Removing Breed Labels: Easier Than You Think

This is a guest post from Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center. At the time of this post, she was with Fairfax County Animal Shelter in VA.

About a month ago, Fairfax County Animal Shelter removed all breed labels from our adoption kennels. There was much discussion and debate prior to us making this decision. Would the public be confused? Angry? Would community members protest?

We were committed to being honest with potential adopters. If the dog they were interested in might be visually identified as a breed that faces restriction, we would make them aware that breed specific laws or housing rules could affect them.

But was that enough? Would taking breed labels off our kennels prove too disruptive to serve our purpose?

To our surprise, no one even asked why the kennel cards weren’t labeled with breeds.
We also learned that no matter what the kennel card says, potential adopters, volunteers and staff will make guesses. And they’re usually going to disagree with each other about those guesses.

Brownie and his new family
Brownie and his new family

We did notice an increase in people asking us about the breed of a particular dog. This turned out to be a good thing. The question provides the perfect opening for a staff person or volunteer to talk about the inaccuracy of breed labeling and the importance of getting to know each dog as an individual with its own unique personality traits.

Now that we’ve removed the labels from the kennel cards, we’ll be working with our shelter software system to remove the breed labels from our ‘adoptable’ pets list so dogs will be described only with their names, ages and personality profiles.

Our journey to do away with breed labels began about a year ago, when we stopped referring to dogs as ‘pit bulls’ or ‘Staffordshire terriers’ on our social media platforms. Between 2013 and 2014, adoptions of dogs visually identified as ‘pit bulls’ quadrupled and we knew we were on to something big. We talked about the individual dog’s personality, quirks, sociability with other dogs and people, but we stopped talking about breed.

We did this because we know the term ‘pit bull’ does not describe any breed of dog. Rather, it’s a subjective label that means different things to different people and has no basis in science or genetics. In our mission to get our adopters to see the dog not the label, and in the interest of full disclosure, the most honest thing we could do when describing our dogs was to simply say, “We don’t know what the breed or breed mix is.”

A happy new FCAS family
A happy new FCAS family

Things got a little more complicated when we stopped labeling all dogs, because we would all stand in front of a dog, and a staff member would say, “That IS a purebred Dachshund” or Rottweiler or whatever they thought it was. But, we asserted, the vast majority of dogs in our shelter are of mixed breed heritage and unless we have indisputable proof a dog came from a breeder and has a documented pedigree, we don’t know for sure. And even then, how does a breed label, any breed label help a dog get a home?

People are going to make their own visual breed identification whether it’s written on a kennel card or not. It simply isn’t necessary nor is it honest for us to present our guesses of any breed as if they are fact.

At our shelter, we’re having a lot of success focusing on the dog, not the perceived breed. But each animal welfare organization has its own challenges and in some places, not labeling is impossible because of breed specific legislation or breed-based adoption restrictions. What then?

It’s up to us, as advocates, no matter what our particular situation, to start explaining to people that breed labels are subjective, not based in science and that when we, as animal welfare professionals guess, we guess wrong at least 50% and often 75% of the time. We should be telling people that the vast majority of dogs in our shelters are mutts or mixed breeds and that the way they look says nothing reliable about their behavior.

Jasper and his new family
Jasper and his new family

If you are at a shelter or rescue where putting an end to breed labeling is a possibility, consider trying the following and tracking the results. You may be surprised at the immediate changes in your adoption numbers.

1. Stop using breed labels in social media posts. In some cases, a breed label gives your followers a quick reason to say no and keep scrolling. Instead, for a week, just tell the story of each particular dog. People love stories and it helps them connect with dogs they otherwise might be drawn to.

2. Remove the breed labels from your kennel cards for one week and see what happens. Make sure to spread the word to volunteers and staff so you can be on the same page with potential adopters.

3. Ask your shelter software provider if they can remove breed labels from adoptable dogs online. We use a provider that is able to remove the public labels on adoptable dogs (even though they will not remove the breed labels entirely).

4. Role play with staff and volunteers about how to respond when a visitor says, “What breed is it?” Not sure what to say? The truth works: “We’re not sure! The vast majority of our dogs are of mixed-breed origin and when we guess we are often wrong.”

5. It’s human nature to put things into categories and most of us label dogs by breed, even if it’s for a purely functional reason, like asking someone to, “Go adopt that Maltese.” Challenge yourself and your colleagues to find non-breed descriptors for your dogs.

It takes a lot of practice to break the breed labeling habit, but you can do it!


For more information on breed identification please see the National Canine Research Council’s website and the Animal Farm Foundation infographic, All Dogs Are Individuals.

And for more on Fairfax County Animal Shelter’s progressive and effective adoption policies, please see No Restrictions, Just Success.



7 thoughts on “Removing Breed Labels: Easier Than You Think

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  • June 20, 2015 at 8:11 am

    This is nothing new though. Drs Amy Marder and Alice Fanelli proposed this years ago for dogs who were not known purebreds (ie, surrendered by owner and known purebreds). They said for those crosses (and many dogs labelled pit truly have no pit in them at all, they did extensive testing) surrendered or found label them by size and energy levels based on evalualtion.

    I used to train in Agility in Boston with Dr Marder and got to meet Dr Fanelli after a lecture (she also was the one to discover a genetic link for Autism), she was great to talk to. Her lecture was on genetics and behavior.

    Anyhow, if the dog is a definite purebred, this gives us a known set of behavioral expectations. Even within a purebred there will be ranges within the expectations, but I know a Border Collie will generally be higher energy or a Scottie may like to dig. For all others, even known crosses like Puggles, the inherited temperament can be all over the place. Fanelli did extensive research crossing dogs with vastly different known temperaments and then observing as they grew. This proved to her that for any cross we have to look at size and what behaviors and actions we observe and not try to label as Whatever cross. We may be totally off. I wish I had this information when I did shelter work years ago!

    Also the genetics when trying to determine a cross can give very odd results. If the cross is say Cesky Terrier, I know this may be wrong because this is a VERY rare breed. BUT this terrier has common ancestry with other more popular terriers.

  • June 19, 2015 at 9:26 am

    Love the idea! Frankly I’m sick of any black and tan dog being labeled as part Rottie (as though that’s the only breed with that color pattern) and Boxer/Lab crosses being called a pit bull. SMH

    As long as traits are listed that’s all we really need. Knowing that this dog will need a job to be happy, that one will likely be high energy and a great jogging/fetch partner, and that one over there will be a couch potato who will shed–but will be a total love bug can increase adoption success.

  • June 17, 2015 at 1:22 am

    That is a great idea!! I have 3 dogs. They are all from a local shelter and mixed-breeds. Out of curiosity, I tested them for DNA. They turned out to be totally different from what they said at the shelter.

  • June 16, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    I have been wanting to do this for some time! What does the shelter do about Rabies certificates? Do they use the non public breed?

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