Guest post written by Stephanie Filer, Manager of Special Gifts & Partnerships, Animal Rescue League of Iowa.
A young newlywed recently asked us for help. She wanted to surprise her husband with a new dog for his birthday. Excited to assist, we created a gift that included a dog application with the words “APPROVED” on it and some dog toys. After she surprised him with the gift, they would come in to the shelter together to choose their first dog and new family member. (more…)
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!
As we travel around the country, having conversations with shelters and rescues about the “pit bull” dogs in their care, we find that there are always a few big a-ha! moments that help people understand that all dogs are individuals just a bit better.
One of the more exciting moments typically happens during our Labels & Language presentation where we discuss the role of breed labeling in shelters and the assumptions we make about dogs based on those labels.
Normal. In a world where we’re all jockeying to stand out from the crowd, being normal gets a bad rap. We confuse normal with ordinary and boring.
Those of us that love, live with, and advocate for “pit bull” dogs naturally see our dogs as anything but ordinary. In our minds, “pit bull” dogs are uniquely adorable, lovable, and loyal. They’re extraordinary and the world needs to know it!
Indiana Family. Photo credit: Humane Society for Hamilton County (Indiana) and Smiling Dog Photography
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.