Breed Identification – Unintended Consequences
How do you know what breed – or mix of breeds your dog is? We know our dog Coral is an Irish setter because we purchased her from someone who we know has been breeding Irish setters for over 20 years. Not only does Coral look like an Irish setter (one who is bred for the field, not for show), but so did her mom, dad, grandmother, siblings, cousins, and aunts that we personally saw. She also is registered with the AKC as an Irish setter (which, by itself isn’t necessarily a determining factor) and we have her pedigree listing registered Irish setters going back several generations. In addition, every veterinarian she’s ever been to has identified her as Irish setter in her clinical records.
But what if you don’t have that sort of documentation?
Did your dog come from a shelter, a pet store or a previous owner, all of whom gave you their opinion about your dog’s breed, or mix or breeds, without any real way to know other than physical apperance? Did the shelter tell you your dog was a Labrador mix, and your veterinarian said nope, she thought your dog was more likely a shepherd mix? Do you think your dog might have some “pit bull” in him, even though his shelter or veterinary records identify him as a Boxer mix?
Recent research by Dr. Victoria Voith, a veterinary behaviorist, has shown that physical appearance is not an accurate way of identifying breeds, as this method has quite a low percentage of agreement with the results of DNA testing.
Turns out, breed identification may be more important than we think. In a recent article* in JAVMA (Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) the authors encourage veterinarians and animal shelters – and we would include ANY facility or business that houses, cares for, or trains dogs – to rethink their policy of identifying breeds based on visual inspection or owner opinions that aren’t factually based (i.e. the owner actually knows the sire or dam).
The reason for this is that identifying a dog as being of a certain breed, or mix of breeds can have consequences. Certain breeds are banned in some cities, including Denver. Although some states prohibit the practice, some insurance companies will deny coverage or increase premiums for ownership of certain breeds. Some airlines won’t fly certain breeds, and some children service providers won’t place children in homes where certain breeds are owned.
As alternatives, the authors suggest use of the term “American Shelter Dog” (coined by Marder and Voith) or the “All American Dog” (as suggested by the AKC) or simply the term “mixed breed” for dogs of unknown parentage.
Perhaps modifying terms for the latter could be added, such as small, medium, large or extra large, based on weight and/or height criteria established by the facility or business. However, if the breed of one or the other parent is known with certainty, it’s important to note this for medical reasons at least. Some breeds are predisposed to certain diseases, while others have genetic conditions that are breed specific.
Misidentification can also create erroneous assumptions about behavioral tendencies. In addition, the behavioral predispositions of hybrid animals can be completely unlike the behavior of either parent.
The current best practice regarding breed identification that seems to be evolving is to avoid identifying a dog as a mix comprised of specific breeds in any sort of permanent record based only on appearance or someone else’s opinion, when there is no first-hand evidence or documentation to support the ID. Instead, generic terms as those suggested should be used to avoid unintended consequences.
*Simpson, R.J., Simpson, K.J. and L. VanKavage, 2012. Rethinking dog breed identification in veterinary practice. JAVMA 241 (9): 1163-1166.