“No one wants to adopt our “pit bull” dogs.” In our work with shelters around the country, it’s not uncommon to hear some version of this statement. When we hear this, we like to jump in to offer what we know works to boost adoptions – better policies, welcoming adoption counseling, kennel enrichment, positive marketing. You name it; we have a free resource to help organizations increase adoptions.
Today we wanted to share something a little different. It’s what we know to be true from years of working with every type of shelter – large and small, public and private – and helping them to increase adoptions and save more lives.
Here it is:
If an organization values “pit bull” dogs, then the public will follow their lead. We have the ability to influence the outcome.
When we think that no one wants or values these dogs, then we wind up communicating and behaving as if that is true. This can get in the way of making changes that will lead to positive outcomes.
Instead, we can shift our perspective so that it reflects a more accurate view of the public and potential adopters. Given the millions of people who own “pit bull” dogs in this country, we now know that there are tons of great families that already value these dogs as much as we do.
To say that no one wants “those” dogs, just isn’t true these days.
Copper and his three bros
What if we allowed the knowledge that millions of people highly value “pit bull” dogs to serve as a foundation for our work? How would it change how we communicated to the public about the dogs?
If we choose to stick with the narrative that “pit bull” dogs aren’t wanted, then we are working from a place of defensiveness, fear, and disbelief in the possibility of success. We wind up communicating mixed messages about the value of “pit bull” dogs to the public which may drive down adoptions.
Saying (internally or publicly) that “no one wants these dogs, we have so many of them!” lowers the value of the pets in our care. The public notices and will follow our lead.
Good news: We have the ability to influence the outcome.
The question is how do we want to influence the public?
Do we want to create a self-fulfilled prophesy where they continue to disappoint and live up to the low bar we’ve set for them? Or do we want to inspire them to be a critical part of a positive outcome in our community?
Florence Nightingale flying high with her dad
Our ability to influence the outcome is a real phenomenon known as the Pygmalion Effect. Studies have shown that there is a positive correlation between leader expectations (the shelter) and the follower’s (the public) performance. Positive expectations influence outcomes positively and negative expectations influence outcomes negatively.
The Pygmalion Effect has been studied in classrooms and revealed that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from a random group of children, then those children did indeed show that enhancement. From the researchers who coined the term Pygmalion Effect:
“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)
This observer-expectancy effect shows that biased expectancies (ie: no one wants our “pit bull” dogs) can affect reality and create self-fulfilling prophecies as a result.
In other words, our expectations of others can influence what actually happens.
This influence can lead to a positive or negative outcome, depending on how we (the leaders) classify and communicate about the animals. Valuable/Not Valuable. Popular/Kennel trash. Wanted/Unwanted.
If your organization values all animals equally and communicates that “valuable” status to the public, you will be setting the expectancy that your adopters will value them too.
And time and again we’ve seen that they will!
Ada’s family portrait
Of course, we know that there can be real challenges to increasing adoptions and, in certain areas, a resistance from some members of the public to adopting “pit bull” dogs.
We understand that in some areas, shelters may need to work harder than others in their marketing and adoption efforts. We want to help and we have resources to assist you. But we’ve found that the resources are way more effective when they’re rooted in the belief that improvement is possible.
Very little, if anything, will improve if we don’t value the animals in our care equally, examine our own assumptions and personal biases, and believe that the public wants and values “pit bull” dogs too.
In practice this means: Drop policies and marketing that communicate that some animals are “less adoptable” than others. Treat all of the animals equally from intake to adoption. Look for long term solutions, not short term fixes. Step up customer service, positive marketing and outreach efforts, and kennel enrichment.
In other words, create the conditions for adoptions to happen!
Flo’s family portrait
“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”
– Henry Ford
In what ways do you want to be proved right? We vote for being right that the public is awesome and excited to adopt your wonderful “pit bull” dogs!
Still not sure this will work? We invite you to watch this excellent video from KC Pet Project. With very few resources and significant challenges, this open admissions shelter values all their animals equally and they believe that they can increase their positive outcomes without relying on restrictions or assumptions about what the public wants. It’s working for them, for others around the country, and it will work for you!
When Animal Farm Foundation put out a call for photo submissions from everyday “pit bull” dog owners we never imagined that a little over a year later we’d have a (still growing) collection of hundreds and hundreds of photos.
The Majority Project is the result of those photos, submitted from families around the country who stepped up to help challenge incorrect stereotypes about “pit bull” dog owners.
