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Bully This—The Results Are In…

Dr. Emily Weiss shares findings from new research on adopter choice and breed ID.

Last year the creative staff at Richmond SPCA came to us with a great idea—they wanted to see what impact a DNA analysis that would identify breed mixes would have on adopter choice. The ASPCA Shelter Research and Development department designed the study and provided a grant for Richmond SPCA to act as the shelter laboratory for this work. The Mars Wisdom Panel agreed to work with us on this project providing quick analyses. The question we are asking is, “When adopters are given a choice between adopting a dog labeled 'pit-type dog' and a dog who looks like a pit type and has a DNA panel identifying his breed mix, are they more likely to choose one over the other?”

The dogs who were subjects in this study were chosen through visual identification by Richmond SPCA intake staff as “pit mix” or “pit-type.” Dogs were placed in either a control group (where DNA analysis was not visible to the public, but the traditional cage card identified the dog as a “pit mix” or “pit-type”) or the experimental group, where the DNA analysis was visible to the public. Group placement was made random by the roll of dice.

It is important to note that the Wisdom Panel does not currently test for American Pit Bull, but does test for dog breeds often lumped into a category of bully type. Through informal survey of animal welfare professionals, we identified Staffordshire terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and American bulldog as the breeds most would agree fit into a “bully” or “pit-type” category (and yes, we acknowledge this can be endlessly debated).

Miller, one of the control subjects, and his Wisdom Panel report

 

The Richmond SPCA collected data on the number of visits with potential adopters each dog had, the length of stay on the adoption floor and returns; adopters also filled out a survey at the time of adoption. Each adopter filled out a survey in which they were asked to self-identify the dog’s breed, to write why they chose the dog they adopted and to rank specific characteristics that affected their decision to adopt the dog.

We ended up with 91 dogs in the study—50 in the experimental group and 41 in the control group. There were no significant differences in ages or sex between the two groups.

The first finding I am sharing here impacted our ability to answer some of the questions we were hoping to answer in a significant way. We found out just how well Richmond SPCA staff did in visually identifying dogs likely to have Staffordshire terrier, American Staffordshire terrier or American bulldog as at least 25% of their breed make-up. Out of the 91 dogs, only 4 dogs had none of these breeds in their DNA, and 57% had one of those breeds as the primary breed. 

Sugar100% American Staffordshire Terrier

 

Bubbles and her Wisdom Panel results

 

Sherman, one of the four dogs without Staff or American bulldog in his analysis. He is Irish setter, chow chow and Great Dane (and Trish Loehr thought a bit of bunny, too)!
 

The Wisdom panel results being visible to the public did not significantly impact the number of days to adoption or any of the other measures. Our survey found that a dog’s behavior with people was the number one reason for choosing the dog that they did, followed by appearance. I have written before that there is likely no shortage of people wanting dogs who look like or are bully-type dogs. Many of those who adopted said they specifically loved the breed type—making the behavior within individuals an important driver of choice.

So what does this all mean? The population of dogs coming into the sheltering population in Richmond, VA, may be different than elsewhere, but at least at the Richmond SPCA, with a specific look and type, staff were quite good at breed identification—correctly identifying 96% of the dogs in the study as having at least 25% of the breeds noted above. Having the information as to what breeds the dog had in his ancestry did not significantly impact the measures we were monitoring. As we anticipated that more of the dogs would not have bully-type breeds in their reports, we were not able to dive into the question of “he looks like a X but he really is a Y”—something that may still be worth exploring in order to better understand adopter choice. And in my opinion, the big takeaway here is that there are adopters who specifically love and want dogs who look like pit-type dogs—so let’s get them home already!

 

Related links:
“They Want ‘Em, They Really Do”
“If It Looks Like A Duck…”

 

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Comments

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It would also be great to have a study about the specific behaviors the dogs showed that attracted adopters since behavior was the number one reason for adoption!

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One of my staff members had a great question which is: How might this research look in a state like ours (MD) that has BDL or some version of BDL?

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It would be great if the pictures were bigger so that I could read the print!

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Jen - that is a great question, and I wish I had a great answer for you. The best I can give you is one you all ready know - is fight that Breed Specific legislation - so many suffer because of BSL.

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I am sorry to say that the majority of people who inquire at our dog pound rule out pit bulls or pit types, and about half of those cite landlord problems as the reason.

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The success of the ID is interesting. Do you think it is because they were choosing dogs closest to type? So that is more like picking a Labrador type or pointer type or jack russel type dog, vs trying to identify the breeds in a dog that is more mixed, and less type?

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How can I get a copy of the charts?

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I'm not a shelter, I have a rescue. I think geographical location and the attitude of the public in that area will effect such a study. When I hold an adoption event, probably the majority of people that walk by and make comments say they would not adopt a pit bull/pit type dog. They are worried about the stigma of owning one more than they are the dog itself being an issue. They like the dogs but when asked why they wouldn't adopt one they usually say its due to an already problematic neighbor, a landlord, an immediate family member that hates pits or they may even say something like "I can't give one enough exercise." There is a mix of fear based reasons and logical reasons.
I don't make it difficult for people to adopt and I provide post-adoption resources but I rarely get a good pit bull adoption. Many other rescues in my area refuse to take in pit bulls as the dog can be with them for an extensive length of time. There are many factors that make adopting pit bulls a challenge and I think those challenges change depending on the locations.

