of dog, you don’t have much choice but to guess! However, you can choose to tell your adopters that the breed label is just a guess. And you can add this to your posts, like we do: “Visual breed identification in dogs is unreliable so for most of the dogs we are only guessing at predominant breed or breed mix. We get to know each dog as an individual and will do our best to describe each of our dogs based on personality, not by breed label.” You can find posters and kennel cards with this info, available here.
For more FAQs from shelters about breed labeling, please see this blog post.
To learn more about labels and language, please visit our website.
To better understand the science behind seeing dogs as individuals, please see our infographic.
Please note: the photos included here are not meant as an endorsement or a criticism of the agencies that are caring for these dogs. The photos were randomly chosen to illustrate the diversity of dogs being labeled “pit bull” across the country. Each photo is linked to the dog’s Petfinder bio. We sincerely hope each dog is adopted soon and thank each organization for their efforts on behalf of “pit bull” dogs.