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Breed Stereotyping

Breed Stereotyping – Why It’s Harmful, and Why We Need to Fight It


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Recently, in 3 Keys to Finding the Right Dog Park, I told you about my Canadian friend, Danielle, and her American Stafford shire, Reggie. Danielle and Reggie were forced to leave the dog park they’ve always gone to because of two women who, never having met Reggie, decided that he was vicious and had no business being around other dogs. Danielle tends to be fairly non-confrontational, so she left in tears.

I’m happy to report, though, that the story doesn’t end there. The more Danielle thought about what had transpired, the angrier she became, and this past Monday she returned to the dog park along with Reggie and demanded that the regular park attendant (not the one who had sided with the two owners of foo-foo dogs) provide her with a written statement to the effect that Reggie is welcome at the park. If she encounters the two troublemakers again, she can nip any arguments in the bud.

Anyway, Danielle’s situation got me thinking more about how people tend to view certain dog breeds. When we automatically assign certain characteristics to a particular dog, without knowing anything about the individual animal, that’s unfair.

What is Stereotyping, and Why Do We Do It?

Stereotyping is assuming that all members of certain classifications of people or animals are the same as the other members. We need look no further than presidential candidate Donald Trump to see how harmful and hurtful stereotyping can be. Just consider this tweet from June 5: “Sadly, the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and Hispanics….”

You’ve undoubtedly also heard other pejorative comments about specific groups – “The Irish are drunkards,” “Lesbians hate men,” “The French have poor personal hygiene,” “Black people are uneducated,” and so on. Of course not all comments that stereotype people are mean-spirited. You’ve no doubt also heard people say “Italian men are great lovers,” “Asians are smarter than most other people,” “Canadians are so polite and friendly” – and on it goes. Unfortunately, even “positive” statements like these are harmful. Why? Because it puts pressure on people to fit into a certain mold –why should you have to strive to be an overachiever just because you’re Asian, for instance?

So, where do we learn stereotyping? Usually, we get it from our parents and grandparents. My grandfather’s father, for instance, was Welsh, and had an overwhelming hatred for the English – something to do with some long-forgotten wrong perpetrated upon the Welsh by some English king in centuries gone by. Gramps knew that he had no reason to dislike the English, and yet having heard them described as dishonest and cowardly all throughout his childhood, he once admitted to me that he had a completely irrational level of discomfort where Brits are concerned.

Fortunately, my Gramps was a smart man, and he didn’t let those feelings inform his life, or his social relationships. Some people, though, seem perfectly comfortable with their prejudices. Why is that?

It’s probably because it’s so much easier, and neater, to be able to fit people into categories. It removes the need to think, and to acquire information about individuals – you just take what you’re told about a specific group, and apply it to everyone within this group. It also makes it very easy to feel good about yourself. You can say, “The Irish are drunks – I don’t drink, so I’m better than the Irish.” You can say “Italian men are great lovers – I’m an Italian man, so I totally rock it in bed, not matter what she says.” See, there’s your world view, all tied up in a nice pretty package!

How Do Stereotypes Occur?

If you go back far enough, there’s usually a basis for stereotyping. Irish immigrants, for instance, in low-paying jobs often did drink to excess – it was a response to the grinding misery of hard work for low wages. For that matter, a lot of other low-income immigrants used alcohol to blow off stress, too.

When it comes to the notion of uneducated black people, you’d look back to the days of slavery – why would a plantation owner bother to educate someone who was just going to function as a field hand or house maid? So yes, back then, they were uneducated. Lack of education is passed down from generation to generation, and things don’t change overnight – but they do change, and the stereotypes are less valid, if they’re valid at all.

So where might dog breed stereotypes have originated? As you would with certain classes of people, you can often look to the original background and purpose of the animal. For instance, dogs have often been used for purposes that today, all right-thinking find repellent. As an example, the Bulldog breeds originated pre-1800 in England, for use in bull baiting – a form of entertainment in which dogs were set against a confined bull. In the 1800s, this so-called sport was banned, but the inhumane use of dogs continued – now, they were used to fight one another in pits for the pleasure of humans, who would bet on the outcome – hence the term “Pit Bull.”

Interestingly, it wasn’t all that long ago that Pit Bulls were known as “nanny dogs” because of their steady temperament and affectionate nature. So why the stereotyping of the breed as vicious? Probably it has something to do with their original purpose, combined with the purposes for which criminals use them today – again, for pit fighting, and as protection against other criminals. The stereotype has little to do with the nature of the dogs, and everything to do with the nature of humans. Rottweilers get tarred with the same brush, and for the same reasons.

The Influence of the Media

The media doesn’t help much when it comes to breed stereotyping, either. I frequently read news stories about dog attacks that attribute bites to a dog “believed to be a Rottweiler,” or “resembling a Pit Bull.” In other words, the breed isn’t known, but the media isn’t content to say “breed unknown” when they can toss “Rottweiler” or “Pit Bull” into the story, regardless of whether the context is appropriate.