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Wait, I'm confused.... Didn't your study indicate that only 57% of those dogs identified as "pit bulls" end up being primarily bully breeds when genetically tested? To me, that indicates that visual identification is NOT accurate when determining breed type and, contrary to your assertion, does NOT indicate that shelter staff are doing a "good job" in identifying breed for potential adopters. I'm very disappointed in how you've manipulated and reported the statistics here as I think this is very misleading.

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Kate - Sorry if the data was confusing to you. The staff correctly identified 97% of the dogs correctly as having at least 25% of one of the breeds in their ancestry.

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That's like saying we can't really be sure that we see a cat when we look at a cat. It's ignorant and self serving to try to break a bully breed down by its parts. We KNOW that most of the culprits in maulings, maimings and fatalities are bully breeds. Lump them ALL together and regulate them. It's quite easy to pick out a bully breed! If bully breed owners feel that their dogs are not a danger to society, then they can take all of the money that they are donating to saving overbred and over adopted pits and put it into research that will find the genetic marker for aggression. Maybe even try educating and alerting the public to their potential dangers. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there are thousands of unscrutinized pits and their relatives/derivatives/mixes POURING into society shamelessly. There's NO DOUBT the types of dogs that are killing. What's doubtful is that their owners actually care enough, beyond fighting for their OWN PERSONAL dog, to stop the slaughter.

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It still might be worth the DNA test since some insurance companies charge homeowners more for certain breeds. If you can show they don't contain that breed, the insurance company can't raise your rates.

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Good point. Wondering how much a DNA test is.

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I believe wisdom panel is around $60 - $100 (per test)
Pricey, but not so pricey as to be out of reach of most dog owners.

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I would be interested to know if pit bull types are chosen with as much regularity when there are non-pit bull types in the same facility to compete with. Our shelter receives large numbers of herding dogs, and very mixed brown mutts (that do not resemble pits), while the neighboring shelter receives primarily dogs that would be called pits. Our pits are always the last to be adopted, with low numbers of web clicks and inquiries. The nearby shelter places pits in much larger volumes. Is this just because there is not non-pit competition? I think this would be useful to know for shelters who bring in animals from other areas, but do not bring in pit-types.

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This is really an interesting article, and I think it should speak volumes for other shelters and for bully breed owners. I NEVER thought for a second that Pit Bulls were harder to adopt because "people don't want them." In 6 years of volunteering, people seem to be love the bully breeds, and maybe a handful of people in 6 years have ever not wanted a bully breed because of the stigma. The big reason so many people don't have them is because of home owners insurance, BSL, and many apartments/condos do not allow bully breeds. This is where the root of our problem is, and this is what we need to focus on. Dispelling myths that "BSL works" because it doesn't, and getting those laws changed. I've also seen some apartments/condos allow bully breeds. We need to continue to let responsible people own these dogs and show that they are just like any other dog breed. No, they are not for everyone, but they make wonderful dog's with the right people.

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I totally agree with you and disagree with the previous person who said Pit Bulls are difficult to adopt out. I work with a Pit Bull rescue in an area that still has stigmas attached to the breed, but we still make wonderful, very selctive adoptions because there are enough educated people who love this fantastic breed.

 

Thanks!

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Since when is an American Bulldog a "pit bull?"

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The test said that 57% of the dogs had one of the pit bull breeds as the primary breed so that leaves 43% of the dogs labeled as pit bulls, but primarily some other breed?  Did staff label these as pit bulls because the genes are so pronounced that they look like pit bulls when they are not?  Or would a dog be considered a pit bull even with a larger genetic makeup of some other breed? 

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Hi, Peter!

All but 4 dogs had at least 25% of their breed makeup comprised of one the bully breeds usually lumped into shelters’ pool of “pit type” dogs.  57% had one of those breeds as primary (making up 50% or more of their profile).

The shelter staff made their decisions as to what to label pit type based on physical make up – did the dog look like a pit mix? If yes, then he was labeled as such.   

- Dr. Emily Weiss

Comment

This is an interesting study, but since it's a limited sample of one shelter in one community, its results cannot be extrapolated to shelters everywhere in the nation. I would like to see this study replicated in shelters elsewhere, particularly where there is a concentrated urban area overproducing bully breeds compared to other breed archetypes.

Comment

The dogs who were subjects in this study were chosen through visual identification by Richmond SPCA intake staff as “pit mix” or “pit-type.” Dogs were placed in either a control group (where DNA analysis was not visible to the public, but the traditional cage card identified the dog as a “pit mix” or “pit-type”) or the experimental group, where the DNA analysis was visible to the public. Group placement was made random by the roll of dice.

So the shelter's enrollment selections were not random, but group assignment was random?

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AC - that is correct, group assignment was determined by dice roll

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