Best Friends Blog

Removing breed labels from adoptable pets

Bubba, a black and white pit-bull-terrier-type dogImagine walking down the row of kennels at your local shelter, admiring all of the dogs looking for a home. Each kennel card has the name of the dog and instead of what would be a shelter employee’s best guess of the breed, that field is either left blank or just says “mixed breed.”

Study after study over the last few years, thanks to the advent of affordable DNA testing for dogs, have confirmed what we’ve all believed for a long time: Visual identification of dog breeds is pure speculation, and incorrect most of the time.

That research has led many to question whether or not we’re doing a disservice to dogs in shelters by attempting to identify their breeds — and they may well be right. Inaccurate breed identification has two possible negative implications: one benign, the other not so much. On the benign side is the adopter who thinks she just brought home a basenji mix (based on the information on the shelter cage card) who, upon DNA testing, turns out to be a beagle and whippet mix. No big deal, unless the adopter really had her heart set on a basenji mix. The not-at-all-benign implication of inaccurate breed identification is those dogs misidentified as any one of a number of breeds that are perceived, based primarily on media hype, as dangerous, aggressive, yappy, nippy or whatever.

A movement is underway to better understand the role that knowing breed information has in the adoption process. Do adopters want to know breeds, no matter how speculative, or would they prefer a blank slate to which they can append their own label, or are they happy to simply get a “shelter dog”? Best Friends and others are currently conducting studies to see if removing speculative breed identification helps or hurts the adoption process. Some shelters around the country are already moving forward on this.

We certainly know that all dogs are individuals. But at the same time, breed information, as best as shelter employees know it, is often the only information that shelter staff have at their disposal to inform adopters about a particular dog. The shelter environment is stressful, and thanks to other studies, we know that the behaviors a dog displays in the shelter environment are not necessarily indicative of who that dog is. So on the one hand, abandoning what little information we have seems like a bad idea. But if our best guess turns off an adopter (and is more than likely incorrect), then maybe we shouldn’t be guessing.

Thanks to Maddie’s Fund, Best Friends is working on a study within our own adoption centers in Los Angeles and with some of our valued partners, including Pima County, Arizona. As the information is analyzed from those studies, we will definitely share the results with you.

In the meantime, what do you think? Should shelters be removing breed labels from adoptable dogs?

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Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • Julienne Miranda

    This is an all-around tough situation. On one hand, I agree with the point that misidentifying an adoptable dog as a certain breed could turn off adopters, but on the other hand I do not like the idea of giving no information to an adopter at all about an adoptable dog for fear of inaccuracy. I have adopted several animals from shelters myself and although I make sure to spend lots of time with an animal before I adopt them, I like to have as much written information on an animal as possible to help inform my decision.
    On the subject of certain breeds turning off adopters, this is less about identifying shelter dogs as certain breeds and more about dealing with a giant image problem that plagues certain breeds, the Pitbull being the most prominent example. I spent several years working at an animal shelter, and I had far less issues with pit bulls than I did with other breeds or mixes. However, the public has a negative perception of this breed and that needs to be changed. How do we get the public to conjure up an image of Pete the Pup from “Little Rascals” instead of an image of an aggressive dog that injures children and other animals? One way is repealing the ridiculous legislation that bans the breed from certain areas.
    Information needs to be given to adopters about the animals they are adopting. According to a quick Google search, a DNA test to determine the breed of a dog can be purchased for around sixty dollars. If there is some way to make it economically feasible for that test to be done on every shelter dog that would be ideal. If not, I would not be opposed to breed labels being done away with as long as shelters can provide a description of an adoptable dog’s physical appearance and temperament. I am curious to know what information people are most concerned with knowing about an adoptable dog before they adopt them.

  • Micarl Hill

    Francis – great article and thank you for bringing this forward for all to ponder. I for one – think a shelter rescue is a shelter rescue – breed or left blank – lets save them all! One after another. Well said and thank you.

  • GoneFishing

    I think that an a potential adopter should have all available information at their disposal before making the decsion to adopt. To not provide that information is a manipulative diservice in my opinion. It is without a doubt to the benefit of a certain class of dog only, and not helpful to the majority of other dogs at the shelter, further making any such decision to keep breed information from potential adopters rather questionable.

  • Jerry Edelman

    I believe one of the MOST HELPFUL issues you could address in this study is the impact of breed identification in shelters who are charged with enforcement of BSL Laws. I am convinced that because of this issue of misidentifications many innocent dogs are killed, not that any pet deserves to be killed in a shelter. So maybe one of your studies should involve shelters who enforce BSL.

  • Katrina

    I use online database searches when looking for adoptable (my phone autocorrected that to adorable) dogs. I like being able to narrow it down, but not by breed. I would love more information like long/short hair, upright/droopy ears, height, length, weight, color, and age, as well as temperament descriptions.

  • Tom Kirshbaum

    There was a feature in a dog magazine years ago that asked “experts” to identify dogs based on photographs. The “experts” were nearly always wrong. People are remarkably naive when it comes to dog breed info. My black Lab/redbone coonhound mix looks like a black Lab. People ask me if she is a pit bull! Add me to the group that says “mixed breed” is much better than a guess based on appearance. Then, bringing about a change in public perception which would make “mixed breed” or some similar name desirable would be best of all!

  • Karen Martiny

    I would love to see the term “mixed breed” used instead of inaccurate and possibly harmful breed designations at shelters and rescues. Our foster-home based rescue group, Animal Rescue of the Rockies, adopts out mostly “mixed breed” dogs, and we see all sorts of mistaken breed labels when we pull dogs from shelters.

  • mandy

    Wonder if more emphasis could be placed on some testing up front that would help describe the dog’s behavior/activity level. Likes to play fetch, quick learner, likes to cuddle, high energy or low energy…I like to think that having some information about potential major breed is helpful for instance for breeds that tend to require a lot of exercise but if information is incorrect, guess that’s iffy. So mixed breed option could be more truthful. I adopted what thought was primarily an Aussie from a rescue group, apparently more border collie which has tested my training abilities. But we’re learning.

  • Christie Veitch

    I’d like to see mixed become a positive consideration. what if mixed-breed or unknown breed rescued dogs were listed, enthusiastically, as “Wondermutt!” and the benefits of this were shared with potential adopters – “mixed breed dogs may have unique looks and have fewer chronic health issues than pure breed dogs” for instance.

    I brought home a 70lb blonde dog with distinctive yellow eyes and short, nearly velveteen fur and a hilarious, sweet, sensitive personality. With genetic testing we now know he is about 1/4 American Staffordshire, 1/4 Weimer/mixed, 1/4 Doberman (of all things!)/mixed and 1/4 “unknown/mixed.”

    I’ve since learned that his head is stereotypically “pit” in appearance and as a result have learned more than I meant to about pitbull prejudice and about how this breed isn’t really one, but rather a collection of appearance and behavior expectations that are often untrue!

    We sent pics of Cooper back to the rescue we adopted him from and staff had them on their desk. Potential adopters who had been in and out meeting dogs said, “How come you adopted him out before I got a chance to meet him. Blink, Blink. “You did see him and said he looked too ‘pit’ for you.”

    I’m so glad he got to come home with us and be my buddy but I do wonder if perceptions would’ve been more positive about him if there was an accepted practice of celebrating our wondermutt friends.