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UF Study Analyzes Negative Attitudes Toward Pit Bulls

Milo, a 3-year-old pit bull rescued from a dog fight bust, was adopted by Hayley Reiter and her boyfriend about 8 months ago from the rescue organization Plenty of Pit Bulls. Reiter had such a positive adoption experience that she is now a volunteer with the organization. Photo courtesy of Hayley Reiter.
Milo, a 3-year-old pit bull rescued from a dog fight bust, was adopted by Hayley Reiter and her boyfriend about 8 months ago from the rescue organization Plenty of Pit Bulls. Reiter had such a positive adoption experience that she is now a volunteer with the organization. Photo courtesy of Hayley Reiter.

When Hayley Reiter and her boyfriend went to the pet store to pick up cat litter, they did not know they would also make a decision that would change their lives – and the life of one lucky dog.

“My boyfriend turned and looked at Milo and said ‘that’s our dog’,” she said.

Milo is one of 26 pit bulls that were rescued from a fighting ring in Apopka and found physically mistreated and malnourished, Reiter, 21, said.

He was adopted from Plenty of Pit Bulls, a Gainesville organization that advocates for pit bull adoptions, during a pet adoption day at a pet store. He has since returned to a healthy weight and has even befriended Reiter’s cat.

But not all pit bulls have the same fate.

For decades, pit bulls have been stigmatized as aggressive dogs and are subject to breed specific legislation, said Julie K. Levy, a University of Florida veterinary professor.

A new UF study published last month, conducted by Levy, tested animal shelter staff’s accuracy in correctly identifying dog breeds to examine how these factors affect the adoption rate of pit bulls, Levy said.

“It was no surprise that they were bad at it when compared to the DNA testing,” she said, “but they also didn’t agree with each other.”

According to Levy, the research team picked four animal shelters in Florida as well as 30 dogs from each shelter and four people from each shelter, one of which was a veterinarian. Each of the 120 dogs was photographed and the pictures were shown to the 16 people, who were asked to guess what he or she thought each dog’s breed was.

The research team then conducted DNA testing on each of the animals and matched the results with the guesses. Before guessing the dogs’ breeds, each person was asked to look at the dog and simply answer if it was one of the pit bull breeds or not.

The study, made possible by Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program through the UF College of Veterinary Medicine, showed that respondents incorrectly identified a prominent breed in a shelter dog 73 percent of the time. Levy used the term "prominent breed" to refer to the breed that was most present in mixed-breed dogs.

Pit bull-type breeds were defined in the study as American pit bull terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, pit bull and their various mixes.

“People might take pit bulls home not knowing because it doesn’t look like one, and by the same token just because a dog looks like a pit bull doesn’t mean it is,” she said.

She said the study was motivated by the disadvantage pit bulls face when it comes to adoption, as a result of policies or legislation.

“If there is a rental property that doesn’t allow pit bulls, or house insurance says you can’t have pit bulls but people can’t identify them reliably then the whole system is erroneous,” Levy said.

In Florida, a 1989 law prohibits pit bull ownership in Miami-Dade County. Pit bull owners can be subjected to a $500 fine and court action will force the removal of the animal from the county.

As part of a bigger umbrella study, Levy said the pictures of the dogs from the study were posted online and dog experts across the country were invited to guess the dogs’ breeds.

More than 5,000 people participated, and more than 70 percent of the time, only 15 percent of the dogs were correctly identified.

Levy has been researching animal welfare issues for two decades and said pit bulls are often bred to the point of overpopulation.

Levy referenced a different study and added that when it comes to dog attacks, media outlets are less likely to mention the breed if the dog isn't a pit bull. She also said that when the media identifies dogs as pit bulls, often later investigations will show that they are not.

“We are hoping to teach the public that they are just dogs and we should assess them individually rather than trying to stereotype them as a group,” she said. “There are some pit bulls that are poorly behaved. There are some nice pit bulls, but that is true for all breeds.”

Bayley O’Donnell, a veterinary technician at the Alachua County Human Society, (ACHS) said dogs have been returned to the Humane Society because of breed restrictions.

In one instance, she said a man returned a dog because his apartment complex has a policy prohibiting pit bulls and staff at the complex thought the dog looked like a pit bull, even though ACHS lists the dog as a boxer breed.

ACHS has included a line in its adoption papers that reads, “ACHS makes no guarantee as to its breed,” referring to its animals.

However, there are local groups, like Plenty of Pit Bulls, that advocate pit bull adoptions.

Hayley Reiter adopted Milo from Plenty of Pit Bulls about eight months ago. She said she had such a positive experience with the adoption process that she decided to become a volunteer for the organization.

She mentioned that one of the pit bulls that were rescued alongside Milo in the fight bust went on to be a therapy dog.

“How sweet my dog is made me want to advocate for these dogs who have such a bad rap through the media,” she said. “It made me want to show people how kindhearted they can be even after a situation of serious neglect and abuse.”

Laura is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.