L A N G U A G E THE LANGUAGE OF ADVOCACY

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1 THE LANGUAGE OF ADVOCACY equal Securing treatment and opportunity for pit bull dogs A N I M A L FA R M FOUNDATION, INC. SINCE 1985 Language reflects habit, not thought, said Cynthia Bathurst, Executive Director and Founder of Safe Humane Chicago and Advisor to the National Canine Research Council. This is a particularly true statement for animal advocates and owners/guardians of pit bull dogs. As we work to end discriminatory practices for pit bull dogs, it has become increasingly clear that the language we use to advocate for the dogs and their people often has unintended negative consequences. With an ever expanding pool of modern science, research, and collective experiences available to us, we now have the opportunity to speak accurately and scientifically about the dogs and the people for whom we advocate. In other words, we now have the power to take positive action for animals by sharing fact-based information with the media and with the general public. This short paper is designed to help us critically examine our language and messaging in order to advocate effectively for pit bull dogs, their guardians, and for safe and humane communities. YOUR WORDS ARE INTERPRETED AS FACT As members of the animal welfare community, our audience views us as experts whenever we speak to the media and with the public. This is a good thing, but it s crucial to recognize that when we are viewed as the experts on a subject, our words become engrained as fact regardless of whether or not those words are supported by current research. L A N G U A G E

2 Here is one example of how the words of an expert became engrained as fact, even though there was no valid scientific evidence to support the claim. In 1982 a dog fighting expert from the Los Angeles Police Department claimed that pound for pound, the pit bull probably is the strongest animal in the world. He added, His powerful jaws have about 1,600 pounds per square inch crushing power, about twice that of a German shepherd. Following are two examples of cities with discriminatory dog laws based in part by the scientifically false belief that pit bull dogs have jaws that pose a unique threat to public safety. These examples come from the dog ordinances in Boston (Massachusetts) and Denver (Colorado), respectively, and are currently in place (as of 2012): Boston, MA: Denver, CO: The expert s claim has since been disproven by scientific research: WHEN OLD SOUND BITES BECOME DANGEROUS FACTS With the advent of the 24/7 news cycle and social media we are now flooded with slogans and sound bites about pit bull dogs and their guardians. Unfortunately, much of this information is based on old habituated ideas, but is perceived and perpetuated as fact. If we re not careful, much of it ultimately works

3 against the animals and people for whom we advocate. Therefore, we owe it to our mission to closely examine the information that we repeat and ask ourselves: Is what I m saying based on fact, or am I saying this out of habit? Below is a list of phrases commonly used to describe pit bull dogs and their guardians. Note how the quotes used to advocate against the dogs and people are very similar to those used to advocate for them.

4 CASE STUDY: IT S IN THEIR BLOOD Because of the myths and hysteria that have perpetuated, the animal welfare field has historically accepted misinformation over the experiences we have had with the pit bull dogs right in front of us. Sadly, this animal welfare professional s words it s in their blood continues to haunt pit bull dogs today. We regularly observe this very misinformation being used to advocate against equal treatment and opportunity for victims of cruelty. CASE STUDY: ENDING DOG FIGHTING HYSTERIA Animal welfare professionals used to accept that the crime of dog fighting was an epidemic throughout the U.S., therefore it was common practice to make assumptions about pit bull dogs and their guardians. In doing so, communities were subjected to unfounded hysteria that perpetuated misconceptions and fear, making it even harder for animal welfare professionals to place pit bull dogs as family pets in loving homes. As early as 1978, an animal welfare professional in Boston spoke to the media about five pit bull dogs confiscated in an alleged dog fighting operation. It s a shame, she said, because they are really sweet dogs. But they re pit bulls. They re trained to kill other dogs; it s in their blood. Even though her direct experience with the dogs was positive, because of their owners history and because they were pit bull dogs, these dogs became victims of myths and hysteria. Thankfully, much has changed in the past few decades, and even in the past few years. With support from national and local animal organizations, the norm is now to evaluate every dog as an individual based on his/her behavior and pet qualities. However, this case study underscores the need to speak accurately and scientifically about the dogs for which we advocate. While the criminal activity of dog fighting does exist, the experts now say it s not nearly as widespread as was once believed. In July 2012 the Humane Society of the United States Pets for Life Manager, Kenny Lamberti, told the Philadelphia media: "Dog fighting and we're not naive and we're not blind we're not saying it doesn't exist, but through our work and what we see in these communities across the country, it's really a minimal problem," he said. "It exists, but it's really under the radar and in the shadows. Focusing on that, we really weren't touching enough people or enough pets." The experiences of national organizations and local jurisdictions alike have shown that, more so than dog fighting, the lack of affordable and accessible pet care is a far greater threat to the human-animal bond, including the bond shared with pit bull dogs. Communities that have focused on providing affordable and accessible pet care as opposed to focusing on the small minority of people who engage in criminal activity, and singling out pit bull dogs have seen vast improvements in pet retention. They have contributed to safer, more humane

5 communities for people and pets alike, while diminishing the negative perceptions of pit bull dogs and their guardians. PERPETUATING THE CYCLE OF FEAR AND DISCRIMINATION By asking ourselves how our message resonates with others, especially those outside of the animal welfare world, we can break the cycle that leads to discrimination and ensure that all dogs receive equal treatment and opportunity in our care and beyond. HOW CAN I SPEAK POSITIVELY AND ACCURATELY ON BEHALF OF PIT BULL DOGS The answer lies in a simple solution: look at the pit bull dogs in front of us and speak about each dog as an individual. Refrain from speculating about a dog s past, if it is unknown, or falling back on outdated information and stereotypes. It is equally important to ask ourselves: How is my message being heard by those outside the animal welfare network and by decision-makers? In addition, scientific research and collective experience have proven the following: Every dog is an individual and deserves to be viewed as such, free from stereotypes about breed or appearance. Above is an example of how the general public and key decision-makers have responded to the often repeated plea, Help! Our shelter is flooded with unwanted pit bulls. As this graphic illustrates, our well-intentioned pleas for help can have the unintended consequence of making pit bull dogs appear different than the rest. Although our intention is to draw attention to the dogs we see in need of assistance, others interpret our message to mean that pit bull dogs that are damaged, perhaps deviant and less inclined to be everyday family pets. There is no behavior that is unique to a single breed or kind of dog. A dog s physical and behavioral traits will be the result of multiple factors, including genetics, training, management and environment. The term pit bull no longer refers to a single breed or group of dogs. It is an arbitrary label as signed to a growing number of purebred or mixed-bred dogs based on subjective interpretations of the dog s physical appearance, not necessarily because of his/her behavior, pedigree, or genetic composition.

6 The majority of the 78 million dogs living in the U.S. today including dogs labeled as pit bulls are mixed-breed dogs. Veterinary behaviorists have proven that there is no standard by which we can reliably identify the breed composition of mixed-breed dogs based on appearance or behaviors. The quality of a dog s current relationship to humans is a crucial determinant of the dog s current social behavior. Even dogs that were raised under the harshest conditions have gone on to become loving family pets. Despite increases in both human and canine populations (314 million and 78 million, respec-tively), dog bites in the United States are at historic lows. We are safer than we ve been at any point in historlargely due to dangerous dog laws that target reckless owners instead of a dog s breed or appearance. There are millions of everyday pit bull dog owners who live peacefully and unremarkably with their family pets. They are the rule, not the exception; the small minority of reckless owners are not the norm for any type of dog owner, including pit bull dogs. The animals and people we advocate for are depending on us to speak accurately and honestly on their behalf. Rather than perpetuate old stereotypes and myths, we encourage advocates to think critically about their language and messaging.

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