Why it’s so difficult to correctly identify a dog’s breed

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

identify a dog's breed

Story at-a-glance -

  • It’s an established fact that most people, including most experts, can’t accurately determine a dog’s breed simply by looking at him or her
  • In a survey of 6,000 dog experts, respondents correctly identified a prominent breed an average of just 27% of the time
  • The animals who suffer the greatest injustice from breed misidentification are shelter dogs
  • It’s important to consider many things beyond the (presumed) breed of a dog when thinking about adoption — especially the animal’s known history with regard to behavior and past abuse, if any

What kind of dog is that? Most people who are interested in dogs are also interested in dog breeds and being able to identify a dog by its breed. As humans we like to categorize things to enhance our understanding of them, and to help us link the familiar with the unfamiliar.

For example, if you see a police K9, chances are you categorize him as a German shepherd dog (or a Belgian Malinois), and if you're familiar with the breed and perhaps the training K9s receive, your mind automatically forms certain impressions about that animal.

But there are problems with identifying a dog's breed simply by looking at him — a fact I'm sure many of you reading here today are already aware of. As it turns out, when people — including dog experts of every stripe — guess at a dog's breed based on his appearance, we're wrong a vast majority of the time.

Breed identification is used on legal forms, in searches for lost dogs and for prediction of behavioral and health traits. Hands down, the dogs who suffer most as a result of misidentification are those waiting for homes in shelters across the U.S. In fact, many shelters no longer offer breed information to potential adopters now that we understand just how inaccurate our guesses can be.

Survey of 6,000 experts shows just how wrong we can be when we try to identify breeds based solely on how a dog looks

In 2012, Maddie's® Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine conducted a national internet survey of almost 6,000 self-identified dog experts in the U.S., who were asked to identify the breeds of 100 shelter dogs based on photographs.1 Dr. Julie Levy, a professor of shelter medicine at UF then compared the results with DNA breed profiles for the dogs using the Mars Wisdom Panel.

The dog experts who participated in the survey included breeders, exhibitors, trainers, groomers, behaviorists, rescuers, shelter staff, veterinarians and veterinary technicians. For each dog, the experts selected the most likely breed from a drop-down menu of 20 breeds. Their answers were considered correct if a breed representing at least 25% of a dog's genetic makeup was selected. The survey respondents correctly identified a prominent breed an average of just 27% of the time. In addition:

  • Each dog had an average of 53(!) different predominant breeds selected by the experts
  • For 6% of the dogs, not one expert correctly identified the breed
  • For 22%, the correct breed was chosen less than 1% of the time
  • Only 15% of the dogs were correctly identified more than 70% of the time

The researchers concluded that:

"These results indicate that, regardless of profession, visual identification of the breeds of dogs with unknown heritage is poor. Faulty breed identifications may have lasting consequences, especially in areas where certain breeds are regulated or prohibited. An alternative method for describing the appearance of dogs should be developed."2

You can see all 100 dogs, their DNA test results and the top guesses of the experts who responded to the survey here.

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Why it's important to go beyond breed labels when considering adoption

In an interview with the online magazine Bark, Levy recommends that prospective dog parents consider factors beyond a dog's known or suspected breed (or breed mix) to determine whether he or she is a good fit for their family.3 After all, dogs are individuals, and dogs of the same breed — including siblings — don't necessarily look alike as adults or have the same personalities or temperaments.

Ask shelter staff about a prospective dog's size, energy level, personality, grooming requirements and other characteristics that are important to you. Is the dog good with kids? With cats? Shelter workers often have more of this type of information on dogs who've been in foster homes.

Some shelters and rescue groups allow potential adopters to take dogs home for a weekend, a day or an outing to get to know them better and see how they fit into the family's lifestyle. A dog's behavior in a shelter environment is often very different from her behavior at home.

Levy also recommends visiting shelters with an open mind. "People go to a shelter with specific vision in mind, but their perfect pet might be considerably different than that. Be open to surprises," she suggests.

6 questions to ask before adopting a dog

1. What is your soon-to-be dog's history? — How did he wind up at the shelter? Was he picked up as a stray, or did a previous owner turn him in? Generally speaking, the behavior of an animal who has survived the mean streets may differ from that of a relinquished family pet. This is good information to have for a better understanding of your new dog's behavior and training needs.

