Five Foolproof Tips for Better “Pit Bull” Advocacy

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Recently BAD RAP shared the following message on their Facebook page that is truly some of the most sage advice you can receive when it comes to effective dog advocacy:

Question: “How do I best defend my dog when people say mean things?”

Our answer: “None needed, really. Simply live your life, know your rights, be a conscientious dog owner and follow your dog’s happy example. Your joy is all the defense you need.”

When I was working with new teachers, it seemed like all they ever wanted to know was what to do or say “when a student does x.”  They don’t want to hear about theories, concepts, or common sense philosophies (like the one above)–however practical and effective they may be.  They wanted “classroom management tricks.”  They wanted the quick fix.  The one-liner.  The magic bean.  But that doesn’t exist with real teaching.  And it doesn’t exist with real advocacy either.  Be proactive with your advocacy, not reactive.  Be thoughtful and respectful with what you say, do and share; not reckless.  And in that spirit, here are my five favorite ways to advocate on behalf of pit bulls, dogs and all animals in general.

1. Stop telling everyone how “special” pit bulls are.  Breed discrimination and public misperception of pit bulls exist because people think that they are different from other types of dogs.  Well, they’re not. So stop telling everybody that they are.  The only thing unique about pit bulls right now is the disproportionate numbers in which they are abused, neglected, discriminated against and killed.

Every time you utter a phrase like “pit bulls are the most loyal dogs” or “pit bulls used to be nanny dogs because they’re so great with kids” or “pit bulls are the best working and sporting dogs because they’re built for it” and so on, you are telling anti-pit bull people that they are correct, and that pit bulls are in fact different from other dogs.  It doesn’t matter how positive what you’re saying is, and it doesn’t matter what your intention was.  You’re doing a disservice to your advocacy efforts and just further perpetuating breed stereotypes every time you play that game.  Here is the phrase you want:  Dogs are individuals . . . just like people.  Individual dogs can be special.  But the minute you generalize that to an entire breed or type of dog, you’re unraveling the argument you’re trying to make.

2. Be a dog person, not a pit bull person.  And even better, be an animal person, not just a dog person–and by “animal” I mean human and non-human animals alike.  As long as you limit yourself to focusing only on information and groups specific to pit bulls, you’re handicapping yourself as an advocate.  Peace, Love & Fostering offered a lovely post on this recently. When you branch out and look for information beyond your immediate area of interest, you’ll find considerably more useful ideas, tools, and resources than you will by clinging to your comfort zone.  And more importantly, you won’t alienate others who might have slightly different but parallel interests to your own.  Don’t just read about “pit bull” training and behavior; read about dog training and behavior.  Don’t just read about dog training and behavior; read about animal training and behavior.  Here are three of my favorite and most trusted resources for moving beyond just “pit bulls” or dogs when it comes specifically to advocacy efforts:  Best Friends Animal Society, the Institute for Humane Education, and the Animals & Society Institute.

And don’t kid yourself.  You’re not perfect either.  Unless you’re a self-sustaining, vegan farmer who lives entirely off of solar power and locally made products while working for Habitat for Humanity, chances are you’ve made one if not many decisions this week that have either directly or indirectly caused the suffering of other animals or people.  Dog fighting and breed discriminatory legislation may make you sick, but that burger you had today or that reasonably-priced kibble you just bought for your dog was likely made possible by factory farming atrocities that make most dog abuse look trivial.  This is the world we live in, and it’s why I like Zoe Weil’s approach to living: “Most Good, Least Harm.”

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3. Don’t feed the trolls.  I hate to break it to you, but nobody has ever changed anyone’s mind via Facebook comments.  At best, you’re hoping that the masses will gang up on the offending party and beat their opinion into submission.  So stop engaging with the haters.  Every minute you spend responding to the people looking to pick a fight is one less minute you’ve spent on the stuff that matters.  I feel like this advice is doled out frequently by some really great advocates, and yet very few folks actually listen to it.