I am an advocate
You might be wondering: Why do we need to bust stereotypes about “pit bull” dog OWNERS? Isn’t it the dogs that are being discriminated against?
It’s both. Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) singles out dogs based on physical appearance and breed, but anytime we discriminate against a dog, we are discriminating against the people who share their lives with them as well.
I am a 911 Police + Fire Dispatch Officer
And to be frank, sometimes BSL has little to do with the dogs at all. Targeting the dogs is simply a way to profile and discriminate against people. For example, on numerous occasions, policymakers have commented that BSL isn’t necessary because the dogs are dangerous, but instead they believe (falsely) that BSL is way to to keep gang members and criminals out of their communities.
Colorado: Aurora, CO, City Council member Bob Fitzgerald, “We don’t want ‘those people’ here.”
Massachusetts: Councilor-at-Large Michael J. Germain, “Germain said that common sense tells us pit bulls are the choice of gang members to intimidate. ‘The issue isn’t dogs. The issue is gangs,’ he said.”
California: Mayor Rex Parris, “I want gangs out of Lancaster. I want to make it uncomfortable for them to be here. Anything they like, I want to take it away from them. I want to deliberately harass them…It’s really like [gangs] having a weapon that they are allowed to display and intimidate people. If they have a Pit Bull, they may as well put a sign on their head saying, ‘Come get me.’…If they move on to cats I’m going to take their cats.”
I am a cat
Experts know that stereotyping and discrimination fails to address the real issue: criminals and reckless dog owners must be held accountable for their actions, no matter what kind of dog they choose to own. It is never necessary or effective to use discrimination as a tool to address crime and reckless dog ownership.
Enacting and enforcing Responsible Dog Ownership laws which apply equally to ALL dog owners, along with laws addressing non-dog related criminal activities, is the path to safety.
Great communities don’t resort to ineffective policies based on stereotypes and discrimination.
I am a police officer
This kind of human stereotyping also worms its way into shelter polices and is used to justify banning “pit bull” dogs from the adoption floor or restricting adoptions. The “logic” is that if only “bad” people want them, then “pit bull” dogs are better off dead than in their hands. Where would shelters get the idea that good people don’t want “pit bull” dogs? From animal welfare organizations.
ASPCA: “Pit Bulls often attract the worst kind of dog owners —people who are only interested in these dogs for fighting or protection.”
PETA: “…people who have good intentions rarely come to a shelter to adopt pit bulls; almost without exception, those who want pit bulls are attracted to the “macho” image of the breed as a living weapon and seek to play up this image by putting the animals in heavy chains, taunting them into aggression, and leaving them outside in all weather extremes in order to “toughen” them.”
I am a public safety officer + I am an early childhood professional
So what does this have to do with The Majority Project?
The false assertion that only reckless individuals, criminals, and gang members want “pit bull” dogs continues to fuel the fire of restrictive adoption policies, breed specific legislation, and other discriminatory policies.
From law makers to shelter policymakers, the stereotype is that “good” people don’t want or live with “pit bull” dogs. That’s simply not true.
I am a Sunday school teacher
The fact is that dogs labeled “pit bull” are one of the most popular dogs in this country, overwhelmingly owned by normal, everyday families who have value in their community. “Pit bull” dog owners are our co-workers, friends, family, and neighbors.
It’s time to put an accurate face to the average “pit bull” dog owner, so that stereotypes about “pit bull” dog owners can no longer be used as justification for discriminatory shelter policies and legislation.
We are a family!
The everyday “pit bull” dog owners who took part in The Majority Project stood up to say that they are not the exception, they are the rule. You can meet them all here.
We want YOU to use The Majority Project to stand up against discrimination and prejudice in your community. And we’ve got some new tools to help!
- Our brand new handout shows off just a few of the fabulous families who submitted photos. From doctors and deacons, to grandmas and voters, the handout shines a light on them all. The foldout combines their family photos with text to help everyone understand why great communities don’t discriminate. You can request the handout here.
- To help you share The Majority Project more effectively, here are Talking Points to use in your communications. You can download and print the one sheet from this blog or from our website here.
- Our newest eBook on Communications and Media is also here to help. This primer on communicating with elected officials and the media – from TV interviews to testifying at city council meetings – was designed to assist you in speaking confidently and effectively about the issues that matter.
I am a blessed mom
Of course, you can also use the Flickr Album and videos. If you know an organization or an individual that needs to meet the majority of “pit bull” dogs owners, you can share these tools and introduce them to the majority. They may be AFF’s photos and videos, but they’re tools you can all use, so please do!
