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'Pit Bulls' Often Misidentified At Shelters, Study Finds

Feb 19, 2016 04:30 PM EST

Vicious is one of the first misconceptions that comes to mind when people think "pit bull." But this is a terrible stereotype, and unfortunately because of this label the dogs have a difficult time finding a home. What's worse is shelter workers often mistakenly identify dogs as pit bulls, further reducing their chances of being adopted, according to a recent DNA study from the University of Florida. 

"Animal shelter staff and veterinarians are frequently expected to guess the breed of dogs based on appearance alone," Julie Levy, lead author of the study and a professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida (UF) College of Veterinary Medicine, said in a news release. "Unlike many other things people can't quite define but 'know when they see it,' identification of dogs as pit bulls can trigger an array of negative consequences, from the loss of housing, to being seized by animal control, to the taking of the dog's life."

"Pit bull" is not actually a breed, but rather a term applied to dogs derived from the heritage breeds American Staffordshire terrier or Staffordshire bull terrier. The purebred American pit bull terrier is also derived from these breeds and is often included in the loose definition of "pit bull."

For the most part, pit bulls are just mutts that happen to have an intimidating, blocky-shaped head. And there is no evidence that they are any more dangerous than other dog breeds. Nonetheless, attempts to increase public safety within the last few decades have put restrictions on what breeds pet owners can have, including pit bulls. 

"In the high-stakes world of animal shelters, a dog's life might depend on a potential adopter's momentary glimpse and assumptions about its suitability as a pet. If the shelter staff has labeled the dog as a pit bull, its chances for adoption automatically go down in many shelters," Levy added. 

For their study, researchers focused on how accurately shelter staff identified dogs believed to be pit bulls. They evaluated breed assessments of 120 dogs made by 16 shelter staff members, including four veterinarians, at four shelters -- all of whom had at least three years of experience working in a shelter environment. Next, researchers took blood samples from the dogs, developed DNA profiles for each animal and compared the DNA findings against the staff's breed assignments. Surprisingly, different shelter staffers who evaluated the same dogs at the same time could barely agree on what breed to assign the respective dogs to. 

"Essentially we found that the marked lack of agreement observed among shelter staff members in categorizing the breeds of shelter dogs illustrates that reliable inclusion or exclusion of dogs as 'pit bulls' is not possible, even by experts," Levy explained in the university's release. "These results raise difficult questions because shelter workers and veterinarians are expected to determine the breeds of dogs in their facilities on a daily basis. Additionally, they are often called on as experts as to whether a dog's breed will trigger confiscation or regulatory action. The stakes for these dogs and their owners are in many cases very high."

Dogs with pit bull heritage breed DNA were correctly identified only 33 to 75 percent of the time, depending on which of the staff members was judging them, researchers say. What's worse is dogs lacking any genetic evidence of relevant breeds were labeled as pit bull-type dogs from 0 to 48 percent of the time. Shelter staffers were even less accurate when relying on appearance alone. 

"A dog's physical appearance cannot tell observers anything about its behavior. Even dogs of similar appearance and the same breed often have diverse behavioral traits in the same way that human siblings often have very different personalities," Levy added. "Shelters and veterinary clinics are better off entering 'mixed breed' or 'unknown' in their records unless the actual pedigrees are available."

As for legal restrictions on dogs based on their appearance, Levy said public safety would be better served by reducing risk factors for dog bites, such as supervising children, increased education on canine body language, avoiding an unfamiliar dog in its territory, neutering dogs and raising puppies to be social companions. 

Their study was recently published in The Veterinary Journal.

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