The other day some goofball added a Dogsbite.org link in one of the comments on Peaches’ Facebook page.  You know what I did?  Deleted the comment.  Banned the user.  It’s really simple.  Someone who posts that kind of link on a dog’s Facebook page is not interested in what I or any of Peaches’ fans have to say about pit bulls, and so I’m not going to waste my time or tarnish the positive, educational page I’ve created by trying to reason with an unreasonable human being.  Let the page’s success speak for itself. Let your own relationship with your dog and your track record as an owner speak for themselves.  Again, be proactive, not reactive.

4. Have a fabulous relationship with your own dog.  Focus on creating a positive narrative to replace the old one.  If we provide people with our own positive, inspiring, evidence-based stories, they’ll replace the negative, biased, and myth-based ones that we so desperately want to prove wrong.  In a nutshell, nothing pisses off an anti-pit bull person more than seeing the image of a loveable, friendly dog surrounded by smiling, happy people.  Our dogs speak for themselves.  Be a respectful person, a responsible and well-informed owner, and a committed partner for your dog(s) and your work is done.  And for those of us who incorporate advocacy efforts into other activities like therapy dog work or agility and other competitive sports, remember that our dogs still come first . . . even before “the cause.”  When we push our dogs to do more than they’re comfortable with or neglect our relationship with our dogs for the sake of advocating for dogs, we’ve lost sight of what matters most.

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5. Be a critical reader.  I’ve left this tip for last because it is, to me, the most essential.  Remember all of those annoying essays, term papers, lab assignments and critical reading exercises you were given in high school and college?  Well, believe it or not, those actually had a purpose.  While not wanting to delve into how great or horrible your own teachers actually were, in theory those educational experiences were intended to help you learn how to be a thoughtful, critical consumer of information.  In simpler terms, they should have taught you to recognize what’s quality . . . and what’s crap.  And in a social media driven world, this has become more important than ever.

When I share something on Facebook, it’s because I’ve done my best to thoroughly consider the content of what I’m sharing and the quality of its source.  Don’t just share a photo because it’s cute.  First look at where it came from and why it was produced.  Don’t just share an article because you have a positive emotional response to the title.  Read the entire article, consider who wrote it and who the intended audience was. Evaluate the quality of the information and the presentation of it.  Consider which sources of information and experts are cited.  And make sure to determine whether it is appropriately aligned with your own advocacy goals.  Even if a piece of writing echoes certain things that I agree with, if the overall message and/or source of the information is in conflict with my own fundamental beliefs, I don’t share or endorse it. Instead, I find something better.

Buster's Books

As advocates, we have to learn to evaluate our information and resources.  Recently, an article titled “Pitbulls Used to be the Perfect ‘Nanny Dog’ for Children Until the Media Turned Them Into Monsters” went gangbusters on Facebook, with people referring to it as “a really good article” and “a great source of information.”  As someone with a writing, research and education background, let me be one of many to say that this article is crap.  Really, it is.  And I mean no disrespect to its author in saying that, but it is a poorly written, poorly researched, irresponsibly presented piece of writing.  Here’s why . . .

  • The title itself is sensational and appeals to both positive and negative breed stereotypes:  “Nanny Dogs” and “Monsters” (The fact that many pit bull advocates were immediately drawn to this headline is no different than other folks being immediately drawn to a headline like “Family Dog Mauls Child.”)
  • The first two sources of information cited are the UKC and the ASPCA, neither of which have particularly helpful or accurate perspectives when it comes to pit bull welfare, and the first of which trades in the maintenance of breed stereotypes and is unconcerned with the need to keep dogs out of shelters and away from irresponsible owners.  The ASPCA does a lot of really great things, but advocating appropriately for pit bulls isn’t one of them.
  • The author spends the first several paragraphs creating an absolute orgy of sensational language and imagery and then hilariously manages to go on to say “these incidents are then reported – and very often misreported – with breathless sensationalism by the media, and the cycle continues.” Yeah, no kidding, buddy. Way to prove your own point.
  • The majority of the article more or less plagiarizes Karen Delise’s The Pit Bull Placebo.
    Ultimately, what would have been great is if the author had provided one or two well thought out introductory comments, and then simply offered the link to the free PDF of the book. (He does include the hyperlink, but it’s buried and unlikely to be used by most readers.)
  • The photos included with the article are depressing, uninteresting and of poor quality.
  • A section titled “Dog Racism” is included that not only falls flat in its intentions, but is sure to offend pretty much everybody because of the complete lack of care and thought that went into its development.
  • The article ends with a brief and unorganized mention of some outdated pop culture references like Linda Blair and Cesar Millan as evidence for a change in attitudes towards pit bulls, ultimately proving that this author’s research on the topic was superficial at best.

