Guest post written by Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center in Austin, TX.
In 2008, Dr. Amy Marder wrote, “Instead of depending on inaccurate breed labels, we want people to choose their future companions based on accurate personality profiles.” To this end, she introduced the idea of using “American Shelter Dog” in place of a breed label because, as she said, “The problem is that breed identity elicits behavioral expectations on the part of the new owner, even though researchers have found enormous behavioral variability within all breeds.”
Eight years later, the word is finally getting out: The labels we assign to shelter dogs are both highly inaccurate and can result in dogs waiting longer to find a home. A recent study, titled, “What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions and Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions and Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs” revealed that length of stay and outcomes for all dogs was negatively impacted by labels on kennel cards and suggests that breed labeling influences potential adopters’ perceptions and decision-making.
The research confirmed two important points:
- In some areas, the public may have negative perceptions of “pit bull” dogs that impact adoption rates. In our experience, this is different in each community. In some areas, people are lining up to adopt “pit bull” dogs.
- Breed labels can have negative implications on the adoption process for all dogs.
More importantly, thanks to another body of research, it is also proven beyond a doubt that breed labeling, based on visual identification, is not accurate.
This solid body of research can help shelters make two important changes to increase both the quantity and the quality of adoptions for all dogs:
Improve marketing for all pets, including “pit bull” dogs: marketing efforts must be improved in order to help the public get to know the individual dogs in the shelter’s care, which includes shining a light on “pit bull” dogs. By helping the public to see the millions of happy “pit bull” dog families we can help combat lingering stereotypes and misinformation. Looking for ways to market all dogs more effectively? See my recent articles: here and here.
Remove breed labels for all dogs: by doing away with inaccurate guesses, we remove information that is unreliable, yet perceived by the public as fact. Instead, we can work to get to know our adopters and determine what kind of personality traits they’d like in a dog, then help them find the individual dog that best meets their needs. With nearly 75% of all dogs in shelters being mixed breed, we can’t rely on breed standards based on our inaccurate breed guesses, to assess which dogs are the right matches. Getting to know both the people and the dogs will lead to better adoptions for every family.
We look forward to the day when shelter software allows us to label dogs like these puppies as “mixed breed”, rather than labeling them with a guess.
Why are breed labels so misleading? For both the public and the shelter workers, breed labels come with a set of expectations, generalizations and stereotypes. These assumptions typically set unreasonable expectations for shelter dogs and can have detrimental effects on adoptions. It is not unusual for dogs of all kinds to be returned when they don’t meet the adopter’s assumptions about how that dog should behave, based solely on the breed label that was assigned at intake. By removing the breed, we open the door to more accurate conversations.
To further increase accuracy in our communications, we can remove breed labels from our “lost” pet listings, too. When shelters assign a breed label to stray dogs this can delay or thwart the dog being reclaimed by their owners who may have labeled their dog a different breed mix. The more accurate approach is to focus on the physical description of the dog: color, weight, any identifying characteristics, where the dog was found, etc.
However, the remaining hurdle for most shelters is that most shelter software systems still require us to select a predominate breed, even when we don’t know. And when we don’t know, too often we go with catch-all phrases like ‘pit bull mix’ or ‘lab mix.’ Our software systems do not allow us to select ‘unknown’ or even ‘mixed breed’ despite the plethora of research on the problems with guessing and labeling. This means shelters are stuck with using these labels on kennel cards, adoption contracts, and other official paperwork.
The good news is that as we now understand how inaccurate and possibly damaging those labels are, more and more shelters are pushing back on the limitations imposed by shelter software.
Despite the fact that breed labels couldn’t be removed entirely, several shelters across the United States, including Orange County Animal Services and my previous shelter in Fairfax County, Virginia, stopped using labels on our kennel cards. At the Fairfax County Animal Shelter, we saw an immediate increase in adoptions as our customers got to know dogs without being influenced by a label guess.
To further help our community understand this change, we quit using breed labels in our social media posts and put the emphasis of telling the unique stories of each of our dogs. At my current shelter, Austin Animal Center in Austin, Texas, we’ve seen an increase in adoptions since we dropped the labels off our kennel cards in late 2015.
We also changed how we speak about our dogs, and adopters are embracing us as the experts on this topic. When someone asks us, “What breed is that dog?” instead of making a guess and probably being wrong, we say, “The vast majority of our dogs are of mixed breed heritage and when we guess a breed, we’re often wrong.” People really do understand this and they appreciate our honesty.
If there are concerns about housing restrictions or other breed discriminatory policies, we always address those potential issues openly with adopters. This approach is about being accurate and honest about what we know and do not know. If there are concerns that a dog may be perceived as a restricted breed by another member of the community, such as animal control or landlord, we address this. Removing breed guesses doesn’t restrict information, it opens the doorway to more accurate, in-depth conversations.
