Petfinder Listings Show Absurdity of Visual Breed Identification



This post was originally written in 2013. It has been updated with additional commentary.

We were elated last year when Petfinder added “mixed breed” as a primary identifier option for the dogs listed on their site. It was a big move toward science and a huge step away from inaccurate labels and inherent bias.

Subjective breed labeling still happens on the site because it’s still happening in shelters. Plus, the general public loves to play the “what is this dog?” guessing game – and we admit, the game can be fun! But animal welfare workers have a responsibility to be as accurate as possible. You can’t be accurate when you visually identify a dog.

The term “pit bull” dog has become a catchall term that doesn’t even apply to a standard of visual characteristics. Sometimes, the term seems to be applied at random. That’s why we put it in quotes.

Here’s a collection of dogs that we pulled from Petfinder in 2013. All dogs were given the label of “pit bull.”


From Saving Paws of WA: listed as Pit Bull Terrier

Is it just us or do these dogs look really different?


From Grateful Dogs Rescue, CA: Listed as American Staffordshire Terrier and Pit Bull Terrier Mix


From Homestretch Hounds, OH: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix


From Philadelphia SPCA, PA: listed as Pit Bull Terrier and Plott Hound Mix

What is happening here?


From Villalobos Rescue, LA: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix


From Rocket Dog Rescue, CA: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix.


From Saving Paws of WA: listed as Pit Bull Terrier


From Manchester Animal Care and Control CT: listed as Pit Bull Terrier and English Bulldog mix.


From Poughkeepsie Animal Care and Control, NY: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix


From Oregon Humane Society: Listed as Pit Bull Terrier Mix

We can’t go on! It’s too much! 

Do some of these dogs have similar characteristics? Sure. All dogs have similar characteristics! Inherent bias doesn’t only exist in what we think a label means, it also exists in the process of applying the label. We see what we expect to see – and what most people expect to see in shelters is a “pit bull” dog. (Here’s where we’d typically explain self-fulfilling prophecies, but you’re smart. You already get it.)

Some of the shelters listed here have removed breed labels since the original publication of this blog. It’s important to note that not all software gives people the option that Petfinder now gives, some animal welfare professionals have no choice but to guess at a dog’s breed due to the software system they use. So there’s absolutely no shade from us at the shelters listed here.

Here’s the important thing to remember

A dog’s label, right or wrong, doesn’t tell us who they are or how they will behave. This is true whether we are accurate or not in our labeling. This is true whether the dog is a pure breed or a mixed breed dog. The labels we assign to dogs don’t tell us what they need as an individual or whether or not they are safe to live in our communities. 

We cannot accurately predict a dog’s future behavior based on breed or breed label alone. Dogs are complex individuals whose behaviors are influenced by a number of external and internal factors.

You can call your dog whatever you want (we won’t judge you even if you call him a farty-butt), but when it comes to dogs in general, we owe it to them to see them as individuals, not as labels.

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