A new DNA study led by Dr. Julie Levy, a professor of shelter medicine at UF College of Veterinary Medicine, has shown that many dogs who have been identified by shelter staff as “pit bulls” are actually mislabeled. “Pit bull” has long been the label given to any dog who has American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, or Staffordshire Bull Terrier heritage.
In the study, DNA samples were taken from 120 dogs who had been assessed by 16 shelter staffers at four shelters, including four veterinarians. The results showed that dogs with pit bull heritage were correctly identified 33-75% of the time, while dogs who had none of the DNA were mislabeled as pit bulls 0-48% of the time. The study also showed that even though the staffers all had at least three years of experience, there was marked disagreement among them in their assessments.
Correctly identifying a dog’s breed heritage is tricky, and having seen DNA test results for many dogs, I can tell you they are often surprising based on the visual presentation of the dog. The thing is, if a poodle is assessed incorrectly in a shelter, that misidentification is not going to cost the dog his life. Years ago, while volunteering at a busy Los Angeles city shelter, I encountered a woman with her young child perusing the row of pens. They seemed to be enamored of one beautiful, frisky dog who was wagging his tail so hard his entire butt wiggled. He was happily licking the smiling child’s hands through the bars. When the woman asked what breed the dog was, I told her it was an American Staffordshire Terrier. With a look of concern, she asked, “Is that a pit bull?” I smiled and said yes. Aghast, she immediately stepped back from the bars, pushing her child behind her. They moved on, and that friendly, wonderful, adoptable dog was left to face the odds.
Having co-run Villalobos Rescue Center many years ago, which is now the largest pit bull rescue in the country, I can tell you that while many people absolutely adore pit bulls and know them to be the loyal, loving, tolerant companions they often are, just as many have a knee jerk reaction to hearing the very name. News stories of pit bull attacks only fuel the fire. Of course, an aggressive pit bull can do a lot of damage; you don’t often hear the headline, “Tiny Chihuahua bites man on leg!” In the pit bull’s case, the fact that the aggressive dog belonged to an irresponsible owner, or worse, was encouraged to be aggressive by the owner, never seems to be the thing people remember.
You truly can’t judge an individual dog by their breed. I’m not suggesting that shelter staffers purposely not label a pit bull as what it is, but that when that assessment is made, based on the fact that it could mean a potential death sentence, another educated staff member should lay eyes on the dog. Temperament tests are being done in more and more shelters and, assuming they are conducted correctly by experienced personnel, should be the standard of judgment regarding adoptability. The other piece is educating the public. Because so many shelters are flooded with pit bulls, and the euthanasia rate is incredibly high, having posters at shelters explaining “What is a pit bull?” and what to expect from their behavior, including facts and fallacies, would be a great start. In the meantime, let’s look beyond looks and judge dogs by the deed, not the breed.
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