Friday, September 12, 2014

Is this dog a pit bull terrier?

Pit bull, Staffordshire terrier or something else?

If you’re interested in ethics and welfare, a recent paper in the Journalof Applied Animal Welfare Science is certain to spark discussion.

Answering the question “what breed is that” based on assessing a dog’s physical features alone (without meeting the parents/littermates, without DNA testing etc.) can be challenging. But what if the assessment you made about an animal’s breed had life and death consequences?

Assessment of pit bull terriers is controversial due to the existence of restrictions around the breed in certain areas. In some areas – and depending on legislation and shelter policy – the determination that a dog is a pit bull means that the animal is euthanased.

The recent study, published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, found that 41 per cent of shelter workers would knowingly mislabel a dog of a restricted breed, presumably to increase the dog’s adoption chances.

Those in support of breed-specific legislation may argue that such people are being irresponsible. Are they? The researchers found that there was little consensus about what constitutes a pit bull terrier, in both US and UK settings. The precautionary principle, on the one hand, would suggest that if you are making a life and death decision based on breed, you want to be sure. If there is a chance the animal is NOT a pit bull, and the label incurs death for the dog, then it would be dangerous to label it as such.

Another application of the precautionary principle takes a different approach. If there is any chance this COULD be a pit bull, and therefore a potentially (note potentially) dangerous dog to people or indeed other dogs, it should be labelled as such. What if someone were attacked? What if a child were killed? What if those things happened and it was a shelter worker’s assessment that allowed that person or family to adopt that dog? What would be the implications for the shelter?

This paper raises a number of fascinating issues. The application of ethical frameworks and the precautionary principle are not explicitly tackled but certainly apply. There is also the question of just HOW breeds are identified – for example, some based their assessment of breed on the presence of docked tails and cropped ears (fortunately not common in Australia due to legislation), which are changes caused by human intervention and not due to breed. One can appreciate the moral stress that persons making such assessments can be under.

So a question for our readers: you are a shelter worker and you are presented with a dog that has the physical characteristics of a pit bull. A breed assessment of “pit bull terrier” means euthanasia for this dog. How would you assess this dog and what would factors would you take into account?

On another note, we’ve had a few queries lately about separation anxiety in dogs. Some readers might find this post of interest.


Christy L. Hoffman, Natalie Harrison, London Wolff & Carri Westgarth (2014) Is That Dog a Pit Bull? A Cross-Country Comparison of Perceptions of Shelter Workers Regarding Breed Identification, Journal of AppliedAnimal Welfare Science, 17:4, 322-339, DOI:10.1080/10888705.2014.895904