What Do “Pit Bulls” and Unicorns Have In Common?
Listen to the episode
We know this is going to be a controversial and emotional podcast episode, as so many people are attached to the term. It was an emotional topic for us to discuss, too.
Nicole has always felt that while it makes sense for scientists, journalists and animal welfare workers to be completely accurate in how they talk about dogs, individual dog owners should be able to call their dogs whatever they want – even if that term doesn’t refer to anything that has a solid definition and, in fact, refers to something that doesn’t actually exist.
And if you’re thinking “But what about American pit bull terriers!?” don’t worry, we cover that. But to get to the point, very few people use it to refer to a specific breed. It may have had that meaning once but the term has been diluted and no longer has any real meaning.
Janis Bradley, Director of Communications and Publishing for the National Canine Research Council, the term is just as relevant as calling a dog a unicorn. She steps in to discuss the damage the inaccurate label of “pit bull” can cause to dogs and their owners. And, most importantly, she explains why it’s an empty term with no real definition – which is what makes it dangerous.
It has no definition, but it has a whole lot of stereotypes associated with it – both negative and positive.
Yes, there are positive stereotypes associated with the term, but they’re just that, stereotypes and stereotypes of any kind don’t do anyone any favors. Remember, it’s not a term of endearment for everyone who uses it.
The use of this non-defined label, even in our own homes, creates the perfect conditions for scapegoating. Because there is no definition and no standard, because “pit bulls” don’t actually exist, we can apply the label to any dog – effectively labeling that dog a “villain” in our collective unconscious because the label is so loaded with negativity.
We don’t realize it, but when we use the term we are enforcing one of the very things we know to be false – that any dog with this label is dangerous.
“You’re affirming that this group actually exists and that we know what it consists of and we’ve seen that this just isn’t so.”
“It allows any and all bad encounters between dogs and
But what about other dogs who deal with negative stereotypes like Dobermans or German shepherds?
Janis makes the point that because these dogs are actual breeds with a clear definition, they aren’t subject to the arbitrary labeling that perpetuates negativity. Everything goes back to accuracy and how inaccuracy can have devastating consequences.
We know this topic is going to bring up a lot of emotions and maybe even anger. We just ask that you think about the things we talk about here and also ask yourselves why you are so tied to a term that doesn’t really mean anything at all.
READ THE PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:
*note that we have edited the transcript for clarity and removed repeated words and “umms…” Please excuse any missing punctuation or typos we may have missed!
Nikki: Hey everybody! Welcome to the Individual Animal, a podcast about animal welfare and discrimination.
Regina: (laughs) You don’t sound too sure.
Nikki: Regina usually says that part. That was right, right?
Regina: That was correct, yeah.
This is a sensitive subject, I think. I think this topic is going to be sensitive for a lot of people because we talk about something people really cling to and that is the label “pit bull.” People cling to it a lot. And there are all kinds of emotional reasons and we do touch on that a little bit. But, I think we’re gonna have some angry and confused people probably when they’re done with this podcast and I think that’s OK.
Nikki: Yeah I think that’s how people change. When we first decided to do this topic and Janis sent over her notes, I got a little emotional. I had a conversation with you about it. You know I was talking about how I sort of cling to labels sometimes, too. I wish I wouldn’t. So, I don’t know if people are going to be upset as much as they’re going to be like wanting to know more and wanting to figure it out a little bit more.
Regina: And it’s a habit it’s hard to break habits. And we talk about that a lot. That language is
Nikki: So, our guest today is Janis Bradley who is the Director of Communications and Publications for the National Canine Research Council. And she’s going to be talking about “pit bulls” and how they are very similar to unicorns. So I hope you’ll like it. Let’s get into the show… what did you want to say?
Regina: Oh yes just that National Canine is a subsidiary of Animal Farm Foundation, just wanted to put that disclaimer out there.