I am a security officer
Finally: Keep the photos coming! Tell your friends to send in their “I am the Majority” photos. We’ll never stop accepting new photos. The more we collect, the more impact this project will have. Learn how to submit a photo here.
Help us put an end to the stereotypes that fuel the fires of discrimination. Stand up with The Majority.
You may have noticed that we spend a significant amount of our time and resources teaching shelters about kennel enrichment and playgroups. We thought we’d take some time to explain how kennel enrichment and playgroups fit in with our mission to secure equal treatment and opportunity for “pit bull” dogs. (more…)
Whenever breed restrictions or bans are proposed, those arguing for discriminatory policies rely on this false idea: that “pit bull” dogs are uniquely different from all other dogs and that they are uniform in their behavior. In other words, they mistakenly believe that “pit bull” dogs are specially and consistently different from all other dogs, but are all similar to each other.
With an abundance of misinformation about “pit bull” dogs in circulation that suggest “pit bulls” are unique and uniform in their behavior, it’s no wonder that the public incorrectly believes that “pit bull” dogs need to be regulated.
However, we know that it is impossible to accurately predict behavior based on breed or physical appearance alone. Every dog is an individual whose behavior is a result of many factors, such as training, socialization, breeding, environment, genetics, and management. And yet, many continue to believe that physical appearance and breed alone are enough to make judgments about a dog’s suitability for adoption, insurance, or inclusion in our communities.
We know this isn’t true. We know this myth has led to discrimination and unfair treatment for “pit bull” dogs.
Despite the many differences in approaches by various “pit bull” dog advocates and animal welfare organizations, we can all agree that we want the dogs to be treated fairly. We want “pit bull” dogs to be judged on their individual behavior and our individual behavior as owners. We want the discrimination to stop. That’s why it’s so important that we consider how we share information about the dogs. Our sweeping generalizations lead to their sweeping restrictions.
In our work with lawmakers who are considering breed specific legislation we’ve discovered that “pit bull” dog supporters have inadvertently provided fodder to the pro- BSL argument by suggesting that “pit bull” dogs have unique capabilities and traits, unlike any other dogs, and that they all require specialized, skilled handling in order to keep others safe.
Going forward, we must help lawmakers and the public, including “pit bull” dog owners, understand that there is no canine behavior trait that is unique to one kind of dog or uniformly guaranteed in its presentation among dogs of any one breed. If we want dogs to be treated fairly, as individuals, we must discuss them as individuals. That’s the only way to stop the discrimination.
When sharing helpful information about “pit bull” dogs on your websites, you can help bust the foundations of breed discrimination if you remember:
- There is NO single behavior trait that is unique to “pit bull” dogs only.
- There is no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to breed traits. Not in pure breed or mixed breed dogs.
Sweeping generalizations lead to sweeping restrictions. Remember that dogs are individuals first!
As a practical example, let’s look at dog-dog tolerance levels and selectivity around other animals:
This is a trait that is not unique to “pit bull” dogs. There are other breeds of dogs where an intolerance for or sensitivity towards other dogs may be considered breed standard. Additionally, behaviors are complex traits, influenced by a number of outside factors (socialization, training, environment, etc.) which means dog-dog tolerance levels are an individual trait in any dog – no matter what breed or breed mix they may be.
This is a trait that is not guaranteed in “pit bull” dogs. Breed traits are possible, but never guaranteed. This is especially true for any dog that is a mixed breed dog. Once a dog is a mixed breed, all bets are off in terms of how breed traits present themselves in a dog. The majority of dogs being labeled “pit bull” today are not from a closed gene pool and breed traits do not apply. However, even if we are talking about pure breed dogs, we still know that breed traits are possible, but not guaranteed. When breeding dogs for a purpose (such as Greyhounds for racing) even the strictest, most ruthless breeding for a specific trait can only increase the likelihood of a behavior to a certain point, but it cannot guarantee it. The majority of “pit bull” dogs today are not being bred strictly or for purpose.
With those two points in mind – “pit bull” dogs are not unique from all other dogs, nor are they uniformly the same as all the other dogs labeled “pit bull” – we can instead rely on providing solid resources that teach the public how to be responsible dog owners.
Avoid scary warnings, which don’t necessarily guarantee better results (but could wind up frightening owners to the point that they deprive their dogs of the experiences that create well-rounded pets). For example, rather than saying “Never trust your pit bull not to fight”, try this: “It’s your responsibility to set your dogs up for success.”