Also, in movies and even cartoons, you’ll find a prejudice against certain breeds, with Golden Retrievers, Labradors and Collies almost invariably being portrayed as gentle, loving and heroic. The villains of the piece are usually Rottweilers, Dobermans, and Bulldogs. This might not sound overly important, but I don’t think you can over-estimate how such portrayals can affect a child’s perception of certain breeds, and I think those perceptions can carry over into adulthood. If all a child sees in movies and on television is portrayals of certain breeds as “bad dogs,” or as being dangerous, that creates a predisposition to buy into the stereotype.

You Want McStereotyping With That?

McDonald’s didn’t help matters much either, four years ago, with an advertisement for their Chicken McBites (a menu item that has since been discontinued because it was only slightly less popular than their Fish McBites). Chicken McBites were popcorn-style chicken breast portions, available in three different serving sizes, and featuring sweet and sour, honey mustard, tangy barbecue, chipotle barbecue, ranch, sweet chili and spicy buffalo dipping sauces.

At the time, McDonald’s was under fire by many activists and media outlets for the perceived unhealthiness of their food, and they wanted to portray Chicken McBites as good, healthy food. So, they developed an advertising campaign for a Los Angeles radio station, stating that eating Chicken McBites was less dangerous than naming your son Sue, shaving your head, giving your Facebook password to friends, or – wait for it – petting a stray Pit Bull.

Well, Pit Bull owners were outraged. A breed that was already getting more than enough bad press had just been targeted by a major corporation. They felt (not without some justification, from where I’m sitting) that the ad contributed to Pit Bull stereotyping, and might even change the opinions of people who hadn’t thought much about the breed one way or another, for the worse. Local activists accused McDonald’s of feeding “media hysteria” about the breed.

Ultimately, McDonald’s pulled the ad, and offered something of an apology, saying “In our effort to spread the word about our new Chicken McBites, a local U.S. radio ad has inadvertently offended some of our customers.The ad was insensitive in its mention of pit bulls. We apologize. We are pulling the ad, and we’ll do a better job next time. It’s never our intent to offend anyone with how we communicate news about McDonald’s.”

Of course it’s never their intent to offend anyone, is it? That would be bad for business! I’m put in mind of something my mother used to say, though. “Be careful what you say, because once words are spoken, they can never be unheard.”

By the time McDonald’s pulled the ad, the damage was already done. Yet another blow had been struck against the Pit Bull. Imagine how much less harm McDonald’s would have done if they’d taken more positive approach – maybe stressing that they use only canola oil for their McBites, and use only top-quality chicken breast meat, so eating Chicken McBites actually a healthy choice. Less risky than petting a Pitty? And then sorry for saying that? I call McBulls***.

Stereotyping and BSL

I’ve talked about BSL in several posts. Breed-specific legislation is simply any law or bylaw that prevents people from owning the canine companion of their choice, or restricts the ways in which certain breeds must be handled. Some areas have gone with complete bans on certain breeds, while others restrict the number of dogs of certain breeds that a person can own. Restrictions may also include special licensing, mandatory muzzling, and specific rules as to how some breeds must be confined.

Two big problems with BSL are that it assumes (wrongly) that the breed being targeted is inherently dangerous, and also that dog breeds can be accurately identified. The biggest problem is simply this – BSL doesn’t work.

The breeds most commonly banned are Rottweilers, Pit Bulls and Pit Bull types (whatever that means), followed by Dobermans, German Shepherds and wolf hybrids. Often, breeds are misidentified. In fact, SALON has quoted an article from the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science finding that an astounding 87.5% of dogs who were identified, by an animal shelter, as being of a specific breed mix, had no DNA whatsoever from any of the identified breeds. In addition, most people can’t accurately identify dog breeds – the same article reports that between 2002 and 2005, 11 attacks were attributed to Pit Bulls, even though the offending dogs did not even resemble Pit Bull types in any way at all. 3 dogs were also misidentified as Rottweilers.

The trouble with this is that once a dog that has bitten is incorrectly identified as belonging to a supposedly “dangerous” breed, the damage is already done. The incident is reported, and even if the bite victim were to come back later and say “You know, I got it wrong – it wasn’t a Rottweiler after all,” (which to the best of my knowledge no one has ever done), all anyone is going to remember is the original, inaccurate report, and the stereotype continues. The breed is further stigmatized, and people see it, unfairly, as being more threatening than other breeds.

What Happens In Animal Shelters

Now, because of an unfair public perception of certain breeds, aided and abetted by BSL, perfectly good, loving dogs end up being euthanized. Most animal shelters are filled to overflowing, with about 56% of dogs never finding homes and ending up on the bad end of a needle. Dogs that have been stereotyped as being threats to people and other animals are going to be the first ones killed, because they’re often unadoptable.

I told you about my friend Jackie,and her Rottweiler, Emil, in Is It Time to Let Go?and I think it’s worth taking a look back at her experience here. Emil was not a young dog when Jackie took him, and more than one person told her that she was out of her mind to take an intact male Rottweiler. Fortunately, she knew better than those who had bought into stereotypes, and Jackie and Emil had a relationship that, at least to me, was remarkable in its strength, in the love that they had for one another, and in the way they spoke to one another without words, just with their hearts.

