Finding a Dog at a Shelter: Berkeley Study Confirms That Identifying a Dog's Breed is Harder Than It Appears
Editor's Note: We have had purebred dogs ( West Highland White Terrier, Pulik) for decades but have also considered mixed breeds as our husband's family has in the past. But since many of our readers have or are considering acquiring a dog ... or a cat ... we felt this recent article of interest.
What do you get when you cross a German Shepherd with a Cocker Spaniel? The answer, the California City of Berkeley's shelter has discovered, is that it's really anyone's guess. And that's part of the reason the municipal shelter is changing the way it adopts out animals.
A grant from Maddie's Fund* allowed Berkeley Animal Care Services, the City shelter, to test DNA from 46 of its available dogs. The DNA results were compared with the breed labels shelter staff members assigned to the dogs at intake — a guess based on the dogs' appearances.
The findings proved striking: Guesses by staff, a knowledgeable and practiced group, turned out to be accurate about 30% of the time. (In similar tests, the general population has shown to be correct about 25% of the time.) And when they looked at data from just the mixed breeds in the sample, guesses were correct less than 20% of the time. Mixed breeds make up the majority of dogs at Berkeley Animal Care Services, the only shelter in Berkeley that opens its doors to any dog in the city that might need a new home. Again, the finding aligns with similar studies in which experts were asked to identify breed based on appearance.
The dog in this photograph is part Cocker Spaniel. Who'd have guessed?
The findings matter. People enjoy having dogs because of how they affect their lives. They might want a cuddler, a runner, a pup who'll play at the beach or a senior who's calm with kids. But many get seduced or disenchanted by a perceived breed label, an identity that DNA science says doesn't predict behavior.
In short, the City of Berkeley shelter's results confirmed what scientific research has been showing for the last 50 years: Due to the way dogs' traits are inherited, it's incredibly difficult to determine breed based on how the animal looks, regardless of whether the individual guessing is an expert. So, with the aim of ensuring happier and long-lasting matches, the City of Berkeley shelter is changing the way it identifies its incoming animals: Rather than guessing at breed, staff will label dogs based on observations about their personalities and temperaments — the qualities people ultimately want in a furry companion.
The idea is to begin training potential adopters to think in terms of behavior and expectations of their pets, rather than a specific look. For example, an adopter might come in hoping to find a so-called Poodle or Doberman — and leave the building with an American Sofa Dog or a Sierra Stair Stepper. Whimsical, yes, but these new names will be rooted in observation, designed to conjure a distinct personality trait or two.
The shelter will use these labels on kennels. However, on online adoption sites or lost and found sites, we'll still make our best guess at a breed to help people looking for a lost dog.
We believe the new labels will translate into smoother and more successful pairings. Our goal is to not only help adopters picture how dogs will look in their homes, but how they'll fit into their lives.
* MaddieCam Network
The MaddieCam Network is made up of dynamic organizations across the country with one goal — to find a loving space for America’s homeless pets. From the East Coast to the West Coast and everywhere in between, stream live playtime and downtime no matter the time zone. #MaddieCam #ThanksToMaddie
The 60/6/60 Program
Berkeley, California Animal Care Services Special Program for Seniors!
A squirming young pup may be fun to watch, but can be hard to keep up with. If your puppy years are behind you too, you may find that an older animal is ready to be great companion.
We want to make it easy for you. If you’re sixty or over, and you adopt a dog or cat who is 6 or more years old, you’ll get a 60% discount on the adoption fee.
To learn more, visit our "Adopt a Pet" page or call us directly!
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