Removing breed labels from shelter dogs beneficial for both canines and humans
No bones about it: Pit bulls get a bad rap.
The breed’s unfortunate history — which includes their use in bull-baiting and dog fighting — has detrimentally influenced public opinion of them as inherently aggressive. More recently, media reports that incorrectly label dogs who bite and attack humans as pit bulls have only served to reinforce the stereotype.
“In my opinion, there’s an issue with the public’s perception of pit bulls,” said Lisa Gunter, a third-year psychology doctoral student conducting research in the Canine Science CollaboratoryThe Canine Science Collaboratory is housed in Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. at ASU. “It’s a very divisive issue. People have really strong feelings on both sides.”
Gunter recently published the results of a series of four studies on the breed in the journal PLOS-1, titled “What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions & Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions & Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs.”
The impetus behind the studies, said Gunter, was simple: She wanted to help dogs find their way out of shelters and into their forever homes. To do that, she and her team first had to prove that the negative perception of pit bulls phenomenon was real. Then, they had to test ideas for different types of interventions that could change that negative perception.
In the first study, participants were shown photos of dogs that looked like pit bulls (but may or may not have been) as well as photos of dog breeds more traditionally kept as family pets, like Labrador retrievers and border collies. They were asked a series of questions when viewing each dog, such as how comfortable they would feel approaching it, how friendly it looked, how intelligent it looked and whether they would consider adopting it.
“That first study helped us confirm what our suspicions were, that pit bulls would be perceived negatively by the participant,” said Gunter. “That parallels what we see in society about how people view pit bull dogs.”
There was a silver lining, though. When participants were shown photos of pit-bull-type dogs accompanied by a human handler, it “profoundly” changed their perception for the better, Gunter said.
“I was surprised at how just putting a person in the photograph can make a difference,” she added, noting that photos of dogs on shelter websites almost never include a human handler, the addition of which she suggests could make a big difference in helping to find that dog a home.