Why Shelters' Breed Labels Are a Problem



In shelters and rescues across the country, dogs are being misidentified in their breed labels—and that could be a big problem in finding forever homes for these pets.


A recent study conducted by the Arizona State University (ASU) Department of Psychology revealed that shelter staff accurately identified the primary or secondary breed of dogs just 67 percent of the time, and that accuracy rate dropped to 10 percent when more than one breed was identified. The impact that this high rate of breed misidentification can have on determining the adoptability of a dog cannot be underestimated. Consider, for example, a previous study that suggests dogs labeled as pit bulls may wait more than three times longer to be adopted than other breeds—findings that were echoed in ASU's research.


The study, which was published in the multidisciplinary peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE‚Äč, looked at more than 900 dogs housed at two shelters located in Phoenix and San Diego. Researchers compared the breed labels assigned by shelter staff based on appearance to the results of genetic testing conducted with Mars Veterinary's Wisdom Panel Canine DNA Test.


In addition to revealing a high rate of misidentification, the study also suggests that purebred dogs make up just five percent of the shelter dog population—a significant difference from the 25 percent figure that is often cited. In fact, dogs included in the study had, on average, three separate breeds in their ancestry, with some containing DNA signatures from as many as five breeds. In all, researchers identified 125 breeds through the study, with the most common being American Staffordshire terrier, Chihuahua and Poodle. 


Given the results, the authors of the study recommend that shelters stress personality profiles of individual dogs when promoting adoption, rather than breed profiles. This will not only mitigate the impact of potential misidentification, but also take into account the fact that behavior characteristics associated with specific breeds often does not manifest in dogs with a mixed ancestry. 


“The genetics of behavior is so complex that a dog who is a cross of two breeds might not behave much like the typical members of either of its parents’ families,” said researcher Clive Wynne. “Then you have a situation where breed-typing is worse than stereotyping members of our own species. Breed labels would be better dropped altogether.”


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