If Emil had ended up in a shelter instead of being given to Jackie, his chances of being adopted would have been slim to none. Desperate shelter staff might even have let him go to a criminal – a drug dealer who wanted a big dog that he could torment and make vicious in order to have it protect his place of “business,” or someone who would have thrown Emil into a pit to fight another dog. I suspect that when you’re desperate to place dogs, there’s a lot that you overlook – you turn a blind eye, thinking that something might be “off,” but hoping that it’s not.

If a dog is of a certain breed, it might not have to be old, or sick, or injured to be put down in an animal shelter.56% of dogs that enter shelters are euthanized.  Animals are put down if they are sick, aggressive, or injured, or because of overcrowding.  Since Pit Bulls and Rottweilers are thought to be aggressive, these breeds are euthanized more often than others. Dogs that are stereotyped as “good dogs” are, quite simply, more likely to find homes than those that are stereotyped as “dangerous animals.”

So, when the media, organizations like McDonald’s, and even just the average Joe who buys into negative stereotypes start influencing other people, good dogs can end up being banned. In the worst case scenario, good dogs can end up being killed.

Myths That Feed the Stereotype

I can’t begin to tell you how many really stupid beliefs people hold about certain dog breeds. I’ve heard people insist, for instance, that Rottweilers are prone to mental illness because their brains grow too big for their skulls. This causes pressure, and the dog becomes insane and vicious. I’ve also heard people claim that Pit Bulls and Rottweilers lock their jaws when they bite, and that’s why once they latch on you can’t make them let go.

There is no truth to either of these myths. Rottweiler brains most definitely do not outgrow their skulls. As to the theory of the locked jaws, it is a physiological impossibility – it’s a jaw, fercryinoutloud, not a pair of Vise-Grips! Given the incredible jaw pressure that some dogs are able to exert, you won’t be able to pry them apart (nor should you try), but a well-trained dog can be told to let go.

This, of course, brings me to the myth of “blood lust” and how once a certain breed tastes blood, something fires in its brain, and it is unable to process the “Let go” command. Again, not true. Granted, certain breeds do tend to take a “hold and shake” approach, and that will often cause a great deal of harm to another dog. And certain breeds may not always be good with other dogs – to be fair, Pits and Rotts generally do fall into this category. That’s probably why they’re so desirable for dog fighting.

However, as I mentioned in the beginning, you can’t call every Irishman a drunk because some are. And the same goes for dog breeds – there are a lot of factors that relate to aggression, and it’s not always about the breed. A dog could be aggressive because it is fearful, in pain, or protecting its territory. Aggression has far less to do with the breed than it does with the circumstances, and yes, with the humans involved.

About Those Humans

When we’re talking about stereotyping certain dog breeds, what can’t be overlooked is that sometimes, certain types of people look for certain breeds of dogs. And yes, that can contribute in a large way to a breed getting an undeserved bad name. If a person who has a tendency toward violence, for instance, owns a certain breed of dog, the dog will pick up on the owner’s mindset. Someone with poor anger management skills is also likely to have poor impulse control and be more likely to strike or shout at the dog instead of training using positive reinforcement. Then there are, as I mentioned before, the criminals, who actually want their dogs to be violent.

In a perfect world, only good humans would own dogs. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world. Sometimes, bad humans own dogs, and sometimes they own dogs of breeds that are already taking a bad rap. This just makes matters worse.

What Can You Do?

Do you own a sweet, loving Pit Bull, Rottweiler, Doberman, German Shepherd or another dog of a breed that is unfairly stereotyped? Take him for a walk through the neighborhood. Let him meet people, and let them see what a good dog you have. My friend Neila does this often, and she sometimes regales me with stories of how she and her “gang” have worked as Rottweiler ambassadors. In fact, just the other day, she told me about an old lady who, upon meeting one of her Rotts, insisted that Neila had the breed wrong! “No, dear,” she said, “You’re mistaken. This isn’t a Rottweiler – he’s too sweet-natured!”

Take your dog to obedience classes, even if he doesn’t really need training. That way, others in the class can see how well-mannered your dog is, and they’ll leave with a much better perception of the breed.

If your dog is exceptionally calm and gentle, why not take him to a seniors’ home? Many seniors miss the companionship of pets, and if your dog is well-trained as well as good-natured, the nursing home staff will probably be happy to have you and your dog visit, no matter what the breed.

The Final Word

Breed stereotyping is a terrible thing, and has led to terrible things, like BSL and excessive euthanizing. The only way to fight negative stereotyping is to get better information out there to counteract the bad information, and the best way to do that is to train your dog properly, and expose him to a lot of people. Be an ambassador for the breed. Sure, it’s an uphill fight, but someone’s got to do it. Do it for the breed you love, because if you don’t, some day, the right to own that breed could be taken away from you.

About the Author Ash

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