Dropping breed labels

A dog at PACC

After floating the idea at the beginning of the year, the Pima Animal Care Center this summer officially stopped labeling the breeds of dogs up for adoption at its shelter in Tucson.

Back in January, PACC officials announced they were going to stop putting breeds on the cards hanging outside cages because they wanted to find homes for dogs who were missing out on being adopted because they’d been labeled a “pit bull” or some other hard-to-adopt breed.

At that time Justin Gallick, PACC’s executive director of community engagement, said pit bulls had been “vilified” by the media, and dogs so labeled might not be pit bulls at all.

However, a week later, officials said they were slowing down their plans because they needed to discuss how to change policies and procedures in the shelter, enforcement and adoption branches of the organization. They also hadn’t yet discussed the initiative with community stakeholders, such as the PACC Advisory Council and those communities that have a contract with the shelter.

PACC’s new director of animal services, Kristen Auerbach, said Friday that the shelter stopped labeling the dogs sometime prior to her arrival in July.

Kennel cards now indicate what commands the dog knows, what activities it likes, and personality traits, such as whether it likes to play with other dogs, gets along with cats or is independent or cuddly, she said.

“I’ve been in three communities where they removed breed labels and what people really want to know is who is the best fit for their family,” Auerbach said.

The fact is 75 percent of the time shelters don’t know what the genetic makeup of a dog is, and, when DNA tests are conducted, they often show a mix of up to 10 different breeds, Auerbach said.

Personally, she would like to see dogs of unknown genetics labeled as “mixed breed,” but the software designed for shelters to keep and analyze data doesn’t make that possible at this time, she said.

It’s human nature for people to ask what a dog is prior to adopting it and PACC staff are instructed to say they don’t know, Auerbach said.

In an article Auerbach wrote for the Animal Farm Foundation earlier this year, she said the term "pit bull" does not describe any breed of dog.

“It’s a subjective label that means different things to different people. It has no basis in science or genetics,” she wrote.

In an email this week, Auerbach wrote that the term “pit bull” commonly refers to more than 20 breeds and mixes of those breeds. She also pointed to a 2014 policy paper written by the Animals and Society Institute.

According to that article, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there were four common factors in the 256 fatal dog attacks between 2000 and 2009 and none of them were breed. In most of the attacks, no one was present to stop it, the victim was unfamiliar with the dog, the victim was unable to physically manage their interaction with the dog and the dog was not spayed or neutered.

The authors of the report stated the dangers of dog attacks had been blown out of proportion.

It said that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, only 1 in 91,558 deaths is the result of a fatal dog attack, and only 1 in every 2.6 million dogs in the U.S. is responsible for a fatality.

Lastly, the article stated just 1 to 2 percent of all emergency room visits by children under 14 involves a dog attack.

When PACC announced they were going to get away from breed labeling earlier this year, representatives from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and DogsBite.org were appalled.

“Tricking people into adopting dogs is not a safe and humane way of increasing adoptions,” said Teresa Chagrin, a Baltimore-based animal care and control specialist with PETA, in January. “When dogs exhibit behaviors and traits that are purposely bred into them for centuries, families need to know what they are getting into in order for them to provide the animal with the care they need.”

DogsBite.org founder Colleen Lynn of Texas also said at the beginning of the year that she and volunteers across the nation performed their own research and found that between 2005 and 2015, dogs killed 360 people, and 64 percent of the attacks involved pit bulls. The organization alleges pit bulls and Rottweilers contributed to 76 percent of the deaths.

In 2015, the organization found those two breeds accounted for 91 percent of dog-related deaths in the U.S.

The sole reason shelters want to stop labeling dogs is they want more pit bulls to be adopted, Lynn said.

The last time the Centers for Disease Control released a report on the issue was in 2000. Researchers obtained records from the Humane Society of the United States, news accounts and death certificates. They determined dogs killed 279 people between 1979 and 1994.

Pit bulls were at the top of the list, followed by Rottweilers, German shepherds, huskies, Alaskan malamutes, dobermans, chow chows, Great Danes, St. Bernards and Akitas.

Kim Smith | 547-9740