Guest Post: What Breed is That Doggy in the Shelter Window?

Guest Post: What Breed is That Doggy in the Shelter Window?

This post is written and provided by Lisa Gunter, MA. Lisa is a PhD student at Arizona State University in the Department of Psychology and conducts her research under the mentorship of Clive Wynne in the Canine Science Collaboratory. She has presented her research at numerous conferences including the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Interdisciplinary Forum for Applied Animal Behavior, the Veterinary Behavior Symposium and the International Society of Anthrozoology.

Doggy in the Shelter Window_

What Breed is That Doggy in the Shelter Window?

Chihuahua. Chow Chow. Pointer. Irish Wolfhound. When thinking about unique breeds and the range of physical differences that exist with man’s best friend, it’s hard to believe that a tiny toy lap dog and another that’s as tall as a human are of the same species [1].

For centuries, we’ve bred dogs for the purpose of aiding us in our work, such as in hunting (Labradors), herding (German Shepherd), and livestock protection (Great Pyrenees) [2]. Our influence on how dogs look and act brings along with it expectations about different dog breeds. When I say “Golden Retriever,” you likely think of a fluffy blonde dog that enjoys playing with children. When I mention a Border Collie, you probably imagine a wickedly smart black & white dog that plays fetch for hours.

In the United States, there are a little over 80 million dogs living with us with 20% of those dogs adopted from shelters [3]. As many of you have experienced firsthand, the way animal shelters operate today has changed from what homeless animals experienced just fifteen years ago. Before 2000, dogs usually stayed on average for about 10 days at the shelter. Then, over half were euthanized, and the others were either adopted or redeemed [4]. Today, the situation is better. While almost 4 million dogs are entering animal shelters each year, only 30% are euthanized [5]. While we’re pleased with these improvements, one of our main foci of research in the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University is to further increase adoptions and reduce euthanasia rates for pet dogs.

Given the importance placed on appearance in our culture, it should come as no surprise that looks matter in canine adoption, too! Researchers from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) [6] found that appearance was the single most important reason people gave for why they adopted the dog they did. In our own lab we found that when potential adopters were presented with photographs of dogs that had been either adopted or euthanized they were able to distinguish which dogs had met which fate solely because the adopted dogs were more attractive than those that had ended up euthanized [7].

The Pit Bull Label

If you work in animal sheltering, you’ve likely heard of the term “pit bull.” While there is a specific breed of dog known as the American Pit Bull Terrier, more conventionally this label has been applied to many breeds that are short-haired, muscular and blocky-headed such as American and English bulldogs, Staffordshire bull terriers and American Staffordshire terriers as well as mixes of these types of dogs [8].

Recent studies into dog adoption [11, 7, 12-13] have found breed to be associated with different outcomes, including but not limited to increased euthanasia and length of stay. With the big role that physical appearance plays in dog selection, our lab was interested in understanding how breed labels could influence how attractive a dog seemed to be.

So what is the basis for the negative perceptions about pit bulls? The pit bull terrier does have a past that includes bullbaiting and dogfighting (which still occurs illegally in some areas of the US), and reports of aggression towards humans, specifically dog bite injuries and even deaths, have likely contributed to the unfavorable public opinion of these dogs as well [14-18]. Yet while an association may exist between certain types of dogs and aggression towards people, the reliability of breed characterizations in positively identifying dogs involved in these types of incidents is hotly debated [8, 19].

Labels vs. DNA Analysis

Photo by Erin Bessey

Photo by Erin Bessey

Which leads us to wonder what breeds of dogs are there shelters? It’s a more complicated question than it may appear, because breed assignment is usually based on the way the dog looks. Yet, researchers from Western University of Health Sciences [20-21] have found discrepancies between breed identification and the results of DNA analysis, and researchers in Florida found at one shelter that 50% of dogs that were labeled as belonging to a pit-bull-type breed lacked the DNA breed signature [22].

In our own lab, we’re wrapping up a multi-shelter study using the MARS Wisdom Panel. While it’s too early to talk about our specific findings, what we can say is that these shelter dogs show a range of breed diversity (over 150 breeds were identified at each shelter!), there are much fewer purebreds than we anticipated, most dogs have more than two breeds in their breed heritage and correctly identifying the breeds of a mixed breed dog via visual identification alone is an extremely difficult task.

Canine Science Symposium

Research questions like the ones I’ve mentioned here are just some of the questions we attempt to answer in the Canine Science Collboratory. If you enjoy learning about the latest research in canine science, you may want to consider attending our Canine Science Symposium. Now in its fourth year, the Symposium will be taking place at the San Francisco SPCA on April 16 & 17.

2016_website_square_imageWhile most of the speakers at the Canine Science Symposium are former or current students of Clive Wynne (the director of the Canine Science Collboratory), our research interests are diverse as evidenced by this year’s Symposium topics. Our presentations include decoding dominance in dogs; canine sociability and attachment; using advanced behavioral principles in dog training; applying cognitive, behavioral and physiological measures to improve shelter dog welfare; using play as training and enrichment; understanding visitor behavior in shelters to increase adoptions; exploring canine olfaction and interpreting canine body language. We want those that come out to learn with us to be able to walk away with new techniques and approaches to try in their interactions with shelter dogs, dogs that they train and the dogs they live with.