Nikki: I think this recording comes at a good time. I am talking about removing breed labels on Friday and Southeast Conference in Georgia. And all time I get from people listening to the presentation, “well, I know what a “pit bull” is. I can tell you by its characteristics.” So,
Janis: I certainly hear that all the time. I hear that kind of comment. You know, “I know one when I see one” all the time. Then people may try and persuade me to talk about the characteristics of “pit bulls.” I have to confess that when that happens, I am more than tempted to respond with something like, “OK yes. Right after that we can have a nice scientific discussion about the characteristics of unicorns.” And then kind of wait for the expression on the person’s face that tells me that they are visualizing me with a with a horn in the middle of my forehead.
I know that sounds facetious, but the analogy is actually a pretty decent one between unicorns and “pit bulls” in quotation marks. The biggest difference really is in the real world effect. Because, if you think you can seriously talk about unicorns you’re just making yourself look foolish and ignorant. But, if when we start to discuss “pit bulls” as if they existed,
Nikki: But… are you saying that there is no dog breed?
Janis: Oh no. There’s there’s certainly such a thing as a dog breed and it’s a very specific thing has been for the last at least 150 years. A dog breed is a group of dogs that are all members of a closed gene pool. And that’s just a fancy way of saying there’s no cross-breeding allowed with dogs that aren’t members of that breed. And so, then each of these groups is designated by a particular name according to one of the major breed registration organizations. There are a couple of great big organizations. But, there is no such group that is called “pit bulls” there.
Regina: OK so one thing… I’m going to interrupt you. One thing that I see a lot online is, you know, people say “oh a pit bull is only an American Pit Bull Terrier.” So what do we say to those
Janis: You can say that there is a breed called an American Pit Bull Terrier, often called APBT for short. It’s a breed that’s recognized only by the umbrella organization called the United Kennel Club. And the United Kennel Club doesn’t require the same documentation of a long-term closed group pedigree, as do the the larger the breed clubs that are recognized by the two big registration organizations. So, to be recognized as a breed by the UK city is a bit looser than then to be recognized by say the American Kennel Club, which is the big organization in the United States or the… Oh boy… can’t pronounce this…. Fédération C
But, the other difficulty, even with American Pit Bull Terrier, is that none of the companies or the researchers who have developed DNA profiles for specific breeds… you know those are those people you can you can send up a cheek swab you know to and then they’ll come back with a whip with a breed identification, none of them have DNA profile for APBT. So. the registration documentation is a bit loose and there is no DNA documentation.
But it’s reasonable to be generous and agree to call a UKC pedigreed American Pit Bull Terrier a member of a breed. Let’s say we grant that, although you know again
Nikki: Yeah, I would say for shelters that most of the time they’re not referring to an American Staffordshire Terrier or an American Pit Bull Terrier when they’re slapping that label “pit bull” or “pit bull” mix on a dog in a shelter.
Janis: Yeah, they tend to be referring to something, you know, sort of more general and vague. But, again, there is such a thing as an American Staffordshire Terrier. But, if that’s what you mean, that’s what you should say. That is
But to call that same dog something else, like “pit bull” is a little bit like saying my dog is a water dog
Regina: But people are, and I know I feel like I’m belaboring the point, but I will say that people do belabor this point, the general public does. But, you know, isn’t there a group of breeds called “pit bulls.” I mean there is certainly in the public understanding and I use understanding in quotes. So, I mean isn’t there a group of dogs that are called “pit bulls.”
Janis: No. I mean the simple answer is no. They’re just there just is no such thing. The AKC
There’s a hound group. There’s a terrier group. There’s a working group. There’s a herding group. There’s a sporting group. There’s a non sporting group. There’s a toy group and There’s what’s called a miscellaneous class, which is breeds that haven’t quite reached full status in the organization yet.
So, grouping various breeds together under this label “pit bull” is an idea that was mostly concocted by lawyers and legislators – obviously, not dog experts. And which came out of kind of old casual folklore ways of referring to any dogs that were forced to participate in dog-fighting. It has nothing to do with canine genetics or breeding practices. So you’ve got these made up groupings that vary, and according to which legislators or lawyers are talking about it, they vary and they often include breeds that are actually plucked out of several different AKC groups. So you might have a couple at so many you know one of the definitions might say that that a pit bull is one of these terriers or a dog from some from the working dog line or some from the non-sporting dog groups. So you wind up with a kind of a conflation of breeds that aren’t even consistently closely related according to what we now know about the DNA documented family tree of dog breed.
