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Bully This—The Results Are In…

Dr. Emily Weiss shares findings from new research on adopter choice and breed ID.

Last year the creative staff at Richmond SPCA came to us with a great idea—they wanted to see what impact a DNA analysis that would identify breed mixes would have on adopter choice. The ASPCA Shelter Research and Development department designed the study and provided a grant for Richmond SPCA to act as the shelter laboratory for this work. The Mars Wisdom Panel agreed to work with us on this project providing quick analyses. The question we are asking is, “When adopters are given a choice between adopting a dog labeled 'pit-type dog' and a dog who looks like a pit type and has a DNA panel identifying his breed mix, are they more likely to choose one over the other?”

The dogs who were subjects in this study were chosen through visual identification by Richmond SPCA intake staff as “pit mix” or “pit-type.” Dogs were placed in either a control group (where DNA analysis was not visible to the public, but the traditional cage card identified the dog as a “pit mix” or “pit-type”) or the experimental group, where the DNA analysis was visible to the public. Group placement was made random by the roll of dice.

It is important to note that the Wisdom Panel does not currently test for American Pit Bull, but does test for dog breeds often lumped into a category of bully type. Through informal survey of animal welfare professionals, we identified Staffordshire terrier, American Staffordshire terrier and American bulldog as the breeds most would agree fit into a “bully” or “pit-type” category (and yes, we acknowledge this can be endlessly debated).

Miller, one of the control subjects, and his Wisdom Panel report


The Richmond SPCA collected data on the number of visits with potential adopters each dog had, the length of stay on the adoption floor and returns; adopters also filled out a survey at the time of adoption. Each adopter filled out a survey in which they were asked to self-identify the dog’s breed, to write why they chose the dog they adopted and to rank specific characteristics that affected their decision to adopt the dog.

We ended up with 91 dogs in the study—50 in the experimental group and 41 in the control group. There were no significant differences in ages or sex between the two groups.

The first finding I am sharing here impacted our ability to answer some of the questions we were hoping to answer in a significant way. We found out just how well Richmond SPCA staff did in visually identifying dogs likely to have Staffordshire terrier, American Staffordshire terrier or American bulldog as at least 25% of their breed make-up. Out of the 91 dogs, only 4 dogs had none of these breeds in their DNA, and 57% had one of those breeds as the primary breed. 

Sugar100% American Staffordshire Terrier


Bubbles and her Wisdom Panel results


Sherman, one of the four dogs without Staff or American bulldog in his analysis. He is Irish setter, chow chow and Great Dane (and Trish Loehr thought a bit of bunny, too)!

The Wisdom panel results being visible to the public did not significantly impact the number of days to adoption or any of the other measures. Our survey found that a dog’s behavior with people was the number one reason for choosing the dog that they did, followed by appearance. I have written before that there is likely no shortage of people wanting dogs who look like or are bully-type dogs. Many of those who adopted said they specifically loved the breed type—making the behavior within individuals an important driver of choice.

So what does this all mean? The population of dogs coming into the sheltering population in Richmond, VA, may be different than elsewhere, but at least at the Richmond SPCA, with a specific look and type, staff were quite good at breed identification—correctly identifying 96% of the dogs in the study as having at least 25% of the breeds noted above. Having the information as to what breeds the dog had in his ancestry did not significantly impact the measures we were monitoring. As we anticipated that more of the dogs would not have bully-type breeds in their reports, we were not able to dive into the question of “he looks like a X but he really is a Y”—something that may still be worth exploring in order to better understand adopter choice. And in my opinion, the big takeaway here is that there are adopters who specifically love and want dogs who look like pit-type dogs—so let’s get them home already!


Related links:
“They Want ‘Em, They Really Do”
“If It Looks Like A Duck…”


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