Offer helpful management tips such as:
Always set your dogs up for success inside the house:
- Never leave children unattended with dogs.
- If you have multiple pets, supervise their interactions. Consider keeping your pets separated when you are not at home. If you’re not comfortable leaving dogs loose together, we recommend using baby gates or crating and rotating them.
- Observe your dogs around high value items. If they guard toys or food, consider removing those items or separating pets while those items are being enjoyed.
- Give each pet a separate area to eat their meals.
Always set your dogs up for success outside the house:
- Follow leash laws and properly manage your dogs at all time.
- Do not let dogs roam loose in your neighborhood.
- Check your fences for gaps or damaged spots that may allow them to escape.
- Create positive interactions with other dogs by carefully choosing who your dogs socialize with in public.
- Research dog parks to decide if they’re the right fit for your dogs. Some dogs have unpleasant interactions with dogs at parks. You’ll likely encounter dogs with varying social skills and training.
- Get to know your dog’s needs. Not all dogs are comfortable socializing with unfamiliar dogs. Rather than ignoring your dog’s individual dog tolerance levels, tune in and make better choices. Training classes, parallel leash walks, and private play groups are all excellent ways to socialize your dogs safely.
Did you notice that none of the above tips are specific to “pit bull” dogs? We don’t have to come up with different advice or warnings about “pit bull” dogs in order to help their families make good, responsible choices on their behalves.
Many dogs benefit from structured socialization, such as group walks. What’s good for dogs is good for “pit bull” dogs and vice versa.
If you’re an advocate or rescue and you put these tips on your “pit bull” specific website, they will automatically become advice about “pit bull” dogs and speak directly to the people who are looking for advice about their “pit bull” dogs. You’ll be reaching your target audience just by putting this solid advice on your pit bull-specific website.
We’re using this as an example, because we want to make this part clear: Go ahead and discuss responsible ownership, the importance of training, management, and smart socialization, but stop framing “pit bull” dogs as if they are unique in their needs for these things. Because when we do that, we perpetuate the myth that “pit bull” dogs are uniquely and uniformly deviant from all other dogs. And it’s this perceived deviance that leads to discrimination.
If we want safe communities, better adoption matches, and less discrimination, then we would do best if we focused on teaching the public about general dog behavior, training, socialization, and responsible ownership – for ALL dogs.
Remember that overall dogs – pure breed or mixed breed – are more alike each other than they are different. For example, loyalty, athleticism, and affection towards humans are qualities that exist in many dogs. Selectiveness with other animals, stubbornness, and tenacity are qualities that exist in many dog breeds as well. Pure breed traits exist of course, but there’s no single trait that is unique to or guaranteed in one breed of dog.
Please note: When determining what’s right for your own personal dogs, be honest about who your dog is and meet your dog’s needs. You are the expert on your own dog! If they don’t like something or you’re not comfortable trying something with them, please don’t do it. On the other hand, what’s true about your own dog and their needs isn’t a fact about the needs of all dogs that look the same way as your dog. Be confident in understanding what makes your dog unique, but without implying that “pit bull” dogs are unique from all other dogs.
For whatever traits we may observe, in our own dogs or others, in the end every single dog is an individual. All dogs must be evaluated – for the adoption floor, for an insurance policy, or for restrictions within a community – based on their observed individual behavior, not on breed or appearance or predictions based on either of those things.
We can secure fair treatment for the dogs and their families only when we promote this basic truth: All dogs are individuals first and foremost.
This individual-first approach is born out of our decades of experience with the dogs themselves – from family pets to fight bust dogs. We have learned time and again that “pit bull” dogs are not uniquely different or uniformly in need of specialized skills, a certain type of home, or experienced owners.
But experience isn’t fact. That’s why we turn to research and science to back up what we’ve experienced:
Dr. Alexandra Horowitz of the Dog Cognition Lab writes, “… breed standards include personality descriptions. Unfortunately, personality is not genetically determined: just as a person’s personality derives from more than her genome, a dog is not merchandise whose behavior (outside of a few hard-wired ones, like pointing) can be predicted ahead of time.
While many owners may see breed-typical personalities in their dogs (we humans do tend to spot just the evidence which supports our theories), there is simply no guarantee that a dog will behave just so. Witness the cases of cloned — genetically identical — pets who have, to their owners’ great surprise, quite different personalities.
Thus, inadvertently, breed standards lead potential adopters to treat them more like products with reliable features.