One of many wonderful mixed breed dogs, of unknown origin, who arrived at our shelter.
To learn why we changed how we talked about breed, check out this earlier post on the subject. Published last summer, it will tell you how you can make immediate changes in your shelter to increase adoptions, shorten length of stay and help every dog in your care be seen for who she is, not her label.
Thankfully, some shelter software companies are hearing the message that shelters want to have the discretion to choose a ‘mixed breed’ or ‘unknown’ label for dogs of unknown heritage (the vast majority of dogs in shelters today). They’re asking questions and are looking for ways to overcome the obstacles that have prevented this change in the past. It seems likely shelters will be able to choose not to use breed labels in the relatively near future.
The bottom line is we have nothing to gain by perpetuating subjective labels as accurate or even helpful information. In recent weeks, shelters such as the Arizona Animal Welfare League and Dallas Animal Services have announced they would remove all breed labels from their kennel cards. They join the growing numbers of shelters nationwide who are no longer perpetuating guesses at breed or breed mix as reliable information.
There are still many challenges and obstacles to overcome for shelters and dog owners in our communities, but soon I predict we will have won another victory for all dogs when we are no longer required to label shelter dogs with inaccurate breed labels.
Want to hear more about this? Join me and Caitlin Quinn (Director of Operations at HeARTs Speak, Inc.), speaking on behalf of Animal Farm Foundation, at the Humane Society of the United States Animal Care Expo this May. We’ll be telling you how to save more lives by changing how you think and talk about breeds and sharing tips for how you can remove breed from the equation now. Removing breed labels is easier than you think and soon we hope it will be even easier!
This is a guest post from Kristen Auerbach, Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer at Austin Animal Center. At the time of this post, she was with Fairfax County Animal Shelter in VA.
About a month ago, Fairfax County Animal Shelter removed all breed labels from our adoption kennels. There was much discussion and debate prior to us making this decision. Would the public be confused? Angry? Would community members protest?
We were committed to being honest with potential adopters. If the dog they were interested in might be visually identified as a breed that faces restriction, we would make them aware that breed specific laws or housing rules could affect them.
But was that enough? Would taking breed labels off our kennels prove too disruptive to serve our purpose?
To our surprise, no one even asked why the kennel cards weren’t labeled with breeds.
We also learned that no matter what the kennel card says, potential adopters, volunteers and staff will make guesses. And they’re usually going to disagree with each other about those guesses.
Brownie and his new family
We did notice an increase in people asking us about the breed of a particular dog. This turned out to be a good thing. The question provides the perfect opening for a staff person or volunteer to talk about the inaccuracy of breed labeling and the importance of getting to know each dog as an individual with its own unique personality traits.
Now that we’ve removed the labels from the kennel cards, we’ll be working with our shelter software system to remove the breed labels from our ‘adoptable’ pets list so dogs will be described only with their names, ages and personality profiles.
Our journey to do away with breed labels began about a year ago, when we stopped referring to dogs as ‘pit bulls’ or ‘Staffordshire terriers’ on our social media platforms. Between 2013 and 2014, adoptions of dogs visually identified as ‘pit bulls’ quadrupled and we knew we were on to something big. We talked about the individual dog’s personality, quirks, sociability with other dogs and people, but we stopped talking about breed.
We did this because we know the term ‘pit bull’ does not describe any breed of dog. Rather, it’s a subjective label that means different things to different people and has no basis in science or genetics. In our mission to get our adopters to see the dog not the label, and in the interest of full disclosure, the most honest thing we could do when describing our dogs was to simply say, “We don’t know what the breed or breed mix is.”
A happy new FCAS family
Things got a little more complicated when we stopped labeling all dogs, because we would all stand in front of a dog, and a staff member would say, “That IS a purebred Dachshund” or Rottweiler or whatever they thought it was. But, we asserted, the vast majority of dogs in our shelter are of mixed breed heritage and unless we have indisputable proof a dog came from a breeder and has a documented pedigree, we don’t know for sure. And even then, how does a breed label, any breed label help a dog get a home?
People are going to make their own visual breed identification whether it’s written on a kennel card or not. It simply isn’t necessary nor is it honest for us to present our guesses of any breed as if they are fact.
At our shelter, we’re having a lot of success focusing on the dog, not the perceived breed. But each animal welfare organization has its own challenges and in some places, not labeling is impossible because of breed specific legislation or breed-based adoption restrictions. What then?
It’s up to us, as advocates, no matter what our particular situation, to start explaining to people that breed labels are subjective, not based in science and that when we, as animal welfare professionals guess, we guess wrong at least 50% and often 75% of the time. We should be telling people that the vast majority of dogs in our shelters are mutts or mixed breeds and that the way they look says nothing reliable about their behavior.