2. Has she been behavior-tested? — Most large shelters and rescue organizations perform basic behavior testing as part of their assessment of the adoptability of the animals they take in. Knowing what types of tests were conducted on your future dog and her results will help you fill in the gaps in her training if you decide to take her home.

Some shelters conduct very thorough behavior assessments that go far beyond determining adoptability and can provide insight into whether a particular dog is a good fit for your lifestyle. For example, if a dog you're interested in is very high energy and you're looking for a nap-loving pooch, the dog you have your eye on is probably better suited to someone else's home.

A comprehensive behavior and temperament assessment can determine a dog's level of sociability with other pets, her degree of independence and whether she's better suited for a home with children or an adult-only home.

3. Does your prospective dog have a known history of being abused? — If you know or suspect a dog was abused before he came to you, it's important to keep two things in mind: You shouldn't expect an overnight change in him, and you shouldn't count on a complete turnaround in his trust level or behavior.

It takes time to help an abused animal learn to be less fearful and develop trust in humans again. With knowledge, hard work and commitment, a previously abused pet can be transformed into a much-loved member of your family, but he can't be reborn. It's important to always remember that. Here are some general guidelines for creating a safe environment for a previously abused pet:

Make him feel loved and needed; communicate clearly, consistently and positively with him

Don't force anything on him under any circumstances — Allow him to adapt to his new family and life at his own pace. Provide him with a safe place where he can be alone when he feels like it

Protect him from whatever he fears

Create opportunities for him to be successful and build his confidence

Feed him a nutritionally optimal, species-appropriate diet and make sure he gets plenty of physical activity

Rehabilitating an abused dog can present challenges, because these animals have been exposed to negative things they may not be able to unlearn, despite your best efforts. But it's important to feel hopeful, because life-changing progress can be made and there's nothing more gratifying. The quirks that remain are scars from a life before you that may require indefinite patience on your part.

4. What veterinary care has she received? — Most animal adoption organizations arrange to have pets' health checked by a veterinarian before they're put up for adoption. Adoptive owners typically receive paperwork detailing the medical care the animal received while at the shelter.

It's not unusual for large shelters to err on the side of over-treating pets with an unknown medical history, so your new pet could come home with a fresh spay or neuter incision, dewormed, multiple topical pesticide applications and/or heavily vaccinated.

I have had many people tell me their reason for shopping, not adopting, is they don't want a vaccine-damaged animal, but I strongly encourage the opposite: Adopt and detox. You save a life, and the body's ability to recover from toxic events is amazing (in most cases).

Many shelters recommend that new owners take their dog to a veterinarian for an exam within a specified number of days from the date of adoption. Sometimes local veterinarians contract with shelters to provide the exams at no charge, and many younger vets are on board with titers and other proactive, common sense medical protocols.

If you feel your dog may have been medically over treated at the shelter, I suggest also making an appointment with an integrative veterinarian who can recommend a detoxification protocol to help bring her body back in balance.

5. What are the steps involved in the adoption? — Shelters and rescue groups vary widely when it comes to vetting prospective adoptive families. For example, some shelters allow adopters to take a new pet home immediately, or even for a trial period. Others require you to wait until the animal has been spayed or neutered, dewormed and/or vaccinated at the shelter.

Some organizations require home inspections before releasing a pet; others require potential adopters to bring other pets in the household and family members for a meet-and-greet before the adoption is finalized.

6. What food has he been eating? — Some shelters send newly adopted pets home with a supply of the food they've been eating, but if this isn't the case with your prospective dog, ask what the shelter is feeding and continue that diet for at least a week or two once he's home.

It's likely you'll want to transition him to a different food (preferably a nutritionally optimal, species-appropriate fresh food diet), but it doesn't need to happen on day one. Everything in your dog's new life with you will be a bit overwhelming and stressful for him in the beginning, so it's best not to add a dietary change to the mix right away. Transition to new food slowly, letting your dog's poop quality guide the way.

I also highly recommend a program called A Sound Beginning, which was lovingly and expertly designed to help rescue dogs and adoptive guardians learn to communicate effectively and form an unbreakable bond.