Fighting Perception: “Pit Bull” Labels

We’ve talked before about how BSL (breed-specific legislation) only perpetuates perceptions of pit bulls, American bulldogs or other targeted dogs as being dangerous. Laws like this force shelters into precarious positions where they have aggressively label dogs and fit mixed-breed dogs into specific categories in order to comply with people’s perceptions or legislative requirements. A study published in March 2016 reviews how this labeling has been extremely detrimental to dogs called pit bulls (even if they aren’t actually pit bulls!). The accuracy of shelters (or anyone) in identifying pit bull dogs is an article for another day.

The study found that between two dogs that look very similar, the one with the pit bull label will have a  very different path through the shelter. Perhaps a path that ends in euthanasia.

So what’s in a name? Apparently a whole heck of a lot.

According to the study, dogs with the label of pit-bull end up with a 3x longer stay than a similar looking shelter dog that doesn’t get the pit bull label.

Dogs With The Label Of Pit-Bull End Up With A 3x Longer Stay

Researchers looked into adoptions records at an Arizona shelter. From there, they found 15 dogs that were labeled as pit bulls and another 15 that were very similar to the “pit bulls” but that had not gotten the same breed label. What did they find? That despite both dogs having similar coats, size, markings, and head shapes the dogs with the pit bull label had a length of stay lasting 42 days. The other group? Only 13 days.

Remember, these are dogs that appear very similar but have a different name attached them.

How similar? Check out this image pulled from a Washington Post article on the same study:

pitbull and boxer but they'ere the same dog

Researchers did not find other reasons to suggest the difference in length of stay beside the naming used. The further confirm this bias, they created a short video using the similar looking dogs to potential adopters at the Arizona shelter. When the researchers labeled the dogs as pit bull or otherwise, viewers ranked the similar looking dogs are more attractive than the pit bulls.

How Does This Work?

The researchers then looked at people’s perceptions of the dogs in general. They showed pictures of a Labrador retriever, border collie, and a pit bull to a group of roughly 50 college students and almost 200 Reddit users. They asked them to place into the following categories:

  • Approachable
  • Smart
  • Friendly
  • Aggressive
  • Difficult to train
  • Adoptable

The pit-bull type dogs ranked the lowest in all categories except two. And I’m sure you already know what they are. Study participants felt that the pit bull dogs were the most aggressive looking and the most difficult to train.

Additionally, participants were shown similar dogs but this time next to an elderly woman, a small boy, and a tattooed man. Participants thought that the dogs next to the elderly women or the boy looked friendly or more adaptable than the dogs next to the tattooed man. In this case, the issue if the association of pit bull dogs with unsavory humans.

 That’s Horrible! Right? Well…

Well, there is an upside. Perception is fluid. And not to get too existential on you but there is true nature of human perception. It is malleable. The study shows the current public perception of pit bull dogs. But even more interesting, it shows how easy it be adjusted. While we can’t find an elderly woman for every old woman we can promote pit bull and bully breeds as the great family dogs that they are. This study shows how negative media coverage in which every dog attack seems to be perpetrated by a pit bull can be extremely damaging to all dogs.

Our Own Experiment

We decided to do our own experiment and see just how good some folks in the Aurora area are identifying a pit bull. So with the help of Pick The Pit, my local vet, and my buddy Chuck we decided to test our collective breed identification knowledge. Pick the Pit is a cool website that simply shows the user 25 canine images and the user has to decide which one is actually a pit bull.

Each of the dogs is a recognized and registered breed, except the American Pit Bull Terrier which is only recognized by the United Kennel Club and not the AKC. The website points out that, “When people talk about pit bulls, they’re generally talking about any breed or mix that looks like what they think of as being a “pit bull.” DNA tests of pit bull-looking dogs often come up with some surprising results. One dog, who looked to all intents and purposes like a pit bull, turned out to be 40 percent poodle!”

The Results

Our veterinarian scored pretty well, which is good. However, it still took her three attempts to pick the right dog. First, she picked a Boerboel and then a Patterdale terrier. To be fair, we asked her to decide as quickly as possible to simulate a sort of snap judgment decision. The reason being, that a lot of the bad rap that pit bulls get is a result of a very quick look during a dog attack. If you haven’t heard of what a Dogo Argentino is but you see a big-jawed dog coming for you I suspect most people are going to assume pitbull.

Second, was my turn. I am proud to say that I identified the American Pit Bull Terrier on my first attempt. I do have a distinct advantage however in that I have written countless words on the subject.

Then it was Chuck’s turn. Chuck is not involved in animal welfare in any way and represents our “guy off the street” factor. Chuck took a whopping 7 tries to get the right dog. 7 attempts. And our veterinarian took 3 attempts. It is not easy to identify a breed that barely has any real defining characteristics. So ask yourself, what type of breed identification training does the sensational news reporter have? And if our veterinarian needs a second attempt to accurately identify a breed on the first try, what is our expectation of the media?

So What Can We Do?

Get the word out! Remind your friends that breed doesn’t make a bully! Tell your friends, family, and coworkers about the study or this article. If you’re in a shelter or adoption facility try the experiment yourself. By showing people how fluid their perceptions really are you allow them to step outside of them and see these “pit bulls” for what they really are: loving, caring dogs looking for a forever home.

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