Yes, I’m sure the author of this article was well-intentioned, and good for him for trying to stick up for “pit bulls”.  But the above list constitutes all of the things that I noticed and carefully considered before deciding how I felt about this article and whether or not it was worth sharing in the name of pit bull advocacy.  Yes, doing extra reading and thinking takes more time–sometimes more than we have.  But so does everything else in the world that makes a real difference.

Peaches says hello to her favorite reading buddy.

Peaches says hello to her favorite reading buddy.

Instead of having your friends and family get lost in the unfortunate labyrinth of a poorly crafted pop-culture article that probably does more harm than good, why not turn to the piles of other fabulous, carefully crafted resources available through individuals and organizations you know and trust? Animal Farm Foundation, National Canine Research Council, Best Friends Animal Society, BAD RAP, and Animals & Society Institute.  And more importantly, start to look at the types of resources and information that they’re sharing (or not sharing) to help give you an idea of what else might be out there waiting to be discovered by a committed advocate like you.

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About emily douglas

Emily Douglas authors The Unexamined Dog blog and writes regularly about "pit bull" advocacy, humane education and the parallels between the education field and the dog world. Emily and her dog, Peaches volunteer as a registered therapy dog team in the Southeast Michigan area, where their visits are affectionately known as Peach Therapy.
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28 Responses to Five Foolproof Tips for Better “Pit Bull” Advocacy

  1. Lauren says:

    This takes BAD RAP’s comment and elaborates it so well. Sometimes I think the best thing I can do is let my dog be his own advocate – for all dogs – as well as let the way that he and I communicate advocate for our own dog-human relationship.

  2. lnwoods25 says:

    I love this for so many reasons, among them: 1) critically reading and analyzing any information – not just that from animal advocates – forces us to understand and form opinions so we can better advocate for our causes and 2) understanding that the way we interact with our dogs can speak more than anything we could ever do or say without them.

    I’m also really interested in your work in humane education. If you have any resources for someone beginning to dive into the subject, I’d be very appreciative!

  3. EmilyS says:

    you make some good points, but….. if you don’t think “pit bulls” are special, why do you have one? People who have border collies think their breed is ‘special”; people with Dobes think their breed is “special”. Etc. I agree 100% we shouldn’t proclaim “specialness” that is b.s. (like the nanny dog thing). But if you’re not interested in the specialness of the APBT, then you’re not an advocate for the APBT and maybe you should just stop talking about “pit bulls”. Being an advocate for “dogs that are killed disproportionately” is a different ballgame. A worthy one, of course.

    • Don says:

      “if you don’t think ‘pit bulls’ are special, why do you have one?”

      Is this a serious question? Not everyone looks for dogs by breed. Dogs are individuals, and any particular individual person might adopt any individual dog for any number of reasons. My first dog was a Lab mix, and I had her because at the time I was ready for a dog, a roommate’s dog happened to have puppies, and she was the one I liked best of that litter. My second dog was of unknown lineage, but she was very tall and slender, with long wavy black hair, nothing like a pit bull. I had her because a coworker decided he couldn’t take care of her anymore, had me dogsit for a weekend while he was out of town, and she was so sweet and so in need of love and attention that I decided to keep her. My third, the one I have now, is a “pit bull type dog.” I went to a pet supply store to pick up some things for the other dog, and a local rescue had an adoption event going on outside the store. I saw this dog and fell in love with his calm demeanor, kind eyes, and yes, his giant head. I did not go looking for a “pit bull.”

      That said, I advocate for pits (which I did even before I had a pit type dog) because a lot of people do think they’re “special” in a bad way. I want people to know that they are just dogs like any other dog. There are a lot of pit type dogs that need homes, so yes, there is a good chance that my next dog will be one. That doesn’t mean I think pits are inherently any different from other breeds.