We now have
So using the term “pit bull,” it really creates the same kind of confusion as when you identify your dog’s breed to your friend as a water dog. I made that up by the way just in the interest of full disclosure there’s there’s there’s there’s equally no such thing as a water dog. But, if you say this, your friend doesn’t know any more than you did before you might mean Portuguese Water Dog or Irish Water Spaniel or American Water Spaniel. Those are all real breeds that have water in the name… or maybe you mean breeds with a reputation for liking to jump in the water that might include many of the dogs with retriever in the name, who are from those who are from the sporting group… or perhaps a Newfoundland or Landseer from the working group then because those are breeds that are famous for rescuing drowning people… or maybe it’s just your casual way of referring to to your dog as one who likes to swim.
Regina: You know, this made me think I’m trying to do a
Janis: Yeah, I mean people don’t even use the real classifications when they’re when when they’re talking about their dogs, so it makes even less sense to use, you know, a made up one. One of the claims, and one’s that that’s that’s commonly used here, is let’s say OK. “Well then, I’ll call them bully breeds.” Again, exactly the same problem. Who’s the “them” you’re talking about. There’s no definition.
Nikki: Yeah. So what if we say a pit bull dog is a certain appearance or specific characteristics and then we describe what that is.
Janis: It doesn’t help us, because what that really means is that you’re no longer talking about a dog breed at all according to any meaning of the term.
All you can possibly know by looking at two dogs and seeing that they resemble each other in
So I mean, you can think of how hard it is to win the lottery. So, think of having two lottery tickets and they’ve got six numbers each (I know this because I play the lottery, in defiance of all logic) and the two tickets, they share one number and all the rest are different… and you magically have some kind of insider knowledge – we won’t say how you got this knowledge because most of the ways you could do that I think could land you in jail – But let’s say you have this knowledge that the next combination… the next jackpot is going to be a combination of the numbers in these two tickets. And at first you’re going to be really excited and think you’re a slam dunk to win the next drawing, but you still better have a whole lot of money. Because, if you start doing the calculations, you’re going to realize that there are still tens of thousands of possibilities and that’s only with a total of 12 numbers and 12 variables.
Now think about the dog genome with 20,000 numbers from each parent, a total of 40,000 thrown into a pot, and you look at your two dogs who, even if they look identical, are only demonstrating that they’ve got an overlap on 50 out of those 20,000 numbers or one in 400. You pretty quickly realize that trying to predict what other stuff they might have in common in their genome is pretty much useless.
You’ve just got no information about it. And things would only look this good if people could agree on what they think constitutes looking like a “pit bull.” OK. I mean not even then
Repeated studies show that people can’t agree about this. And multiple other studies show that people are just plain lousy at figuring out the ancestry of mixed breed dogs by looking at them
Regina: OK. But you know I think that for a lot of people just the general public I think they can grasp why scientists sense and everything so then use the term. I think they can probably understand everything you’re saying. But, for a lot of
Janis: I would say mainly because it’s not a term of endearment for everybody. And so every time you use this term or one of the various euphemisms for it, like
This means that any dog can be labeled this way by anybody who is so inclined. You can pretty much apply this label to any dog if you want to. There’s no way to demonstrate that a dog isn’t a member of a group if no one knows what the group is. This is the perfect condition for scapegoating and this is what’s happened to dogs who were labeled this way more often than not.
It allows any and all bad encounters between dogs and people to be attributed to this group because it’s an undefined group. So it’s if something bad happened, it must have been it must have been a “pit bull” and then turn around and use the fictitious attribution the mistaken attribution to demonstrate the guilt of the members of the targeted group. So it’s a circular thing.
