Lack of agreement in identifying pit bulls

Hoffman, C. L., Harrison, N., Wolff, L., & Westgarth, C. (2014). Is that dog a pit bull? A cross-country comparison of perceptions of shelter workers regarding breed identification. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 17(4), 322-339.

This study asked volunteers working in dog shelters in the UK and USA to identify dog’s breeds based on a single photograph.  There was a lack of agreement both within and between the USA and the UK on which characteristics define a dog as a pit bull terrier. 

'Pit bull type' dogs are either banned or subject to Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) throughout the UK and in parts of the USA.  Although not recognised as a breed, a dog is defined as a 'pit bull type' using 15 physical characteristics defined by DEFRA (and copied from the 1977 issue of the American magazine Pit Bull Gazette). A dog can be confiscated if it fulfils several of these criteria.  Many dogs entering shelters each year are bull breeds and dogs that may be labeled as 'pit bull types.'  Prior to rehoming, shelter employees are often required to define a dog's breed, based solely on the dog’s physical characteristics.  Defining a dog as a 'pit bull type' will affect the chances of adoption and may result in euthanasia.  This study, conducted between 2012-2013, asked shelter workers in the UK and the USA to look at 20 on-line images of dogs, and identify the breed (11 were bull breeds, and 2 of these were likely pit bulls). The participants were also required to explain how they came to their decision. Participants were asked what they expected the fate of the dogs represented by images to be.

Inconsistencies in identifying pit bulls

The results indicated that there was a lack of agreement in the identification of pit bull terriers,

both within and between the UK and USA.  It also found that shelter workers can be reluctant to define a dog as a pit bull, this may be due to the repercussions this may have, they therefore may deliberately mislabel a dog’s breed.

Many dogs defined as pit bull types in the USA were labelled Staffordshire bull terriers in the UK (which are not banned), and so the British workers seemed to have a narrower definition of what a pit bull terrier was.  Shelters in the UK were more likely to euthanase dogs defined as a banned breed.  They were also more likely to euthanase a dog for medical reasons, whereas USA shelters were more likely to euthanase as a means of controlling the number of dogs in the shelter, and less likely to euthanase pit bulls.  Most people defined a dog's breed using physical features (body shape, size, coat, face etc), and many used 'previous experience' to help them.

Labeling a dog as a 'pit bull type' could result in euthanasia.  There is a lack of agreement both within and between the USA and UK on what defines a dog as a pit bull type.  This study highlights the inaccuracy of using physical appearances alone to define a breed, but many shelters do just this and often decide a dog’s fate based on photographs.  Assessing a dog's behaviour is much more useful and relevant when deciding about a suitability for re-homing and the type of home/ environment that a dog is placed in.

World Animal Protection’s view

This study highlights the limitations of defining a dog's breed and suitability for re-homing based on physical appearances.  World Animal Protection welcomes research of this nature which examines attitudes to certain breeds and current practices in shelters.