      • Catherine says:

        We went to the humane society looking for a family dog – maybe a lab or a golden – and wound up with a pit bull! I was shocked at the percentage of pit bulls at the shelter, and even more surprised when one of them stole our heart. So add another vote for choosing a dog by personality and not by breed. They are very much individuals, and kudos to this author for emphasizing that.

  4. leslie says:

    “Be an animal person.” Amen, my sister.

  5. Donna Baker says:

    So many excellent words of wisdom….thank you, Emily. In my area of rescue (Golden Retrievers), we actually struggle with a somewhat opposite problem — everyone thinks Goldens are the perfect, quintessential dog and can’t imagine that they ever have temperament problems with humans or other canines or that they would be anything other than wonderfully well-mannered. Not so, of course, especially with many of the Goldens who end up in rescue. They have the potential to be great dogs but don’t necessarily arrive challenge-free!

    I especially like your comments about seeing dogs as individuals (it never fails to amaze me how different from each other Goldens can be and I’ve no doubt that’s just as true for other breeds), reading critically (as a former editor, oh how I hate seeing poorly researched or poorly written material “go viral”), and being cognizant of ways in which we all contribute — albeit unintentionally — to animal suffering. I am a long time vegetarian with a current aspiration to become vegan BUT put a cookie in front of me that I know has been made with eggs that came from horrendous factory farming environments and guess what….I’ll still eat the cookie 95% of the time.

    Thank you for such a well-written and thought-provoking post.

  6. If no one ever talks about the dog fighting and other animal fighting how are we suppose to spread the word? I realize some of this stuff is crap, but putting pictures of pit bulls and other dogs that have only a few days to live before being , but down I don’t feel is wrong someone actually might be able to give it a home. Thanks for listening Elizabeth

  7. Oh man I’m so glad I stumbled upon this blog and post. This is one of the best things I’ve read in a really long time. Thanks for being so awesome and getting this out there!

  8. This is so, so great. Thank you for writing it! (And thank you for linking me :-))

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  10. Milt says:

    Just to be clear, this isn’t for people looking to adopt a dog right?
    I mean, yes all dogs are individuals, but in general different breeds require different training or lifestyles, and a dog in the wrong environment might cause more harm than good.

    • Hi Milt-
      Actually, yes and no. And thanks for asking such an important question. To answer the first part, NO, different breeds do NOT require different training. Individual dogs require different types of training. For example, a shy, fearful dog with confidence issues will require a very different approach (moving slowly, speaking quietly, limiting stimuli, etc.) to a confident dog willing to try anything new. Any knowledgeable, experienced animal behaviorist and dog trainer will tell you the same thing. All animals learn the exact same way: Classical and operant conditioning. Which really just means that we all develop associations by linking particular emotions with particular stimuli (i.e. the sound of a bell means it’s time to eat) and that we will naturally repeat and reproduce behaviors that are reinforced and avoid behaviors that are unproductive or punished. Here are some great resources on Patricia McConnell’s site that cover a range of general and specific training information: http://www.patriciamcconnell.com/training-your-dog#overlay-context=Dominance

      As far as adoption goes: Here is the single best thing you can do as an adopter. Honestly assess your own home environment, lifestyle and personal needs/interest when it comes to your new dog. For example, are you looking for an active dog to go running or hiking? Want a dog who will be a couch potato? Or one who will be calm and relaxed around children? Then go to a rescue or shelter of your choice and give them all of that information and help them select the right dog for you. The people who work at shelters and rescues know every dog there inside and out. They are ones who can tell you which dog will be great based on your interests and which ones won’t fit.

      • Don says:

        That’s generally good advice, but I got a dog who was touted by the rescue as a couch potato, but was in reality more of a tornado than a potato. I would advise spending as much time as possible with the dog (preferably in your home) before adopting, just to make sure what they’re telling you is true.

      • Excellent clarification! Thanks for adding that.

  11. Janet in Cambridge says:

    Well done. And thanks for facing the issues of farmed animals full on. I am an ethical vegan and I know I’m still using animal by-products somewhere. But you do what you can.

    Also loved the advice to ignore the trolls. It’s just like giving a dog attention. Good attention or bad attention, it’s all attention and that’s what they want. Don’t give it to them. They’ve not invited to the party.