And so, I think fondness for the term is and I can certainly understand that is trumped by the way that dogs have been and continue to be scapegoated by this term. It may well be the reason that the term “pit bull”… the label “pit bull” has lasted longer in kind of the general conventional wisdom than that of
But for Spitzs, who were considered horrible dogs for a while particularly in New York… for bloodhounds as they exist now… for German shepherd dogs… for
Since there is no real thing that corresponds to the term “pit bull,” that kind of failsafe that contrast to what’s real, doesn’t exist. So
So, I think it’s fair to ask yourself if you feel you know kind of attached to that term, particularly if you’re somebody who’s going to be writing about this and talking about this in any public way… or reporting on identifying your dog in this way to anyone… you’ve got to ask yourself why are you so attached to using this term when it has such potential for harm. It’s time to let it go.
Nikki: Yeah, I completely understand why scientists and journalists and any sort of animal expert should not be using the term “pit bull,” but I will say, honestly, I almost got a little bit emotional about people with pet dogs and them calling their pet dogs “pit bull” or whatever they want to call their dog. Pet owners should be able to call their dogs whatever they want. And I’ve said that a couple times and a few podcasts and I still agree with it in some sense. I had talked to Stacy and Regina about this a little bit last week, and after my talk with them I sort of really thought about it with myself and came to the realization that yes you can call your dog a “pit bull” if you want to…. and I think I was getting so emotional about it because I think that there shouldn’t be those consequences – but that’s not the world that we live in. That’s not the climate that we live in. So, if you call your dog a “pit bull” there are consequences and I think I get really emotional about it because I don’t think there should be those consequences. Does that make sense at all?
Janis: Yes, yes. And you put the thing your finger on the issue there, which is there are consequences, even if for you it’s
So let me give you
Do you want them to say “pit bull”? There are consequences for using a term that isn’t real.
That becomes one more penny on the scale of A) this is a group that exists and B) it’s a group that’s dangerous. So, is the fondness that you feel for the term important enough for that tradeoff?
And that’s it. That’s a decision I think that that that that every person needs to make for themselves. But at least it should be…
Regina: I want to clarify just because I know that some people are going to wonder this. Some people who don’t like us are going to wonder this… that you know there’s going to be that issue that we get a lot of times with removing breed labels as “well are you trying to hide what a dog is or lie about what it is” and I just want to clarify, which Janis you said several times throughout this that like German shepherds and bloodhounds and all these things and Spitz as they are real breeds. So you’re not saying hide what the dog is you’re saying just be accurate about what the dog is. And so if you don’t know say you don’t know and if you do know don’t call it a label that doesn’t exist.
Janis: Exactly. I mean if
Janis: It’s perfectly legitimate for me to say I have two Greyhounds. So if
Nikki: Would you say the same thing for dogs that wouldn’t be labeled “pit bull” in a shelter? So dogs that wouldn’t be labeled a shepherd mix for a lab box or mix. The same sort of applies in
Janis: And you’re very unlikely to know that anyway right. Yes. So. So a it’s going to be inaccurate. So you’re attaching an identification that probably isn’t true and B) that identification can then go on to carry assumptions about how the dog may behave which are completely unpredictable in any mixed breed dog and extremely limited usefulness in pedigree… but have zero predictive usefulness in terms of behavior in in mixed breed dog. So you’re giving a false impression. A) you’re giving a false impression that you know what the dog’s background is because you don’t and B) that’s actually that you’re telling them that because it’s somehow significant to what you know what kind of personality they can expect this dog to have which they can’t based on that so you’re misrepresenting the situation for this person in at least two ways. It’s really sort of, you know, deceptive advertising.
Regina: Stacey did you want to chime in?
Stacey: Well Janis, how do you feel about answering any questions like on a more philosophical level too because you certainly qualified to do that as well.
It occurs to me that we are talking about
As soon as a dog out crosses from that, we still have like the psychological need to label it something. And I don’t know… it seems like we’re missing an opportunity to talk about the psychology of the human need to label this dog and feel like when it tells us something about it.
