It's no surprise that pit bulls get a bad rap. It may also come as no surprise that pit bulls are the most common breed in shelters across the country. But are they really? There may be a problem of erroneously labeling mixed breed dogs as pit bulls, and that poses a serious issue for this misunderstood breed.

According to new research in Plos One led by Lisa Gunter of Arizona State University, "Current dog breed identification practices in animal shelters are often based upon information supplied by the relinquishing owner, or staff determination based on the dog's phenotype. However, discrepancies have been found between breed identification as typically assessed by welfare agencies and the outcome of DNA analysis."

Those discrepancies were highlighted in a recent study by Dr. Julie Levy of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, which showed that shelter staff and even experts are likely to determine a dog's breed by looks alone, and they are often inaccurate, especially when it comes to bully breeds.

And here's why that matters: Gunter's team discovered that dogs tagged with the pit bull label spend as much as three times longer in a shelter waiting for a forever family — even if the label is inaccurate.

The team conducted multiple studies looking at how adopters view dogs with and without pit bull labels. They also analyzed data from a shelter that stopped using breed labels on all dogs regardless of breed.

Gunter tells ResearchGate that "the average length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs awaiting adoption at Arizona Animal Welfare League was 42 days, but for lookalikes was only thirteen ... In our data analysis at Orange County Animal Services, removing breed labels was associated with increased adoptions and reduced length of stay for all breed groups."

Names really do matter

The results show that a label can make a big difference in how long a dog waits for a forever home. The study also points out that it might just be time for shelters to do away with breed labels entirely.

Having no labels means a person is looking at the dog specifically, rather than relying on a clouded view of mights and maybes based on breed expectations. Besides, many breed expectations are blanket concepts that don't necessarily apply to individual dogs, and dogs that wind up in shelters are often a hodgepodge of breeds, so predicting behavior is guesswork at best. Doing away with labels could be a solution to speed up adoptions across the country.

"A dog’s physical appearance cannot tell observers anything about its behavior. Even dogs of similar appearance and the same breed often have diverse behavioral traits in the same way that human siblings often have very different personalities," said Levy, in an interview about the study with University of Florida Health.

The pit bull label alone can mean significantly longer shelter stays, lower adoption rates and higher euthanasia rates. Those facts make a great argument for eliminating breed labels entirely from the shelter dog conversation and simply evaluating each dog as an individual.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.