    Kudos.

  12. wimbs says:

    Wise words from a wise woman. xo

  13. Zach says:

    Wonderful advice. I’m adopting a pit this summer. I don’t think they’re a special breed but I do think they’re regarded much differently. On an adoption site I was searching, it seemed like there were ten times as many pits needing homes than any other breed.

    Convincing others they’re just dogs is the best advice of all. Great article!

  14. Amalie Hohn says:

    When people ask me about the demeanor of my pits I remind them that they don’t know they’re pits. They just know that they are dogs.

  15. You NAILED it Emily. Thanks for taking my blurb and spinning out such a complete and well thought out essay. For the record, I advocate for pit bulls and the rights of their owners since they still need* advocating at this time in our history, but my favorite dogs will always be the huskies and the GSDs. Huskies are no more “special” than pit bulls, but since everyone tends to gravitate towards certain breeds and certain (individual) dogs for reasons we can’t altogether explain, I don’t fight it. Be an animal person. Yes, yes, yes – That’s it exactly. Thank you!

  16. “When we push our dogs to do more than they’re comfortable with or neglect our relationship with our dogs for the sake of advocating for dogs, we’ve lost sight of what matters most.”

    Very good point and illustrates why it’s so important what kind of training with utilize. Training that relies on force and corrections, rather than giving the dog free will and rewarding them, makes for dogs with no say in what makes them uncomfortable. They’re not allowed to tell us or they get corrections.

    Dogs can try to communicate with us in, what is to us, strange ways when something makes them uncomfortable (ground sniffing instead of following a cue, lunging and growling, not wanting to continue on walks, general disobedience and other behavior issues). So when we use punitive devices and intimidation and pain, this silences our dog’s communication with us and sets them up for some very uncomfortable situations that we turn a deaf ear to. We’re essentially telling our dogs, I don’t care. Do it anyways.

    They can only bear what we put them through for so long before they snap. And if someone is forcing their dog to be a breed advocate, without their dog’s consent via free choice training, and this dog snaps in a public setting, this does NO favors to the pit bulls. Then the dog is viewed as untrustworthy and crazy and dangerous, having snapped for “no reason” when in reality, the dog has had enough and it was a long time coming.

    I say this not because I think the author espouses punitive training, but because this breed and other “tough” breeds attract the strong armed correction trainers in hoards. These trainers do the APBT and other pit breeds no favors with “compliance or else”.

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  18. Laura says:

    I loved this and will share with my hubby. We try to be good advocates for adopting and fostering. And we’ve got 5 recues now, all mixed breeds and with then we train and compete successfully in dog agility. One of our best dogs is our American bulldog mix, he’s got the best drive and focus we’ve seen and loves everyone. We’ve had people actually actively avoid us and make comments that he could be “dangerous”. We just continue to have a blast, smile and continue to prove them wrong by letting Buddy be the awesome dog and good ambassador that he is.

  19. Eileen says:

    I agree with many points made here, but the fact is, it’s extremely infuriating when you’re walking down the street and people yank their dogs and kids away or make comments about your dog solely because of his breed. Or when your dog barks at another dog on the street, as dogs sometimes will, and someone screams frantically at you: “why would you have that dog lady what’s wrong with you!!??” Maybe you have the willpower to ignore such ignorance but I can’t. And pitbulls as a breed ARE special, just like each breed has it’s own unique characteristics. So I see nothing wrong with telling people who don’t get it that, while I love all animals, pitbulls hold a special place in my heart because they get a bad rap when really they’re naturally sweet and cuddly and playful.

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  23. Jaime says:

    I’m so happy to see this post. Once upon a time (when my pittie was young) I used to try to explain myself or make others comfortable. I’d say, “She’s friendly” or “She’s nice” to everyone I encountered. Then, time passed and I realized no matter what I said, it wouldn’t matter. So now? I walk my dog, show the world how amazing she is, and lead by example. There’s no need to explain or to defend yourself or your pet. Just do your thing. If people dislike you — well, they dislike you. It’s pretty much human nature.

    Otherwise take a day with your dog, take in the scenery, and enjoy!

    It’s as simple as that.

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