Because I got an email from Palm Beach County animal shelter because they want to do a 30 minute special one on their…. what’d they call them?… their square-headed dogs… because they somehow thought square-headed was better than blockhead was better than “pit bull”. And I remember when we first started finally making the progress on getting the attention of some of the larger groups that were really holding on to
But there’s gotta be… and I’m not articulating this very well… but there’s gotta be something we can say about the need, as humans, to be able to label something as if we know something. What does that confidence come from? …I can’t get…I’m so not explaining this very well!
So what I’m gonna need to explain to the Palm Beach people is that the fact that they are… they think they’re describing a common physical attribute in these dogs is incorrect too. Because it’s all subjective. So what they think is square-headed, may not be what I think a
Janis: I mean I. I think Stacy I’m actually a bit more optimistic than you are about this. I think it’s possible for people to learn to say mixed breed you know with some with some satisfaction. I’ve had a couple of dogs that I
I mean, I think people have learned to do this to a much greater extent than they used to do, at least in polite conversation, with other human beings. I think I think we’ve really learned that it’s not appropriate to say you know describe a person to label a person by some sort of, you know, more full logically assumed ethnicity, for example, that we’re that we’re more comfortable with actually describing the you know the person’s physical and behavioral attributes you know for for that for that matter. We can talk about a person as tall or short or large or small or blond or dark or you know any any of those things. And we’ve grown comfortable with that. I think we can. I think we can do the same things with dogs… that mixed breed you know and a description and sometimes a facetious you know description of a physical attributes that are that are individualized is possible for people to learn to do. So I’m a bit more optimistic is because as soon as you capitulates to any of these groupings, particularly this this fictional grouping, you open the door to stereotyping which is the complete enemy of any kind of improvement in
Regina: So I can…. so I’m going to pull way back on when I was starting my life and planning on being an academic so I’m going to pull on my philosophy and anthropology degrees and I think I can answer that for you.
Labels make us feel comfortable. They help us identify the world. They help us identify ourselves and identify things that are outside of us. And in some ways, and Don touched on this in the podcast we did with him on social constructs, is that for people who have dogs labeled “pit bull” or dogs that they just perceive as “pit bulls,” they’re kind of reclaiming the term, because they feel like they’ve had to fight so hard to get their dogs considered acceptable by society that that for them it has almost they are reclaiming the term and it makes them feel better. And there is this whole thing with a lot of people especially those you know people who use the term
Now with the
Janis: I firmly believe….
Regina: To make people think about it because…
Regina: I was just going to say that people don’t… labels are almost instinctual for us now. You know I study classical history too and I mean way back when even prehistory people had labels they label thing. So it’s so ingrained in our human nature that we don’t even think
Janis: But mutt is a label too…. mixed breed is a label too that that can be that can be used either you know positively or pejoratively… but as far as I know I really think that as long as we’re applying these kind of falsified categories, he problem of victimization will not go away. The targets will just change. It just…. you know it will. It just becomes a continuous unwinnable fight. Somebody is going to be victimized as long as somebody can be can be identified as a
Regina: I completely agree.
Janis: You know, I mean, it may not always be “pit bull.” So that could be it may not
Regina: Well it’s just like when when people will say well I’ve been bitten by more X breed than “pit bulls” they’re just replacing it and they’re creating a new problem right.
Janis: Yes. And those pejorative labels are extremely sticky even when they’ve faded for a long time. They’ve they’ve they’re they pop up again. I’ve just been you know talking talking with people who are dealing with you know a dog being vilified because it’s the Doberman and that’s a long time ago. You know since that was the new breed of choice but it’s still there just you know you give it an opening and it pops back.
Stacey: So… OK… Question then though… We keep talking about labels and the labels that we’re talking about, especially with breed, and about how we label humans…. it’s all based on appearance not on like behavior observation. So we look at dogs we think we know what that dog looks like. We lump that dog into a category and then we make assumptions about how that dog will behave.
