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A Rover by any other name

Removing breed labels from shelter dogs can help them find homes.
When adopting a dog, consider its individual personality, not breed stereotypes.
March 29, 2016

Removing breed labels from shelter dogs beneficial for both canines and humans

No bones about it: Pit bulls get a bad rap.

The breed’s unfortunate history — which includes their use in bull-baiting and dog fighting — has detrimentally influenced public opinion of them as inherently aggressive. More recently, media reports that incorrectly label dogs who bite and attack humans as pit bulls have only served to reinforce the stereotype.

“In my opinion, there’s an issue with the public’s perception of pit bulls,” said Lisa Gunter, a third-year psychology doctoral student conducting research in the Canine Science CollaboratoryThe Canine Science Collaboratory is housed in Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. at ASU. “It’s a very divisive issue. People have really strong feelings on both sides.”

Gunter recently published the results of a series of four studies on the breed in the journal PLOS-1, titled “What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions & Labeling on Attractiveness, Adoptions & Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs.”

The impetus behind the studies, said Gunter, was simple: She wanted to help dogs find their way out of shelters and into their forever homes. To do that, she and her team first had to prove that the negative perception of pit bulls phenomenon was real. Then, they had to test ideas for different types of interventions that could change that negative perception.

In the first study, participants were shown photos of dogs that looked like pit bulls (but may or may not have been) as well as photos of dog breeds more traditionally kept as family pets, like Labrador retrievers and border collies. They were asked a series of questions when viewing each dog, such as how comfortable they would feel approaching it, how friendly it looked, how intelligent it looked and whether they would consider adopting it.

“That first study helped us confirm what our suspicions were, that pit bulls would be perceived negatively by the participant,” said Gunter. “That parallels what we see in society about how people view pit bull dogs.”

There was a silver lining, though. When participants were shown photos of pit-bull-type dogs accompanied by a human handler, it “profoundly” changed their perception for the better, Gunter said.

“I was surprised at how just putting a person in the photograph can make a difference,” she added, noting that photos of dogs on shelter websites almost never include a human handler, the addition of which she suggests could make a big difference in helping to find that dog a home.

The second study asked participants to compare photos of pit bulls with photos of dogs that were phenotypically similar (pit bull “look-alikes”). Gunter and her team found no difference in the perceived attractiveness between the two groups of dogs.

The third study used video recordings of pit bulls and look-alikes playing at shelters. In some videos, the breeds were labeled; in others they were not. Results showed people’s perceptions of the dogs changed based on whether or not the breed was labeled — that is, the pit bull label negatively impacted the perceived attractiveness of the dogs. What’s more, the research showed that negative perceptions had a much stronger impact on decision-making — such as whether to adopt a dog — than positive perceptions.

The fourth and final study used real data from an animal shelter that had stopped labeling the breed of adoptable dogs. Gunter and her team compared data collected over a couple of years that looked at lengths of stay and outcomes for all dog breeds, including pit bulls, before and after the change in labeling practice. What they found suggested that overall, breed labeling influences potential adopters' perceptions and decision-making.

The whole practice of breed labeling is problematic to begin with, explained Gunter, because we’re just not that great at identifying them. And getting rid of the practice is something that can help all dogs.

“Shelter dogs are almost always mixed-breed dogs,” she said. “We don’t know their heritage; we may not even know their background. So the conclusion we formed after these studies is how important it is to evaluate the individual dog that’s in front of you.”

At that point, the dog’s breed becomes less important, and it’s more of a conversation about whether a particular dog’s personality fits with someone’s lifestyle.

“Without breed labels, the dog can be whoever [a potential adopter] wants them to be,” Gunter said. “That’s a pretty powerful thing. If that dog looks like a cocker spaniel and reminds them of their dog from childhood, then great. It’s that dog to them. And when it becomes a conversation, that’s what can hopefully get more dogs out of shelters and into good homes.”

Top photo by Odan Jaeger/

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Getting girls into science

March 29, 2016

ASU, MET Professional Academy team up to show Peoria 8th-graders what it's like to pursue a career in science

It’s a great big world of science out there. And picking your own path is just part of the fun, a group of middle school girls learned recently at Arizona State University.

“Make sure that you’re always open to all kinds of things,” Arizona State University biogeochemist and oceanographer Hilairy Hartnett told the eighth-graders from the Peoria Unified School District. “You never know what might be more exciting than you think.

“So if you have a chance to take a class you never thought of, if you get a chance to do a weekend field trip in some topic you never thought about, go for it. You never know how it’s all going to fit together.”

The dozens of students — with their school district’s Medical, Engineering and Technology (MET) Professional Academy — were visiting ASU’s School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. as part of an effort to get more girls interested in STEM fields, just in time for Women’s History Month.

“We are sponsoring this trip ... to create a pipeline for eighth-grade students who have expressed an interest in science, engineering, technology or math, to give them exposure and get them excited and empowered,” said Adriana Parsons, MET Professional Academy director.

The goal of that program is to prepare students for careers in high-demand industries.

Hartnett, who runs the CaNDy (Carbon and Nitrogen Dynamics) Lab at ASU, talked to the girls about her experience in the science field, the type of research done at the lab and encouraged the students to seize opportunities when they present themselves. The students then toured her lab.

“These days there is a lot of different ways to do science,” said Hartnett, an associate professor. “Some of it is very specific. You can do chemistry or biology or engineering. Or you can be a more general scientist if get a degree in an interdisciplinary field.”

Later in a classroom, seven ASU undergraduate and graduate students — all women — shared with the girls what they study at SESE, from astrobiology and stars, to life on Mars. Each table of students was given a task: Out of eight areas of research, pick one and discuss how many scientists it would take to study this field.

It was then that a room full of girls who didn't know each other, from different schools within the Peoria Unified School District, began to brainstorm. A quiet room with hushed voices turned loud, with engaging conversations, head nodding, agreement and laughter. Each table had one of the seven ASU students asking thought-provoking questions of the girls.

“One of the main goals of the MET Professional Academy is to increase female participation,” Parsons said.

Nya Udengwu, an eighth-grader from Kachina Elementary School, became interested in technology, engineering and math from a prior visit to ASU. She envisions the world much different than past generations, when few women were employed in these fields.

“For me personally, I’m motivated and I know I can do it,” she said. “But in some places where people aren’t getting the motivation that they need, it’s kind of hard for them to push forward. They don’t have that help.”

During this visit, Udengwu wanted to see what ASU had to offer, and Hartnett summed it up perfectly: Because ASU is such a big university, it is a great place to not know what you want to do. It’s an opportunity to explore and find out what you like.

Parsons hoped the students felt empowered — especially during a time when “like a girl” can still have a negative connotation and women are still breaking down many barriers. So what do students tell people who doubt their intelligence and ability because you’re a girl pursuing a career in STEM?

As eighth-grader Lydia Barkel from Vistancia Elementary School said, “Bring it on!”

Senior Media Relations Coordinator , EdPlus