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Think You Know A Pit Bull When You See It? So Did We….

| Published on February 18, 2016

There have been numerous articles and posts about the high number of pit bull type dogs in shelters all over the country. Statistics have been reported as high as 80% of dogs in shelters are speculated to be pit bull type dogs, but according to whom?

We know that shelters are not able to feasibly afford to DNA test all their dogs. So veterinarians and shelter staff are left with trying to visually speculate their breed. Up until now, no one has ever quantified our accuracy. We all enjoy guessing breeds and one of our favorite things to do at Applebrook Animal Hospital, is wager the breed mix when we submit DNA testing. Let me just say, often we are wrong or only partly correct! Apparently inaccurate guessing is not confined to only me and my staff (who collectively have almost 40 years in animal care).


A new study published by the University of Florida indicates that when animal care workers and veterinarians guess the breeds of shelter pets, they may be inaccurately labeling them as pit bull type dogs. Such labeling can have an impact on the adoptability of the dogs.

The study looked at 120 dogs and had them evaluated by teams of shelter staff members that included veterinarians. All the members of the shelter teams had years of experience working with dogs. Then the researchers obtained DNA from the dogs to compare the findings against the people’s assessment.

With visual assessment alone, the animal workers in the study identified 52% of dogs as pit bull type. But shockingly, the DNA revealed that only 21% of the samples actually had pit bull type breed DNA signatures. That means that experienced animal care staff and veterinarians are correct less than half the time when they try to visually assign breeds!

Because of an increase in breed restrictions in certain areas, mislabeling dogs as pit bulls can negatively impact the likelihood that they will be adopted into a loving home.
It is a warning to us all. Avoid labeling of dogs without scientific proof and if your prospective new fur-friend has been labeled without testing, be skeptical. The study proves that even with experience, no one can accurately identify the heritage of an individual dog by his looks alone. Furthermore the visual characteristics of the dog do not correlate with the personality or temperament of the dog in any reliable way.

In other words, animal lovers, since our chances of being accurate are slim and our assessment is so very important we should (as always) depend on science and not opinion when making these kinds of predictions. If in doubt, DNA testing is a much more reliable way to tell heritage of dogs and even proven heritage cannot reliably predict temperament.

Don’t “call it like you see it” because you are very probably wrong and inaccuracy can affect the very life of dogs.

For more fun with breed guessing and DNA comparisons, find me on Facebook at Kathryn Primm, DVM.



  1. Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff.Vet J. 2015 Nov;206(2):197-202. doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.07.019. Epub 2015 Jul 29. Olson KR, Levy JK, Norby B, Crandall MM, Broadhurst JE, Jacks S, Barton RC, Zimmerman MS.

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