November 1, 2016
Categories: Research, Adoption, Evolution of the No-Kill Movement

There’s renewed interest in identifying shelter dogs not by breed but by their physical and personality traits. What’s prompted that, and is it an idea whose time has come?

The idea itself isn’t new. Some adoption organizations did away with breed labels long ago, with some simply calling them “All American Shelter Dogs.” In fact, our funded Shelter Pet Project originally launched around seven years ago without “breed” as a search parameter on its website — a decision reversed when potential dog adopters objected in large numbers. (Cat people seem to be well-used to searching for cats on the basis of coat length alone, and didn’t make a single meow of objection.)

Certainly one of the reasons behind this latest up-swell of interest in the idea is the release of a comprehensive study suggesting people — even veterinarians and shelter workers — are basically terrible at correctly identifying breed based on a dog’s looks.

Still, much of the movement toward forgoing breed identification in shelter dogs is because so many short-coated, blocky-headed dogs are stigmatized by being labeled as “pit bulls” or “pit bull mixes” in areas with community-wide or housing-specific breed restrictions, when the dogs themselves are friendly and well-behaved. Why make life difficult for these dogs, shelters reason, when simply talking about what we do know — behavior and personality — instead of what we don’t — breed — can remove that stigma?

Kristen Auerbach, deputy chief animal services officer at the Austin Animal Center, in Austin, Texas, thinks it’s a great idea to forgo labeling dogs by breed, and is glad if it helps de-stimatize dogs who have what many consider a “pit bull” look. But that’s not the only reason.

Since 2011, Austin has been the largest no-kill city in America. Auerbach also previously served as assistant director at the Fairfax County Animal Shelter in Fairfax, Virginia, where she helped overturn “pit bull” adoption restrictions, doubled adoptions and cut euthanasia in half, bringing Fairfax County to no-kill.

“I came into this issue in 2013, when I visited Animal Farm Foundation,” she told Maddie’s Fund®. “We had breed labels in Fairfax, as well as adoption restrictions on dogs labeled pit bulls — so severe most of those dogs died. But I’d previously worked in a shelter in Iowa where all the mixed breed dogs were labeled ‘mutts’ or ‘mongrels,’ and 15 years later in Fairfax, it was odd to me that we were breed-labeling.”

The Fairfax shelter went beyond simply labeling breed. “Our kennel cards said ‘pit bull rules,’ and I saw all the potential adopters pass those dogs up,” she said. “We eventually got the word ‘rules’ out of there, but it still acted like a red stoplight. People would see the kennel card and walk on by, without even looking at the dog, just the card.”

In 2014 we overturned our pit bull laws, and we said, ‘There’s no good that’s come of this for us, so let’s take the label off the dogs.'” Then they took it further. “It wasn’t just pit bull-type dogs,” she said. “Whatever we labeled the dogs, people had some kind of immediate response to the label. So we took the labels off all the kennel cards, and stopped using breed labels on our social media posts, and retrained our staff and volunteers on how to talk about dogs without talking about breed labels.”

Over a two-year period, they doubled their number of adoptions and cut euthanasia in half. “We made a lot of changes in how we operated in that time, but this change was very significant,” Auerbach said.

Still, the staff had a learning curve. “We found that to say the dog is a ‘pit bull mix’ or ‘hound mix’ was just easier,” she said. “We’d gotten lazy. But in making the change, the biggest surprise we had was the public. Our adoptions skyrocketed, and the public didn’t pay any attention or ask why there weren’t breed labels on the kennels. They would ask what kind of dog that was, but we were trained to answer that. The response from the public finally let us buy fully into the idea that all dogs are individuals, not labels.”

The public might have been on board, and the shelter might have been on board, but the software companies took some time. “Recently, I’ve been in conversations with the largest shelter software companies,” said Auerbach. “We told them we’re not saying there’s no such thing as breed, or that guessing at breed labels isn’t fun. But while that is an appropriate role for a pet owner, shelters are supposed to be experts. When we guess a dog is a ‘hound mix,’ it’s irresponsible and arbitrary.”

She continued, “Several major software companies have either agreed to make that change, or are open to the conversation. Finally, after years of talking to them about it, I think they really get why this is important, and are willing to make that change.”

What about apparent purebreds? How about networking with breed rescue groups?

“If you see a dog and you feel really sure of the breed, it may make sense to label it that way,” she said. “But that should be a policy at the internal level, not dictated by the shelter software! Give us the option to use mixed breed, and let shelter directors decide how they’re going to use that option.”

DNA testing may be another fun way to learn more about a dog, but Auerbach thinks that belongs in the hands of the future adopters as well. After all, she reasons, knowing the breeds that make up a dog’s DNA doesn’t tell them anything they don’t already know by simply looking at the dog in front of them. She said, “We have nothing to gain by perpetuating our guesses at breed labeling as accurate our helpful to determining a dog’s future.”

Also of interest:

Study: Do DNA breed tests help more dogs get adopted?