What is an American Shelter Dog?

Every year, it is estimated that four million dogs enter animal shelters across the United States. In 2016, private and public shelters across Virginia took in 96,423 dogs (VDACS). Of these dogs, approximately 11% were reported as euthanized to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Very few of these dogs arrive at the shelter with papers showing what their breed is. The majority of the shelter software systems require shelter staff to enter a breed, or breeds, for each dog. The cost of performing DNA tests for all of these dogs would be astronomical, and simply unaffordable for most animal shelters. So where does this leave us? Shelter staff members typically look at the characteristics of the dog in question and make their best guess of the dog’s breed or breeds.

Images originally from: Scott and Fuller, 1965, “Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog.”

In 2013, a study was conducted by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) that looked at the accuracy of breed labels in bite-related cases. This study concluded that more than 80% of the dogs involved, were mislabeled. A recent study by Arizona State University (Lisa Gunter) using DNA tests also found that 88% of the dogs at two shelters studied were misidentified either partially or completely. In fact, one in three dogs labeled as pit bulls at these shelters were found to not be pit bulls at all. This study also found that over 78% of all dogs that came into the shelters were more than two breeds.

There are many preconceived notions about dog breeds and what that means about what kind of dog they will be, temperament, etc. These preconceived notions, combined with appearance, are huge factors in how long it takes a dog to be adopted—if they are adopted at all. So, what can we conclude from all of this? DNA testing of shelter dogs is the only way to be sure of breed, but is cost-prohibitive. Numerous studies have found that labeling dogs based on a visual/best-guess is highly inaccurate, and inaccurate labeling of dog’s breed or breeds greatly impacts their adoptability.

After careful consideration, the Portsmouth Humane Society is proud to announce that we will be removing breed labels from our dogs and begin referring to them as “American Shelter Dogs.” What is an “American Shelter Dog” you ask? Put simply, these are dogs that, for one reason or another, have found themselves without a home or a family. Instead of characterizing dogs based on the breed that we guess they are, we will focus on their personality. We would like people to realize that every dog is an individual and focus on each of their wonderfully imperfect personalities. An example was given to me recently that if you take a herding dog, such as a Border Collie, and breed her with a Labrador, you won’t necessarily result in puppies that are good at herding and swimming. Our shelter may not be able to tell you unequivocally what breed or breeds our adoptable dogs are, but we can tell you everything we know about their personalities, commands that they know, and whether or not we believe they will be the best fit for you and your family.