Editor's note: This is our second blog this week about breed labels. If you missed the first, find it here.
The majority of the pets in the care of the Richmond SPCA are ones we have transferred to our humane center from city- or county-operated shelters and a much smaller percentage are those relinquished to us by their owners. Although some dogs will be identified by their owners with certainty as belonging to a particular breed because he or she was purchased from a pet store or breeder, it is much more common that our staff has little more than an animal’s appearance to go on in designating one or two “breeds” to identify the dog, as is usually required by software. However, mixed breed dogs usually are not the offspring of two purebred parents; in fact, it’s likely that neither of their parents was purebred.
And while there is little reliability to breed labels assigned to mixed breed dogs, there is much weight given to those labels because people assume so much about traits and behavior characteristics. Manager of Admissions Laura Palin says she and the admissions counselors she supervises are keenly aware of the burden a breed label can place on a particular dog. A label like shepherd, Chow, pit bull or Rottweiler can cause people to eliminate that dog from consideration as a companion, not based on any behavior or history of that individual animal but because of stigmas associated with the “breed,” even when that breed designation is nothing more than a guess.
Palin said that the weighty decisions over breed label occasionally lead to internal disputes. “Each of us would have pictures from online, the breed books and would even dig up old DNA results to argue our breed reasoning, and in the end it was very rare that you would change anyone’s opinion,” she said. Palin went on to explain her enthusiasm for the Richmond SPCA’s decision not to place such labels on dogs of unknown breed. “A pet’s potential future could be decided by these opinions that not everyone can agree upon anyway.”
Many of the counselors can recall specific dogs whose “breed” identity has been a complex mystery, which they felt pressured to force into two neat boxes. One dog that Amberlyn Pryor and Alicia Kurz transferred from Petersburg Animal Control had been found as a stray, and the Petersburg shelter called her a Shiba Inu mix, possibly indicated by her thick coat and curved tail, but they also saw the build and long nose of a Labrador retriever. And, let’s face it highly exotic breeds are possible but not very likely.
“Admittedly we were only guessing,” said Pryor. “Writing ‘mixed breed’ is better than random guessing based on head shape or coat length because in the end the dog’s DNA could be a mixture of four or five breeds, many of which we never would have guessed.”
Another counselor, Natalie Ogden, adopted a dog who had been the subject of much discussion and debate. She had transferred Halligan from Dinwiddie Animal Control, where there was no history provided for the distinctive looking dog with one blue eye and one brown eye, distinctive spots, semi-erect ears and a stocky stance.
“After much speculation and discussion, I believe the breed mix we settled on was Dalmatian and Catahoula mix,” Ogden said. “Of course, 6 months later, I did a DNA test for him and the results came back saying he is a purebred American Staffordshire Terrier.”
It is part of human nature to want to categorize things, including animals. We have a much more evidence-based system of categories in Meet Your Match. Through this adoption program that has been used at the Richmond SPCA since 2008, we assign each dog a Canine-ality after an assessment of the dog’s behavior, energy level, focus and previous training. The fun labels that result – such as Go Getter, Couch Potato, Goofball and more – give much more insight than a guess about breed, and we share all the assessment notes with potential adopters, who learn whether their new companions are likely to settle quickly in a crate, how they like to greet visitors, and if they prefer tennis balls to squeaky plush toys, among other characteristics.
We recognize that our views on dogs as individuals are not yet universal, and particularly aren’t typically shared by landlords and insurance companies. When a dog has visual characteristics that are likely to be covered by breed-based exclusions, we will continue to counsel adopters about the restrictions and discrimination that they may face. For those who are looking for some certainty on a dog’s genetic makeup, our Lora Robins Gift Shop offers the Wisdom Panel DNA testing kit. With a simple cheek swab, you can send a sample of your dog’s saliva and receive results by email that will serve to satisfy curiosity or provide documentation.
Tabitha Treloar is the director of communications for the Richmond SPCA. Before posting a comment, please review our comment guidelines. Please note that our comment policy requires both your first and last name to be used as your screen name.