You see it on posts from shelters and on kennel doors – a new phenomenon of labeling dogs otherwise labeled as mixes, mutts, Pit Bulls, etc., American Shelter Dogs. There are many reasons why people are choosing to do this, and many reasons why they shouldn’t.
A lot of my advocacy work has been educating, not anti-Pit Bull folk, but Pit Bull advocates and supporters. Everything they do and say is with the best of intentions, but without much thought behind it. It’s easy to grab on to a cutesy phrase or new idea that seems great and beneficial to our dogs, but is it really? Let’s look at the new idea spreading across the country: labeling dogs of unknown breed American Shelter Dogs.
Some people believe guessing a dog’s breed leads potential adopters to expect certain characteristics, such as a Retriever mix enjoying swimming, and are disappointed when the dog doesn’t have the qualities expected. They also argue that cats aren’t labeled by breed, but rather “domestic short hair”, “domestic medium hair”, etc. Some also believe that Pit Bull adoptions will increase, not that they’re doing this to hide the fact that the dog looks like a Pit Bull (or Basset Hound or Lab). In summary, those involved in this new form of non-breed identification hope potential adopters look at the individual dog and adopt him because of who he is, not what is expected of a dog of his possible breed.
Those of us who work in rescue or with shelter dogs see how dogs are commonly mislabeled. It seems any dog with a big head and/or muscular body is automatically called a Pit Bull and put on the adoption floor as such. We use visual discrimination all the time when referring to dogs. “Hey nice Doberman,” and “Wow look at the size of that Great Dane.” At adoption events, more people ask what breed of dog we are fostering than any other question. Do we know for sure? Of course not, but we give them our best guess based on the dogs’ physical appearance. This is the basis for our argument against using American Shelter Dog.
Think of this scenario: a young man with a secure job and rental goes to the shelter to look for a dog to adopt. He looks at all the dogs, meets a few, and decides on one that matches what he is looking for. It’s labeled an American Shelter Dog. Ok whatever. A few days later, after he and his family have bonded with the dog, he sees his landlord while walking the dog. The landlord says, “That’s a Pit Bull. We don’t allow Pit Bulls here. Get rid of her.” The man argues, saying the shelter called her an American Shelter Dog. It means nothing to the landlord, as he sees a big head and muscular body. The dog is returned to the shelter or re-homed on Craigslist and a confused family loses their pet.
With all of the recent drama involving Farmers Insurance no longer covering Pit Bulls, American Staffordshire Terriers, Rottweilers, or Wolf Hybrids, it’s even more important we know if we have a Pit Bull or not. When we first adopted our boy, we had no idea there was such discrimination. Our Allstate agent came out to the house and took pictures of the dog. A couple weeks later, we got a cancellation notice for our homeowners insurance policy. We were aware we had a Pit Bull, but what if you thought you adopted an American Shelter Dog? Would you continue to get new policies with different companies until you finally came across one that would cover your dog no matter what he looked like?
Another example is the man who adopted an adult dog at a local shelter. He filled out the paperwork, paid the adoption fee, and waited a couple days for the dog to be neutered. When he picked him up from the shelter, the neuter paperwork read “Pit Bull” under the breed. The man said he didn’t want a Pit Bull and walked out. Yes it’s sad, but by not knowing was the man any better off? Was the dog? It’s not like someone down the road wouldn’t inform him that he had a Pit Bull on the end of his leash or he couldn’t Google pictures of Pit Bulls and realize that’s what he adopted. He didn’t want a dog that looked like or behaved like or could be called a Pit Bull (for whatever reason) and therefore he shouldn’t be tricked into adopting one by a blanket label. Maybe his HOA forbade Pit Bulls. Maybe his mother is terrified of Pit Bulls. Maybe his custody agreement states he won’t own any breed of dog deemed dangerous by the county he resides in. We don’t know why and we never will, but all of it could have been avoided by being up front and honest about the breed the dog looks like.
Then there is the matter of breed characteristics. So your Lab doesn’t fetch the ball. Big deal. We are dealing with Terriers. Some people don’t like to admit it, but Terriers can be dog reactive. This is something that should be known to potential adopters, especially those like the young man in the first example, who had no idea what he was getting because the dog had a generic one-size-fits-all label. Not everyone walking into a shelter has done research to see which breeds might fit with their lives, nor have they based qualifications on more than a cute face and gender. Are our dogs just dogs? Yes. Do they have breed characteristics specific to their breed? Of course. Do they all have those same characteristics across the board? Of course not. When you adopt a dog, it’s a crap shoot. Even if you buy a dog from a breeder at 10 weeks old, he’s not established enough to show his true personality. Yes spend time with the dog and get to know him. Should breed matter? No. But it does.
We do not live in a society where dogs are just dogs. We have created different breeds for our entertainment, to help us work, to hunt, to compete, etc. Each breed has specific characteristics, from physical attributes to behavioral quirks to medical conditions and special grooming needs. We have learned to expect certain things from each breed (think of what comes to mind when I say Chihuahua…how about German Shepherd?). Unfortunately, some people think, “vicious child killers” when Pit Bulls are brought up. Does this make it harder to find quality homes for them? Yep. But labeling them something other than what they look like to the rest of the world is a disservice to them and to their owners. In short, using the term “American Shelter Dog” to label dogs of unknown heritage is not the solution to shelter dogs being mislabeled and will not provide them the quality homes we all hope they get, Pit Bull or not.
I must give props to the Second Chance Rescue in Corning, California for explaining to potential adopters how they label their dogs and how lucrative guessing the breed is. It’s a disclaimer of sorts, but has the same goal: focus on the individual dog. One day there will be no discrimination against our dogs and this won’t matter, or we as advocates will come up with a happy medium where shelter dogs are given the best chance of adoption and adopters are given the best information possible about their dog.
Board of Directors, Pit Bulls Against Misinformation