Dogs are individuals, and should be treated thusly.”
If we all want to achieve our common goal – fair treatment for “pit bull” dogs and an end to canine discrimination – we have to move forward into recognizing all dogs are individuals.
We can stop proponents of breed discrimination by ripping the false rug of “pit bull” dog uniformity and uniqueness out from under their feet.
We can teach them to be accurate in their assessments by choosing to evaluate all dogs based on their observed individual behavior and the behavior of their owners.
Our words have power. They reach far beyond our targeted audience of potential adopters and families. They reach into law books and shelter policies too. The dogs are counting on us to advocate for them in such a way that does not cause more harm than good. They are counting on us to stop mythologizing them – for good or bad – and start seeing them as individuals.
We have too many pit bulls. All we have are pit bulls. We have a pit bull problem. Nobody wants to adopt our pit bulls.
Across the country, in interviews with the local news, these sound bites are repeated over and over. Usually intended to be a call for help, a positive plug for the dogs, or to evoke sympathy for the dogs, these kinds of blanket statements from animal shelters may be doing more damage than we realize. When we tell the public we have “too many pit bulls” we unintentionally frame the dogs as less valuable than other dogs at the shelter.
In other words, it makes the “pit bull” dogs sound like a problem: Dear Public, Our organization has a problem, because we have too many of these dogs who are a problem for us to adopt out. Can you help us with this overwhelming problem?
It is easier for us to value one individual than it is for us to value an entire group. It is easier for us to devalue a group than it is for us to devalue an individual.
By framing the dogs as a problem that needs fixing, we wind up teaching the public to view “pit bull” dogs as less valuable than other dogs who are not a problem. We teach the public to think less of the very dogs we’d like to inspire them to adopt. And these language habits of ours end up making the public numb to this grouping of dogs we have created.
That’s not to say that in some areas there aren’t large numbers of dogs labeled “pit bull” who are waiting for adoption. Or that in some areas, adopters are hesitant to adopt “pit bull” dogs, therefore making it more of a challenge to send the dogs home. That very well may be the case.
However, when we talk about the dogs – internally or publicly – it’s important that we consider how our words might be framing the dogs in such a way that the dogs become a negative abstraction – an overwhelming problem – rather than individual dogs who deserve our compassion. This is important to understand because it can actually stop people from adopting the dogs. Big problems, that feel overwhelming, can cause a freeze in the public’s willingness to help.
Psychologist Paul Slovic, author of “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide” found that the greater the number of victims, the more we depersonalized the individuals involved. And when we stop seeing others as individuals, it makes it easier to create psychological and emotional distance from them. This causes indifference to those in need.
If we feel overwhelmed by the number of those in need of help (in this case pit bulls at the shelter) we are less likely to see them as individuals, and therefore less likely to take action to help them.
Psychic numbing also affects shelter workers. If we feel overwhelmed by the volume of the dogs that are in need of our attention, it can cause us to throw up our hands. It’s not unusual to feel a sense of powerlessness or helplessness in the face of broad or complex problem such as homeless pets. This can cause us to feel numb and detached from the dogs, incapable of getting to know them as individuals. You may feel as though none of your personal efforts matter. And this can generate a sense of apathy towards the “problem dogs” in your care.
Slovic notes that the numbers of victims and psychic numbing are related. The blurring of individuals can start in as little as just two victims! In order for humans to feel compelled to help or take action, they must be able to recognize individuals who are in need of compassion or assistance. Seeing the victims as valued individuals – not just an abstract group – allows us to identify with and feel empathy for them. This compels us to act.
So what does this mean for shelters that have “too many pit bulls?” If you want to boost the staff’s enthusiasm for the dogs, as well as their sense of possibility, AND encourage the public to adopt, we need to stop devaluing the dogs. We can start to do this by ceasing to communicate about “pit bull” dogs as if they are a problem. Instead, we can celebrate the dogs.
Teach the public see the “pit bull” dogs as individuals who are worthy of their compassion. Help them get to know the personalities and preferences of some of the individual dogs in your care, so that they can appreciate the singular dogs that are a part of this big group called “pit bull” dogs. Help the public make a more personal connection to the dogs, to get them to care and then take action.
Overwhelming negative abstract problem = apathy and numbness.
Valuable individual with likes and dislikes = empathy and action.
Remember, when it comes to eliciting compassion and inspiring action, there is no better, more effective approach to snapping out of the numbness then identifying an individual in need, with a face and a name.
As Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”