So this, right, this cycle of discrimination is it always based on appearance or perception of appearance? And I guess that’s what I really want to stress is it’s
Janis: Well there’s another step in there. You visually identify something and then you associate it with whatever in your experience is positive or negative about it. And then you apply that perception to the next individual that meets that same appearance.
So, you know, I mean there’s kind of this other step there. And of
So you’ve got to remember that everybody’s got their own experience all in there. And in some cases, the almost
Stacey: So in the case of when we talk about Pitbull and we mean it in an endearing way… So like for all of us on the call we don’t have that negative connection to the phrase pit bull, because we’ve all overcome or resisted or whatever that whatever that fear influences of that we were taught
Janis: I don’t think that’s what’s happened. I think what’s happened to us is that we’ve had a large enough accumulation of pleasant experiences that that becomes….
Stacey: OK. So that’s kind of what I was getting at. So then when we have the people who are
Janis: Maybe maybe not. I think some of those people…
Regina: Yeah I don’t know that that’s true necessarily because we…. I see people say things like… I feel like I say this every podcast…. that say “pitties,” “bullies,” or “pibbles” are the best with kids or whatever. You know, so they’re still grouping them as something and not necessarily just referring to their own dog. I’m not sure if that’s what you’re getting at but I think they still group them…
Janis: I think it’s
Stacey: So what about then when we see research that uses the term pitfall in it. So this is something that we’ve talked about before Janis. But when we see research studies come through, whether it’s in a medical journal or a veterinary journal or a behavior journal, what does that tell us about the research if they’re using the phrase “pit bull” in it?
Janis: I mean there are two possibilities and I think both of these both of these happened
But the other
So, it reinforces that practice. It gives that strong give strength back to that practice of the emergency department person taking
Stacey: Can you… you mentioned social construct and your answer can you give us other examples of what a social construct is so that we can relate it to other things so that we can understand it better?
Janis: Some things that we think of as part of the definition of a social construct is something that has that has a wide variety of definitions without any real agreement. You know, the concept of deviance, for example, is very, very relative. And it’s society specific. it’s culture specific. That’s an example of a social construct.
But, you can think of, even when you’re talking about real breeds, the perception of those of those breeds is clearly socially constructed. And I can give you one
The top scary breed in Northern Ireland and Australia is
So there’s no real possibility for human communication if you don’t agree or if you can’t agree on what the words you’re using mean. And that’s definitely the case with this particular [inaudible]. There’s no agreement as to what it means.
So, you can have the impression that you’re actually communicating with someone, but in fact,
Stacey: Right. I’m glad you got to that because it’s kind of where I was going with bringing up the example that some people come up with what they feel like is a more endearing phrase to describe the same unidentified, undefinable group.
Janis: That doesn’t make it real.
Stacey: It doesn’t make it real. So this… is breed in and of itself a social construct?
Janis: No I would say not. As long as we agree on up on a specific definition, which we pretty much do now. No, I mean it’s something that’s been created by human beings for whatever reasons – and we can debate that forever – but a closed gene pool is a real thing.
Stacey: But it was purposely constructed by humans….
Janis: It was. It absolutely was constructed by. By humans. But not, you know, not necessarily socially constructed in the sense of a thing that only exists on a conceptual level. A building is constructed by humans too. But it’s not a social construct.
Stacey: I feel like this is. This discussion has gone pretty well I think. I think it’ll be yes turning into a good resource to refer back to.
Nikki: I agree. And I also think that people will still have a lot of questions because it is definitely something that’s hard to wrap your head around. So if anybody has any questions I know I personally would love to hear from people and see what we can add to this conversation and maybe record another podcast at a later date to sort of to add on to what we’ve already talked about. And to answer some viewer question… listener question.
Regina: Yeah I agree. I believe we would love to do a question and answer so if you have questions please send the men or comment on Facebook because it would be really excellent if we can answer questions from people.
Nikki: All right well Janis thank you so much for coming on our podcast. We were really excited to have you.
Janis: You’re most welcome. This has been an interesting conversation.
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