What’s In A Name? For Some Shelter Dogs, It Could Mean Everything

Published: Friday, April 24, 2015 - 4:29pm
Updated: Friday, April 24, 2015 - 9:40pm
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(Photo by Jimmy Jenkins - KJZZ)
While dogs like Zini display pit bull-like traits, it's very difficult to determine a shelter dog's actual breed.

According to the ASPCA, approximately 4 million dogs enter animal shelters in the United States every year, but less than half of them are successfully adopted. New research suggests that labeling a dog a pit bull could reduce their chances for adoption.

Dr. Clive Wynne spends a lot of time thinking about dogs and their behavior — the kind of characteristics that can make a dog man’s best friend or potentially unadoptable. He runs the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University.

"Our mission is to better understand the relationship between people and their dogs and that extends into understanding the relationship between dogs and their wild ancestors," Wynne said.

Over time — Wynne thinks about 15,000 years — wolves evolved into the hundreds of breeds of dogs we know today. Through selective breeding, humans have assigned dogs different sets of traits and behaviors.

"So we know for example that Border Collies are a herding breed of dog and most border Collies given half a chance will round up anything else that’s in the house they’ll round up the cat they’ll round up the children right? That’s a typical herding dog behavior," said Wynne.

But other dogs were bred to display a more aggressive type of behavior
"The pit that the pit bull is named for is the fighting pit – where people threw dogs together to fight each other and some people, regrettably, still do," Wynne said.

While dog fighting is now less common, the stigma of a frightening, powerful, aggressive dog is still associated with pit bulls and their name. And that name is a heavy burden on the dogs — especially when they show up in a shelter.

"It can be difficult to place pit bull breeds because the negative stereotypes are very high," said Michael Morefield, shelter operations manager at the Animal Welfare League in Phoenix.

He said pit bulls have the highest euthanasia rates and the longest lengths of stay in Maricopa County shelters.

"Now pit bulls actually not a breed. It’s not a German Shepherd it’s not a Chesapeake bay retriever it’s not a dachshund it is a larger category and makes up about 25 different breeds" said Morefield.

So at the Animal Welfare League, when staff identify dogs, they use a more specific breed to describe a dog with pit bull characteristics, like American Staffordshire Terrier.

Most shelters can’t afford to DNA test every dog they receive, so they rely on an educated staff to label breeds based on physical characteristics.

"It’s just very difficult because there are so many mixed breeds that you are basically ascribing characteristics of a pure bred animal to something that could be third, fourth, fifth generation mixed breed and then trying to determine that just by looking at it," said Morefield.

Aside from being difficult, labeling a shelter dog a specific breed can also have a major effect on a dog’s adoptability.

Lisa Gunter studies shelters like the Animal Welfare League for her research on at the Canine Science Collaboratory.

She said a shelter in Florida recently removed breed labels from their kennel cards and from their online adoption profiles.
"We looked at over 17,000 records from the year before when they had breed labels to when they got rid of breed labels and we looked at the dogs adoption numbers and length of stay," said Gunter.

She says the result were dramatic.

"We found that with adoptions the pit bull dogs, their adoptions increased by 72 percent and all dogs in the shelter in every breed group – that was akc breed groups – increased. So that was fantastic. Yt wasn’t just that pit bulls benefited but everybody benefited," Gunter said.

Gunter acknowledges that not all shelters may be inclined to remove breed labels because they serve as a kind of useful shorthand, but her research suggests they may be doing more harm than good.

Wynne said when you take the emphasis off the breed and you let people focus on the behavioral characteristics of an individual dog, the opportunities for a connection and a successful adoption will increase.

"Don’t let yourself be swayed largely, or perhaps at all by the label that says this dog is in principle that breed that breed or whatever. Actually meet Fido, you know, give him a chance!" Wynne said.

Because there’s so much more to Fido than a name.

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