For more information on the research studies I mentioned above, check out the journal articles references below. If you’re interested in attending the Canine Science Symposium, head on over to the SFSPCA website  for all the details including speaker bios, presentation descriptions and online registration (at the bottom of the page). Our early-bird registration ends March 2nd, so those that want to attend should sign up now!

1.   Coile DC. The dog breed bible. Hauppauge: Barron’s Educational Series; 2007.
2.    Serpell J. The domestic dog. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1995.
3.     American Pet Products Association. U.S. pet-ownership estimates from the APPA for 2012. Available: pet_ownership_statistics.html#.U0oh8uZdW_A. Accessed 30 January 2014.
4.    Wenstrup J, Dowidchuk A. Pet overpopulation: Data and measurement issues in shelters. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 1999;2(4): 303-19.
5.    American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. FAQ, Pet statistics, 2012. Available: Accessed 19 September 2014.
6.    Weiss E, Miller K, Mohan-Gibbons H, Vela, C. Why did you choose this pet?: Adopters and pet selection preferences in five animal shelters in the United
States. Animals. 2012;2(2): 144-59.
7.     Protopopova, A, Gilmour, AJ, Weiss, RH, Shen, JY, & Wynne, CDL. The effects of social training and other factors on adoption success of shelter dogs. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2012;142(1): 61-8.
8.    Lockwood, R, Rindy, K. Are “pit bulls” different? An analysis of the pit bull terrier controversy. Anthrozoos. 1997;1: 2-8.
9.    Posage, JM, Bartlett, PC, Thomas, DK. Determining factors for successful adoption of dogs from an animal shelter. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1996;213(4): 478-82.
10.    Lepper, M, Kass, PH, Hart, LA. Prediction of adoption versus euthanasia among dogs and cats in a California animal shelter. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2002;5(1): 29-42.
11.    Brown, WP, Davidson, JP, Zuefle, ME. Effects of phenotypic characteristics on the length of stay of dogs at two no kill animal shelters. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2013;16(1): 2-18.
12.    DeLeeuw, JL. Animal shelter dogs: Factors predicting adoption versus euthanasia. Doctoral dissertation, Wichita State University. 2010. Available: http://soar.wichita. edu/bitstream/handle/10057/3647/d10022_DeLeeuw.pdf?
13.    Clevenger, J, Kass, PH. Determinants of adoption and euthanasia of shelter dogs spayed or neutered in the University of California veterinary student surgery program compared to other shelter dogs. J Vet Med Educ. 2003;30(4): 372-378.
14.    Sacks, JJ, Sattin, RW, Bonzo, SE. Dog bite-related fatalities from 1979 through 1988. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1989;262(11): 1489-1492.
15.    Sacks, JJ, Lockwood, R, Hornreicht, J, Sattin, RW. Fatal dog attacks, 1989-1994. Pediatrics. 1996;97(6): 891-895.
16.    Sacks, JJ, Sinclair, L, Gilchrist, J, Golab, GC, Lockwood, R. Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000;217(6): 836-840.
17.    Kaye, AE, Belz, JM, Kirschner, RE. Pediatric dog bite injuries: A 5 year review of the experience at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2009;124(2): 551-558.
18.    O’Brien, DC, Andre, TB, Robinson, AD, Squires, LD, Tollefson, TT. Dog bites of the head and neck: an evaluation of a common pediatric trauma and associated treatment. Am J Otolaryngol. 2015;36(1): 32-38.
19.    Patronek, GJ, Sacks, JJ, Delise, KM, Cleary, DV, Marder, AR. Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite–related fatalities in The United States (2000-2009). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2013;243(12): 1726-1736.
20.    Voith, V, Ingram, E, Mitsouras, K, Irizarry, K. Comparison of adoption agency breed identification and DNA breed identification of dogs. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2009;12(3): 253-262.
21.    Voith, VL, Trevejo, R, Dowling-Guyer, S, Chadik, C, Marder, A, Johnson, V et al. Comparison of visual and DNA breed identification of dogs and inter-observer reliability. Am J Sociol Res, 2013;3(2): 1729.
22.    Olson, KR, Levy, JK, Norby, B, Crandall, MM, Broadhurst, JE, Jacks, S et al. Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff. Vet J , 2015.
23.    Patronek, GJ, Glickman, LT, Moyer, MR. Population dynamics and the risk of euthanasia for dogs in an animal shelter. Anthrozoos. 1995;8(1): 31-43.
24.    Salman, MD, New, Jr, JG, Scarlett, JM, Kass, PH, Ruch-Gallie, R, Hetts, S. Human and animal factors related to relinquishment of dogs and cats in 12 selected animal shelters in the United States. J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 1998;1(3): 207-226.

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