Study Shows Difficulty in Identifying Pit Bulls

October 14, 2013  

Breed ID 2

The inability to visually identify dog breeds is one of the major factors that plays into breed discrimination.  In jurisdictions with discriminatory policies, officers may take and even destroy a family’s dog for no other reason than the officer believing the dog matches a set of vague physical characteristics.

Important to note is that a connection between physical traits and behavior has not been made.  Even if breed can be identified through DNA analysis, there is yet to be any credible evidence that physical traits are linked to behavioral characteristics.[1]

Veterinarians are becoming increasingly aware of the problems associated with trying to visually identify dog breeds and some have instituted statements similar to the following in their practices: “Because new scientific evidence has called into question the accuracy of visual breed identification of dogs, our hospital has adopted a policy to not identify canine patients by predominant breed unless the dog is purebred, the predominant breed of the dog’s parents is known, or the dog’s lineage has been established through the use of DNA analysis.”[2]

In our recent article on repealing breed discrimination in Yakima, Washington, we discussed Dr. Voith’s work.  In 87.5% of Dobbiethe adopted dogs in Dr. Voith’s study, breeds were identified by DNA analyses that were not proposed by the adoption agencies, and in only a quarter of these dogs was at least one of the breeds proposed by the adoption agencies also detected as a predominant breed by DNA analysis.

Now, we have a new study also confirming that most shelter staff have difficulty spotting whether a dog is a pit bull or some other breed or mix.  The study, commissioned by Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, was conducted by Kimberly R. Olson, BS, and Julie K. Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, of Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Programs at the University of Florida, and Bo Norby, CMV, MPVM, PhD, of the Dept. of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University.  It took place at four shelters and involved 120 dogs and 16 shelter staff members.

The authors concluded that shelter staff assigned the “pit bull” label based on physical appearance to twice as many dogs as could be confirmed to have the pit bull type breeds (American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier) in their DNA analyses.   Also, 20% of the dogs that were actually genetically identified as pit bull type dogs were missed by shelter staff and labeled as other breeds.  Additionally, there was a lack of consistency among shelter staff in breed assignments, which further suggests the unreliability of visual identifications.

All of this demonstrates, once again, that breed discrimination laws are of no real value. If even shelter staff can’t identify who is a pit bull and who isn’t, it’s unlikely that a city or county official is going to do any better. (And, in any case, a true identification isn’t going to get you any closer to being able to predict the future behavior of a dog, either.)  It’s time to start treating dogs as indivisuals and evaluating each individual dog’s behavior.

You can download the study as a .pdf file here. It comes in poster format – a single large page with graphics. It’s easy to digest and is mercifully lacking in long, incomprehensible words.


[1] Bradley, Janis. “The Relevance of Breed in Companion Dog,” National Canine Research Council, 2011.

[2] Robert John Simpson, DVM; Kathyrn Jo Simpson, DVM, MPH; Ledy VanKavage, JD, “Rethinking dog breed identification in veterinary practice,” November 1, 2012, Vol. 241, No. 9, Pages 1163-1166.


« « Your Pit Pup: Shoring Up Your Dog’s Image | International Evidence that Breed Discrimination is Ineffective » »