Jasper and his new family
If you are at a shelter or rescue where putting an end to breed labeling is a possibility, consider trying the following and tracking the results. You may be surprised at the immediate changes in your adoption numbers.
1. Stop using breed labels in social media posts. In some cases, a breed label gives your followers a quick reason to say no and keep scrolling. Instead, for a week, just tell the story of each particular dog. People love stories and it helps them connect with dogs they otherwise might be drawn to.
2. Remove the breed labels from your kennel cards for one week and see what happens. Make sure to spread the word to volunteers and staff so you can be on the same page with potential adopters.
3. Ask your shelter software provider if they can remove breed labels from adoptable dogs online. We use a provider that is able to remove the public labels on adoptable dogs (even though they will not remove the breed labels entirely).
4. Role play with staff and volunteers about how to respond when a visitor says, “What breed is it?” Not sure what to say? The truth works: “We’re not sure! The vast majority of our dogs are of mixed-breed origin and when we guess we are often wrong.”
5. It’s human nature to put things into categories and most of us label dogs by breed, even if it’s for a purely functional reason, like asking someone to, “Go adopt that Maltese.” Challenge yourself and your colleagues to find non-breed descriptors for your dogs.
It takes a lot of practice to break the breed labeling habit, but you can do it!
For more information on breed identification please see the National Canine Research Council’s website and the Animal Farm Foundation infographic, All Dogs Are Individuals.
And for more on Fairfax County Animal Shelter’s progressive and effective adoption policies, please see No Restrictions, Just Success.
The following is an updated version of a blog posted in 2013.
In 2015, we’re still being asked: What role should breed – breed identification and breed labeling – play in today’s animal shelters?
Thanks to years of research we all know about the inaccuracy of breed labeling based on visual inspection, so perhaps the question should be: Why aren’t more shelters removing breed labeling?
In 2014, Orange County Animal Services (OCAS) in Florida, removed breed labels from its kennel cards and website. A year later OCAS, a municipal shelter, has seen an increase in adoptions. The same goes for Capital Area Humane Society in Lansing, Michigan where breed was removed from their kennel cards. Instead the cards focus on sharing information about the individual dog. Progressive shelters can and do remove breed labels…without any backlash from the public.
But why bother?
Because too many dogs are mislabeled with inaccurate guesses, too many assumptions and predictions about behavior are made based on behavior traits associated with the assigned breed label, and too many dogs are unfairly penalized for the breed label they’re given. Shelters need to recognize and work to counter this.
When shelters label dogs of unknown origin they are making a guess. But that’s not how adopters interpret the label. They perceive the breed label as fact. And in our society, we still equate breed label with implied behavior. So adopters are being (unintentionally) mislead into thinking that the label means something about the dog’s behavior. But that just isn’t the case. Our guesses at breed label are not accurate predictors of anything.
Shelters can and should be more clear with the public, so that our guesses at breed are not interpreted as accurate predictors of behavior.
We also know that the context in which we present dogs to the public shapes how they are perceived, this includes breed label and setting. In Lisa Gunter’s 2012 study, it was confirmed that the setting in which we view dogs – in particular, who is standing next to them – can dramatically influence how people perceive the dogs. So the context in which we view all dogs (not just “pit bull” dogs), shapes how potential adopters perceive the dogs.
Our job is to help the public see the dog that’s right in front of them.
That means helping them see the individual dog, free of prejudice, stereotypes, and assumptions that are based on a known pedigree, a breed label guess, physical appearance, or their past history.
While some shelters continue to guess at breeds or sink resources into DNA testing their dogs (note that even a DNA test on a mixed breed dog doesn’t predict behavior), the sustainable solution isn’t that we need to get better or work harder at identifying breeds or breed labeling the dogs. It’s to focus on seeing all dogs as individuals.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
It can be a challenge for all of us to think outside the breed box, so we’d like to address some common questions and concerns. Here are our most frequently asked questions regarding breed and breed traits in animal shelters:
Isn’t it important to know a dog’s breed, so we can share their breed traits and then adopters will know what to expect? Aren’t breed traits just more information to share with adopters?
Breed traits most certainly exist. However, how breed traits present themselves in dogs, particularly in mixed breed dogs of unknown origins (the majority of dogs found in our shelter system), varies tremendously. Therefore, a guess at how a breed trait may or may not manifest itself in a dog is not nearly as reliable as the information shelters can gather by observing the dogs in their care. If you observe breed traits, share them with the adopter. If you don’t observe them, don’t assume they’re there.
Please note that breed traits don’t apply to mixed breed dogs. Mixed breed dogs are not any breed of dog at all. Pure breed dogs are bred from closed gene pools. Mixed breed dogs are not from closed or coherent gene pools and cannot be considered a member of any breed. They have more in common genetically with ALL dogs, then any one breed in particular.
