Chris Leblanc / Houma Courier
That person is typically wrong more than half the time, breed recognition experts say.
The term pit bull doesn't describe a single breed, according to the American Kennel Club. It's a generic term for a type of dog, in the same vein as the terms hound or retriever.
According to the AKC, pit bull-type dogs emerged from England around the turn of the 19th century. They resulted from cross-breeding bulldogs and terriers to create the muscles and stamina required for bull baiting and dog fighting.
Modern breeds officially referred to as pit bulls include the American Staffordshire terrier, Bull terrier and Staffordshire bull terriers. The United Kennel Club also recognizes the American pit bull terrier the only breed with the words pit bull in its name as a pit bull breed.
Without clear knowledge of a dog's genealogical history, it is almost impossible to definitively determine its breed, animal experts say.
But in Louisiana and elsewhere in the country, identification is typically decided by animal control agents, law enforcement officers, shelter workers or even owners.
To illustrate the issue, The Courier and Daily Comet went to the Terrebonne and Lafourche animal shelters and asked staff members to produce pit bulls for photos. The animals' physical traits varied.
'It's typically based on the appearance of the dog. We look at traits attributed to particular dog breeds,' Terrebonne Parish Animal Shelter Manager Valerie Robinson said.
Robinson said it is not uncommon for animal control employees to have different opinions regarding a specific animal's breed.
A 2008 study conducted by the University of Florida's Maddie's Shelter Medicine program sought to determine how often animal-shelter staff got a dog's breed wrong.
The study found that half of the dogs identified as pit bulls by shelter staff had no genetic ties to any official pit bull breed.
Researchers conclude that the 'lack of consistency among shelter staff in breed assignment suggests that visual identification of pit bulls is unreliable.'
To combat differences in opinion, some municipalities have implemented checklists designed to minimize the guesswork.
In Miami, Florida, a ban utilizes a 47-point checklist in its identification process. Officials say the checklists don't solve the problem.
'Regardless of whether or not it's a checklist, you're still eyeballing it,' Robinson said.
Veterinarian Neal Hebert, of Houma's Animal Kingdom Veterinary Hospital, agrees that visual identification of animals, checklist or no checklist, is unreliable.
'A lot of times people judge a dog without having full information,' Hebert said. 'Dealing with mixed breed varieties, a dog may be one-tenth (American) pit bull terrier and it is automatically classified as a pit bull.'
Hebert said DNA analyses conducted by veterinarians are much more reliable when it comes to determining breed.
Experts at the United Kennel Club also agree that visual identification methods are unreliable.
Sara Chisnell, the club's legal counsel, said 'physical characteristics are too generalized and many apply to multiple breeds.
'I personally could not look at a dog with unknown ancestry and claim to know for certain what breed it might be, and I have a background in dogs and work for a dog registry,' she said. 'How is an inexperienced law enforcement official with no canine education or background expected to make that call? It leads to baseless, arbitrary and often incorrect identifications.'
Chisnell also takes issue with DNA tests which she calls 'unreliable.'
'There are too many strains among breeds for it to be completely accurate,' she said.
Given the uncertainty of breed identification, Chisnell says it's impossible to create legally sound breed-specific bans.
'There is no legally accepted method to positively identify breeds or mixes,' she said. 'When it comes to applying laws to dogs, each dog should be evaluated as the individuals they are.'
Not only is it impossible to accurately identify breeds, it is also impossible to predict behavior of dogs with unknown ancestry, Chisnell said.