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Pit Bulls Get Short Shrift in Shelters

by on 2016/03/30

If you’re like me, you’ve probably succumbed to the pangs of longing for a dog, visited a dog shelter, and then decided that your working life and commute aren’t conducive to looking after one. There is some fantastic work going on in shelters, but finding homes for some breeds of dog isn’t easy.

Some new research is showing that one particular breed, the pit bull, is particularly benighted when it comes to adoption into a new home. The authors studied how people perceive shelter dogs of different breeds in a variety of circumstances.

What Did the Researchers Say?

The researchers (from Arizona State University) carried out four separate studies. In the first, they collected survey data from 49 local college students, and 179 respondents on Reddit. The participants first filled in a simple survey describing their previous experiences with dogs, and were then shown pictures of dogs of three breeds: a Labrador, a pit bull terrier, and a border collie. The participants then rated the dogs on their perceived approachability, friendliness, intelligence, aggressiveness, ability to train and adoptability.

In the first sequence of images, no humans were present.  In the second sequence, a series of different humans were shown with the dogs: an elderly woman, a “rough” male, and a male child.  The pit bulls generally rated as less adoptable and significantly more aggressive than the other breeds, but this could be modified quite a bit by the human present.  The elderly woman made the perception of the pit bull much less aggressive, and the opposite was the case for the rough male.

This significant change in perception due to human presence led the researchers to consider the effect of humans on the adoption process more carefully. Their second study collected participants from entrants to a local dog shelter, who then viewed photographs of shelter dogs extracted from an online database. The images consisted of pit bulls and “lookalikes”, dogs that look very similar to pit bulls but are labelled as another breed by shelter staff. In some cases, the lookalikes were in fact pit bulls, but simply mislabelled.

The effect of label was clear: while participants rated both sets of dogs similarly in looks, pit bulls ended up staying in the shelters significantly longer than the lookalikes.

Thirdly, the researchers decided to investigate the pit bull label itself, by collecting a series of videos of dogs in shelters, pit bulls and lookalikes, and showing these videos to another set of would-be dog adopters, with and without the pit bull label. The difference is stark: the attractiveness rating of pit bulls without a label increases significantly!

In their final test, the Orange County Animal Services group in Florida removed all breed labels from their shelters to encourage adoption of negatively perceived breeds. The researchers showed that after labels were removed, pit bulls were adopted in larger numbers compared to the previous year (with labels), and their length of stay in the shelter decreased significantly. This result is harder to interpret as most breeds also showed this effect with varying strength, but it is clear that after label removal, the mean length of stay of all breeds showed a much lower spread, indicating that adoption rates of all breeds were closer to being equal.

What Did the Media Say?

So far, most of the media reports are focused on the results of the second study, which showed that the mean length of stay of lookalikes was about 1/3 of that of the pit bulls. This isn’t surprising, as it’s in the title of the press release that accompanies the article.  It’s important to note that this effect isn’t seen as strongly in the fourth study, where the mean length of stay for pit bulls is only changed by about 10% when the label is dropped, and also the sample sizes for each study are extremely different (the fourth study has the largest sample).

It’s an interesting study in headline-writing.  Like our entrants to Rewrite the Headlines, there are quite a few different approaches. Some stick quite close to the press release title, “Pit bull label may triple length of stay in dog shelters”, e.g. Time magazine, and some place less emphasis on the exact duration (such as the Smithsonian, which interviews one of the authors and cites other studies on the subject) whereas others take a pithier approach, and lay the blame squarely at our feet  (such as here).

I’m generally quite impressed at the quality of reporting on this story.  Most of the articles reproduce sections of the press release as per usual, but equally most of them link directly to the journal article, a common bugbear here at Research the Headlines.

I just wish that this high standard of canine journalism would translate more readily into the human world…

Gunter, L. M. et al. (2016). What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions & Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions & Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs. PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0146857


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