The Consequences of Visual Breed Identification

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Breed. The immediate standard by which we judge a dog.  Most people select their dog based on it’s breed make-up and appearance.  Some owners purchase from a breeder, but many are adopting or rescuing mixed-breed dogs.  When not given medical history shelters, rescues, and veterinarians typically give a breed estimate based on appearance.  This is commonly referred to as Visual Breed Identification, and it’s atrociously inaccurate. 

Visual Breed Identification is inaccurate.

A study based on the visual breed identification of 20 images of dogs by over 850 animal professionals across the country found that there was a large percentage of misidentification and general disagreement among the professional participants.  After the visual identification, all 20 dogs were DNA tested.

Guessing even a single breed was a challenge
One dog was misidentified by 100% of respondents

Results showed that, “Less than ½ of the guesses named any of the breeds detected by DNA analysis in 14 of the 20 dogs,” and for one dog, “none of the 859 respondents[…] guessed the breed detected by DNA analysis.”  The Mystery Mutt! Even among currently active professionals in the field, the results weren’t good.  Chances are, that shelter dog you rescued, isn’t what the label says it is. 

Less than 1/2 of the guesses named any of the breeds detected by DNA analysis in 14 of the 20 dogs.

Dogs labelled “pitbull” particularly suffer from this phenomenon.  A study of 120 dogs at 4 Florida Shelters proved that the visual identification of this particular breed was more commonly misidentified than others.  After DNA testing, they found that “of the 120 dogs, 55 were identified as ‘pitbulls’ by shelter staff, but only 25 were identified as ‘pitbulls’ by DNA analysis.”  30 dogs were subjected to stigma and judgement based on an inaccurate label, and it’s likely that dogs everywhere are facing the repercussions of false labels like these.

Mislabeling dogs as "pitbulls"

When “pitbulls” currently make up over 30% of our shelter and rescue population, we must ask ourselves if these breed labels are accurate, and then acknowledge the stigmas and lowered likelihood of adoption we are saddling a dog with based on an inappropriate visual breed designation.  We are actively decreasing that dog’s odds for adoption by labelling it incorrectly as a “pitbull.”

Let’s see if you can identify these dog’s breeds based on an image.

Hover or Tap to see the Breed!

Chances are, we misidentified several of those dogs. Their vets certainly did! While the parents’ genetics play a major role in determining their offspring’s appearance, the same combined genetics can create great diversity – even among puppies of the same litter.

The Consequences of Visual Breed Identification 1

Meet Sid and his littermate!

These kids have the same mother and father. Sid’s genetic make-up seems to fit his appearance. But his sister...well...she’s not what we would expect to see from this breed combination. It just goes to prove that genetics will present very differently in individuals and we will sometimes see recessive traits rise to the surface. Nature is wild!

Visual Breed Identification is inaccurate and can be harmful to dogs who acquire the stereotypes and stigmas associated with certain breeds. Ultimately, DNA testing is the best way to determine the legitimate breed make-up of your dog and can provide you with a number of benefits for your effort.



The Consequences of Visual Breed Identification 2

The benefits of genetic testing

Genetic testing, or DNA testing can give us a lot of insight about our dog’s appearance, health, and behavior. While some physical characteristics, (square head or muscular stature) can be indicative of a “pitbull”, these traits are also present in many other breeds and do not necessarily prove that dog’s genetic make-up. Physical markers alone are simply not enough to positively identify a dog’s breed, and are usually confusing because many different breeds can share similar or identical features. DNA testing can tell us where some of those physical traits came from and help us understand how best to care for them in the future.

Because many diseases are inherited and linked to genetics, these tests can also give us an idea of what diseases or disorders we may need to prepare for as our dogs age. Hip Dysplasia, Cancer, and Heart Disease are all examples of genetic diseases whose impact can be lessened with early knowledge of the disease and by taking proactive steps to maintain the health of the dog. This can include vet-recommended supplements, surgeries, or lifestyle changes that may increase the life expectancy and quality of life of your pet. Some of these diseases are breed specific, and allow us to gather some more context for the ongoing health of our pet. We always notice problems sooner when we’re already looking for them.

Additionally, genetic testing can give us insight into the behaviors our dogs may exhibit. If we know that our dog is a terrier, we may be wary of a high prey drive and socialize with other small animals earlier in development. It can also explain some instinctual urges your dog may show. The more we know, the more we can do in terms of proactive training. We can proof the dog against certain common behaviors of it’s breed make-up before those behaviors surface inappropriately as they grow.

Sources for Further Reading:

  • https://www.nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/ineffective-policies/visual-breed-identification
  • https://www.nationalcanineresearchcouncil.com/research-library/visual-breed-identification-literature-review
  • https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/pets/a27117714/best-dog-dna-kit/
  • https://www.maddiesfund.org/incorrect-breed-identification.htmhttps://www.pitbullinfo.org/inaccurate-pit-bull-statistics.html
  • https://www.pitbullinfo.org/breed-specific-legislation.html
  • https://www.vetmed.ufl.edu/2016/02/17/dna-studies-reveal-that-shelter-workers-often-mislabel-dogs-as-pit-bulls/
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