Persistent Stigma of 'Pit Bull' Label Hinders Dog Adoption

How a dog is labeled has an impact on its adoption, according to a new study. melgupta/Flickr

Labeling a dog a pit bull can have a significant impact on whether it gets adopted, how long it stays in a dog shelter and even how attractive potential adopters think the dog is, according to a new study on breed labeling and human perception.

That's due to the tendency in the United States to falsely stereotype pit bulls as innately more dangerous than other dog breeds. The lead author on the related PLOS One paper emphasizes the need to evaluate the aggressiveness of an individual dog, and how compatible it would be with a specific potential adopter. "It's only when we start attaching labels that people begin to perceive them more negatively," Lisa M. Gunter, a psychology graduate student, tells Smithsonian Magazine.

Some of the negative stereotypes a person might hold toward a dog otherwise identified as a pit bull are mitigated if the dog is shown in a picture alongside an elderly woman or a male child, the study found, as well as if no specific breed were specified in an adoption photo.

Many lookalike breeds are often called pit bulls in the United States, even though they could be American and English bulldogs, Staffordshire bull terriers, or American pit bull terriers, according to the study, as well as mixes of these and other breeds. Breeds often get labeled by those who drop off the dogs at a shelter.

This ambiguity is complicated by the fact that workers at dog shelters often have to specify a dog's breed, if not provided, using their experience to essentially come up with a best guess. But as it's a guess, identification of the pit bull breed in particular is often inconsistent, according to a recent study in the Veterinary Journal.

A 2008 study found that pit bulls displayed no greater aggression toward humans than many other dog breeds, though they were slightly more aggressive than some toward other dogs. In fact, breeds like dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers acted significantly more aggressively toward humans than were pit bulls. The breed's athleticism and intelligence, however, makes it an attractive choice for people engaging in illegal dogfighting, which fuels the stereotype.

"Removing breed labels is a relatively low-cost strategy that will likely improve outcomes for dogs in animal shelters," the authors conclude