Earlier this week, Kelly Ripa, a popular morning talk show host, in an interview with a guest, made a comment that set the “pit bull” dog community into a minor tailspin. For those that missed the show, Ms. Ripa said to her guest, in reference to his character’s dog, “But the gangster’s dog is uh, I mean if it’s a gangster it would have to be a dangerous, uh, Pit Bull kind of dog, right?”

The blowback has been swift – the “pit bull” dog owning public does not want to be mischaracterized as a bunch of gangsters. We agree.

Ms. Ripa relied on stereotypes and myths when she made the choice to characterize the dog as a “pit bull”. The public perception continues to be that only criminals own “pit bull” dogs, despite the fact that they are the overwhelming majority of “pit bull” dogs live completely wonderfully unremarkable lives as everyday pets in everyday families. We have a lot of work to do to change the deeply ingrained stereotype that led Ms. Ripa to think otherwise.

What we’re working to help the public understand – including lawmakers – is that problematic “pit bull” dog owners, like “gangsters”, are the chronic fringe of the population of people who own dogs. They are not the majority (not even close to it) and yet this small group has a disproportionate effect on how the dogs are perceived and treated.

The real majority is made up of everyday, average “pit bull” dog families. It’s an unremarkable bunch. They follow the law, care about their dogs well-being, want to live in safe communities, and are, overwhelmingly, just like any other dog owner.

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The news cameras aren’t lining up to cover the millions of law-abiding, good neighbors and just plain boring “pit bull” dog families, but they are, WE ARE, indeed, the majority:

Banfield Pet Hospitals, the largest general veterinary practice in the world, reports that the percentage of “pit bull” dogs visiting their clinics in the U.S. has increased by 47% over the past decade. Not only are “pit bull” dogs popular, but they’re owned by people who are responsible enough to take them to the vet.

And a recent survey by Vetstreet concluded that dogs identified as “pit bulls” are one of the most popular family dogs in this country.

It’s not easy to come up with a flashy stereotype for responsible “pit bull” dog owners. There’s no hook in the mundane, everyday lives of responsible “pit bull” dog families who hang out on the couch with their dogs. But it’s the truth.

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This not-so-exciting truth needs a lot of help to be pushed back into the spotlight, in order to crowd out the fringe minority that, with their powerful stereotype and hysteria-inducing headlines, have taken center stage away from everyday families.

Which means that as “pit bull” dog advocates, we have work to do – on ourselves. We need to be mindful of the language we use when we discuss our dogs, the messages we send to our community, our behavior when we speak up in defense of our dogs, and the stereotypes we ourselves buy into.

Because, make no mistake about it, the animal welfare world relies on some of the same stereotypes that Ms. Ripa rubbed up against in her interview.

Here are a few examples:

STEREOTYPE: “Good Families Don’t Want “Pit Bull” Dogs”: We frequently hear from shelter executives who, as justification for NOT adopting out “pit bull” dogs, tell us that “good” families don’t come to shelters to adopt “pit bull” dogs. They tell us, over and over, that only people in “baggy pants” want to adopt “pit bull” dogs and in order to keep the dogs safe, they don’t place them for adoption or they place heavy restrictions on “pit bull” dog adoptions.

This kind of rational winds up causing damage on two levels: it’s an unfair policy that prevents good dogs the chance to go home with adopters and it sends a message to the larger community that only criminals want “pit bull” dogs. This perpetuates the stereotype and solidifies, in the minds of the public, that somethings is different about “those” dogs.

STEREOTYPE: “Our Shelter is Flooded with Unwanted “Pit Bull” Dogs”:  Another way animal welfare advocates feed the stereotype is by declaring that their shelters are “flooded with unwanted pit bulls.” Once again, the message to the public is that no one wants these dogs.

While the intentions behind the statement may be good  – “please adopt a pit bull!” – the message the public receives is different. It tells the average person that there must be a reason no one want these dogs. And, using the power of stereotyping and myth, they can only infer that the reason the unwanted dogs are flooding the shelter is that there must be something is wrong with the dogs themselves.

STEREOTYPE: “If a Dog Has Cropped Ears, It Was Probably Fought”: When we speculate about a dog’s past, particularly those with an unknown history, and we guess that dogs with cropped ears, scars, or fearful behavior are victims of dog fighting or other criminal activity, we burden the dogs with labels that may or may not be true and, more importantly, have little relevance to their future.

This type of speculation does two damaging things: it distracts us from seeing the dogs as they are, in the present. And it further solidifies the stereotype: “pit bull” dogs are criminal’s dogs.

So, let’s face it: the animal welfare world is guilty of reinforcing stereotypes too. It’s not an easy habit to break, but we must, if we want to help the dogs.

Rather than perpetuating the idea that “pit bull” dogs are unwanted, except by gangsters and dog fighters, we’re asking animal advocates to help everyday “pit bull” dog owners to step into the spotlight and take the starring role as stereotypical “pit bull” dogs owners.

We can do this by:

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Speaking positively and accurately on behalf of the dogs and adopters, rather than speculating about their past, assuming no one wants them, and stereotyping the adopters that want to adopt “pit bull” dogs.

Highlighting successful adoptions in our communities, rather than relaying the message that no one cares. Let the public know that millions of “pit bull” dogs are family pets. Tell the public that “pit bull” dogs are wanted, adopted, and cared for by loving, responsible, diverse families that live right next door.

It’s time that we get serious about helping average families step into the spotlight, so that they have a chance to push the old stereotype off of center stage.

And maybe one day, Ms. Ripa, in searching for a good stereotype, might say, “But the neighbor’s dog is, I mean if it’s your neighbor it would have to be a family pet, a Pit Bull kind of dog, right?”

Want to learn more about this topic? Please see our website section: Labels and Language.

p.s. Kudos to Will Wheaton for using social media to remind us all of this very point (via a quote from Caesar Milan). It’s up to all of us to help the public see the dogs and their owners in a whole new light.

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