And remember that breed is just one part of any individual dog – as is their socialization, training, genetics, environment, etc. Traits related to breed are not the whole dog. The whole dog is the individual. Breed traits are a just a possible slice of the pie.
No matter what a dog’s breed or mix may be, when we give equal or more weight to breed traits, rather than focusing on what we’ve observed about a dog’s individual needs, we can hinder their chances at a successful match. Get to know the whole dog.
When dogs are improperly identified, do we cause problems for the adopters and/or the dogs? Will adopters think we’re trying pass off “pit bull” dogs as other breeds and stop trusting us?
We believe that honesty is the best policy. The majority of dogs in shelters are mixed breed dogs. Research tells us that visual identification of mixed breed dogs is highly inaccurate. Unless you know what a dog’s breed mix is for sure – you know the parents or have paperwork – speculating about the possible breed mix is just a guess.
If you wish to be 100% completely honest with your adopters, tell them the truth: you aren’t sure what the breed mix might be. Most importantly, tell them the truth about the dog’s actual behavior based on your observations and evaluations. Remember, people are adopting a DOG, not a breed. How that dog behaves is the key to a good match for potential adopters.
If the adopters notice physical markings or certain behaviors that lead them to believe a dog might be a certain breed (for example: a black mark on the dog’s tongue has them guessing he might be a Chow mix), be honest in your response by acknowledging that it is a possibility. Here’s an example of how you might respond: “Yes, it is possible this dog might have some Chow in there, though we don’t know for sure. How do you feel about that? Would that be ok with your landlord?”
If you’re concerned about someone else (an insurance company, Animal Control, etc.) identifying the dog as a “pit bull”, let the adopters know this is a possibility and determine how that may affect them legally. Be aware of any potential breed restrictions in your community and give resources to educate your adopters about these realities.
Share what you know for sure and be clear about what’s a guess. They will appreciate your honesty.
Lots of the dogs we see have the characteristics of a “pit bull”, so shouldn’t they be identified as a pit bull or pit mix?
To begin with, there is no agreed upon or standard definition of a “pit bull.” The phrase “pit bull” means something different to everyone and varies from one shelter to the next. So, the use of that label, “pit bull” is subjective – it’s an opinion, not a breed or a fact.
If all you have is a visual inspection and no pedigree, then you’re guessing at a dog’s breed or breed mix when you choose to label them as “pit bulls”. You can label the dogs however you choose, but be careful not to make behavior predictions based on this guess and don’t imply to adopters that a label accurately indicates anything about a dog’s suitability for adoption or what kind of home he needs.
The label doesn’t change the dog, but often the labels will change how we perceive the dog.
Each dog is an individual. Help adopters to see past labels and get to know the dog’s actual pet qualities.
Should we DNA test the dogs in our shelter to find out?
No, we do not recommend that shelters give their dogs DNA tests to determine its breed or breed mix. Dog behavior is a complex mix of nature and nurture and knowing a dog’s DNA is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s just another tool in the toolbox. Shelters are in the business of adopting out companion animals and the only way to know if a dog is going to be a good companion is to get to know that individual dog. Shelters are better off spending their time and money getting to know the dogs in their care.
We want to call our dogs of unknown origins “mixed breed” or “American Shelter Dogs”, but the shelter software doesn’t give us that option. How should we label the dogs?
You may be forced to pick a primary breed in shelter software, but you can make other notes on their profiles that explain that this is just a guess. We use this language on Petfinder:
The petfinder.com system requires that we choose a predominant breed or breed mix for our dogs. Visual breed identification in dogs is unreliable so for most of the dogs we are only guessing at predominant breed or breed mix. We get to know each dog as an individual and will do our best to describe each of our dogs based on personality, not by breed label.
Feel free to copy and use it! We even have free posters and kennel cards with this info to help get the conversation going with adopters.
In 2015 Hillsborough County Animal Services Pet Resource Center in Florida created large, weather-proof banners with this information to help adopters understand that the labels they see are just guesses.
In the past, we thought that we needed to get better at breed labeling dogs, but Dr. Voith’s research showed us that we cannot get better at it. And Dr. Marder and Janis Bradley taught us that there is behavior variability within each breed, and even more among breed mixes, so that we cannot predict a dog’s behavior based on breed alone.
It’s clear that rather than trying to get better at guessing dog breed labels, the focus should be on gathering information about each individual dog as a whole. If shelters do choose to breed label dogs, they must make it clear to the public that they cannot accurately predict future behaviors based on those labels.
Put the focus on getting to know the dogs. What we discover about a dog’s personality will be far more valuable to adopters than any label.