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Chicago shelter fights back against breed prejudices

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Danielle Braff
Danielle Braff
Queen Elizabeth was adopted from a Chicago-area shelter.Danielle Karpinos

By Danielle Braff

(Chicago) As the nation fights against racial discrimination, a Chicago shelter is battling its own biases - on a canine level.

It appears that many people are biased against pitbulls and non-glamorous dogs at the moment - and The Anti-Cruelty Society decided it was time for a change. Instead of listing their adoptable dogs by breed, they decided to list them with a photo and a description. No need for the breed name at all.

“We saw considerable bias against certain breeds which does not define how a dog might behave,” says Jennifer GoodSmith, the vice president of mission advancement at The Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago. “We are believers that how a dog behaves is an indication of their training or their life circumstances more than what breed they are.” 

Dogs labeled as “Pit Bulls” stay in a shelter for twice as long as dogs without that label on average, as many people believe that these dogs are aggressive. 

So to prepare an animal for adoption, the Anti-Cruelty Society conducts a full vet exam, plus a behavior screening. Then, they can provide information to each potential adopter about the specific animal.

“This is much more helpful than a breed that we determined based on what an animal looks like,” GoodSmith says.

A study found that when shelters don’t list the breed, the adoption rates for Pit Bulls rises, their euthanasia rate drops by 12 percent and they stay at the shelter for a shorter period of time. But removing the breed labels didn’t just benefit the Pit Bulls: when they got rid of the labels, the average stay at the shelter for all the dogs was reduced, the study found. 

The Wisconsin Humane Society also removed their breed labels, and found similar results.

“People often made assumptions about available dogs based on the breed label, that were not actually in accordance with the dog’s personality,” says Angela Speed, vice president of communications for the Wisconsin Humane Society, which operates five shelters and is based in Milwaukee. 

Speed says the breed labels were always an assumption on behalf of the shelter anyway, and were often found to be incorrect. In fact, another study found that shelter staff in general incorrectly identify a dog’s primary or secondary breed 67 percent of the time. 

Some potential adopters have questioned the lack of a breed labeling each dog at the shelter, but it hasn’t been a significant issue, GoodSmith says. The only real concern is when landlords and some insurance agencies have breed restrictions. They may not allow Pit Bulls in the building or they may add a fee for those who own them.

“As an animal welfare organization committed to protecting and caring for animals, we are working to change this bias, but in general, this has not been a concern during the adoption process,” GoodSmith says. A pet DNA test can always verify the exact breed of an animal post-adoption if necessary. 

The shelter’s fight against breed bias is part of a larger ongoing issue. Some states have enacted breed-specific legislation, a blanket term for laws banning or regulating specific dog breeds. More than 700 cities across the United States have these breed-specific laws, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have cited the inaccuracy of dog bite data along with the difficulty of the collaborating dog breeds which make these breed specific laws questionable. The CDC opposes BSL, as does the ASPCA. 

“The ASPCA is not aware of credible evidence that breed-specific laws make communities safer either for people or other companion animals,” the organization says in a statement. 

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