One Small Change Could Save The Lives Of Thousands Of Pit Bulls

A new study suggests we're condemning shelter dogs just by labeling them.

Our biases against pit bulls are so detrimental, according to new research, that they may even affect other dog breeds in adoption shelters.

The pit bull label, which encompasses a number of breeds, is often seen as synonymous with aggressive and potentially violent behavior -- an inaccurate portrayal, according to scores of previous studies

But many other dog breeds simply resemble pit bulls in appearance, even if they don't have any genetic pit bull ancestry. Since many shelters label dogs based solely on appearance, dogs that appear similar to pit bulls are often mislabeled.

The new research, published in the journal PLOS One last week, found that stereotypes against pit bulls are so strong that mislabeling -- or, in fact, any labeling -- in shelter settings can carry serious consequences.

"We were surprised how very similar looking dogs sometimes get labelled 'pit bull' and other times as something completely different," Lisa Gunter, a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "These dogs may look and act the same, but the pit bull label damns them to a much longer wait to adoption."

Who could say no to this face?
Who could say no to this face?

The research involved a series of studies, intended to gauge the effect of breed labeling on potential adopters.

In the most revealing study, researchers presented potential adopters at an Arizona shelter with similar videos of both pit bulls and lookalike breeds that were up for adoption.

The researchers, from Arizona State University, manipulated the labels of the dogs -- sometimes labeling the pit bulls as such and sometimes not labeling them -- and asked the participants to score the dogs on several criteria like attractiveness and adoptability. 

The researchers found that when no breed labels were included, the pit bulls were actually seen as more attractive on average than the lookalikes. But, when labeled, pit bulls were seen as less attractive than when they were presented without labels.

The researchers wrote in their study:

"The results of these manipulations suggest that pit bull breed labels may have the ability to negatively influence perceptions of potential adopters during decision-making processes. ... [T]he disparity in how long the dogs remained at the shelter waiting for adoption may have been influenced in part by the perception of the label."

In fact, the researchers discovered, when labeled, pit bulls stayed in shelters three times longer than lookalike breeds, even though survey participants rated unlabeled photos of the dogs similarly.

A sample of photos used in the study. Pit-bull-type breeds appear on the left and lookalike dogs of different breeds appear o
A sample of photos used in the study. Pit-bull-type breeds appear on the left and lookalike dogs of different breeds appear on the right.

This disparity has life-threatening consequences. Pit bulls are among the dogs that are euthanized most frequently, Esquire magazine reported in 2014, noting that out of around 1.2 million dogs that U.S. shelters have to kill each year, anywhere from 800,000 to nearly 1 million are pit bulls.

Considering how easy it can be for shelters to mislabel lookalike breeds as pit bulls and how deep our biases are against the pit bull label, the Arizona State University researchers offered a very simple solution in their new study: Don't label any dogs up for adoption.  

They noted that Orange County Animal Services in Florida recently did just that and saw positive results. Comparing the adoption data from when breed labels were included and after they were removed, they found more pit bulls were adopted after labels were removed and their time in the shelter decreased.

The researchers concluded that treating pit bulls and all other dogs as individuals, rather than letting our biases come into play, can save more shelter dogs overall.



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