No, You Probably Can't Guess That Dog's Breed — and a New Study Explains Why It Matters

Why Visual Identification Matters

The UF study isn't the first to tackle the topic of breed identification, but it's certainly the most comprehensive, and it all began when Levy and her team began investigating which dogs were most at risk for ending up in a shelter, and then which were most at risk of euthanasia because they weren't placed in a home. "One of the issues is breed identification," says Levy. "Certainly some breeds are more popular for adoption than others." As those involved in animal rescue know, Pit Bull–type dogs don't tend to be the pick of the litter. But how much of that has to do with the dogs themselves and how much has to do with the name of the breed with which it is associated?

Aside from helping more mixed-breed dogs find homes, showing how unreliable breed identification is serves several other purposes. For instance, if a family is using breed identification to find a dog that's a good fit based on that breed's typical behavior, or picking a puppy that's expected to stay within an apartment's size regulations as it grows, knowing the limitations of a visual assessment could keep a dog from being returned after adoption, Levy explains.

"It also comes up in lost and found searches," Levy says. "A lot of times, lost and found searches are based on breed, so an owner might come in [to a shelter] and describe their missing dog as a Lab mix, but the shelter might’ve recorded that black dog as a Pit Bull mix or a Shepherd mix. If the search is done purely by breed, they might not match at all, even though that dog is at the shelter or described in a found poster."

Looks Can Be Deceiving

To study this more rigorously, the team enrolled four different Florida animal shelters, selected 30 Pit Bull–type dogs at each, and asked several staff members to guess the predominant breeds in those dogs, then compared those guesses to DNA results. "We found that based on DNA analysis, staff missed quite a few Pit Bull–type dogs in their breed identification, and also identified non–Pit Bull dogs as Pit Bulls," Levy says.

The study recently went nationwide. "We showed pictures of the dogs to over 5,000 dog experts nationwide," Levy says. "They were asked to identify the predominant breeds of these dogs, and once again we found that only a small minority could pick out even one of the breeds that was identified in these dogs by DNA. We’ve shown repeatedly and confirmed in our study that you really can’t look at a dog and know reliably whether it’s a Pit Bull or not, at least in many cases. And yet life and death decisions are being made based on those visual assessments."

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