Stereotypes

While arguing for a pit bull ban, in Aurora, CO, city councilmember Bob Fitzgerald said something that bears repeating in a discussion about stereotyping: “We don’t want ‘those people’ here.”

“Those people” were pit bull owners.

Bob is not alone in his feelings of ill will toward pit bull owners. What is it that causes so many people to instantly judge pit bull owners not worthy of the same rights, privileges, and respect that most other dog owners enjoy? Why are pit bull owners so undesirable in a community?

If Bob were referring to a particular race of people with those words, he would be out of office faster than you could blink. On the other hand, if he were talking about criminals and murderers, he would get applause.

Reaction to his words among pit bull owners was more of the former; we see ourselves as responsible, law-abiding citizens with equal rights, and it shocks and angers us to hear someone say otherwise. On the other hand, reaction to his words among non-pit-bull owners did not provoke outrage, and I’m sure quite a few nodded their heads in agreement.

Most people see all pit bull owners as the type you hear about in the news: criminals, gang members, drug dealers, and thugs. And yes, Bob is right: no one wants “those people” in their upstanding community.

“We don’t want ‘those people’ (pit bull owners) here.” – Bob Fitzgerald, Aurora, CO Councilmember
“I hate to see [Portage] become a magnet in the future for people who have these dogs (pit bulls).” – Portage Police Officer Adam Malchow
“I can’t help but believe part of the allure of owning a pit bull is the danger. If it’s not, then why bother?” – Harry Smith, CBS Early Show co-anchor
“Those who go to shelters seeking out breeds like Pit Bulls have an agenda that goes beyond just having a family pet. They are looking for something that is linked to violence, something that is intimidating…” – Jeff Graham, Mayor of Waterton, NY
“They [pit bull owners] have their reasons for owning this breed. Either they are criminals, using the dogs to protect their club house or their grow-op, or they fight them, or they are not very bright. Educated people are not attracted to pit bulls.” – Animal Advocates Society of B.C.

The Psychology Behind Stereotypes

In psychology, confirmation bias is the process by which a person forms a theory and then searches for things that prove their theory while ignoring things that are contradictory.

This is how stereotypes form and grow. The seed is planted, and each event that confirms the stereotype causes it to grow, while events that refute the stereotype are minimized or rejected.

We can apply confirmation bias to the stereotypes of pit bull and pit bull owner. Events which confirm that a pit bull is a killing machine are counted and recalled over and over, while hundreds of thousands of normal, sweet, friendly pit bulls are completely ignored. Events involving a heroic pit bull are fudged a little (perhaps the breed is not mentioned).

Similarly, news media frequently makes connections between drug dealers and pit bulls, while responsible pit bull owners don’t make the news at all.

The second element to consider is familiarity. Dr. Aaron Beck, in Prisoners of Hate, suggests that hatred and violence toward others stems in part from a lack of familiarity, which results in a dehumanizing effect. The minority group is perceived as “outsiders,” and as such it is considered acceptable for the majority to marginalize them and strip them of their rights.

People who are unfamiliar with pit bull owners are reacting to the stereotype, not reality. Some individuals’ only exposure to pit bull owners has been in a negative sense. Perhaps they live near an irresponsible pit bull owner or were bitten by a pit bull. These individuals have strong confirmation bias and are very difficult to persuade that what they are familiar with is neither normal nor acceptable among responsible pit bull owners.

On the other hand, individuals who have pleasant, normal experiences with responsible pit bull owners come to realize that pit bull owners are human beings just like them. It is vital that responsible pit bull owners do everything they can to foster familiarity and acceptance through demonstration of model behavior and actions which humanize them in the eyes of the majority group (non-pit bull owners).

As a responsible pit bull owner and a member of the pit bull owning community, it is up to you to combat the stereotype. If you do not rise above the stereotype, you are adding weight to the arguments of those who want to ban the breed-type (and, in the process, pit bull owners). You can fight the stereotype in many ways, through both words and deeds.

How to Fight the Stereotype

“As [a person’s] image of the potential victim becomes dehumanized, [a person is] more likely to endorse inhuman policies.” — Aaron T. Beck, M.D., Prisoners of Hate: The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and Violence

How Discrimination Occurs

For a person who defines “pit bull” in a stereotypical manner—as an “evil, bloodthirsty beast” or an “unpredictable wild animal,” or a “more powerful, more dangerous dog”—banning or killing pit bulls just for being pit bulls doesn’t stir any feelings of guilt or immorality. For this person, the pit bull has become dehumanized (decanine-ized?), cast as an abnormal abomination that gets what it “deserves” for being “evil.”

Pit bull owners have been dehumanized. On Internet message boards, in news articles, and in political speeches, pit bull owners are routinely disparaged as nothing more than criminals, drug dealers, “trailer trash,” liars, lunatics, or social deviants.

Consequently, pit bull owners find themselves struggling against both legal discrimination and social discrimination—and the majority group (non-pit bull owners) isn’t bothered by this discrimination. In fact, the majority group may even endorse it, or worse, fight for it, as in the case of breed-specific legislation.

Such discrimination is only possible because of the dehumanization of pit bull owners and the decanine-ization of pit bulls. By making both the owners and the dogs seem abnormal, frightening, and even dangerous, society easily endorses inhuman policies like breed-specific legislation and other forms of discrimination.

How to Stop Discrimination

To reduce hate, fear, and prejudice toward pit bull owners and their dogs, normalization of these groups must occur. That is, we must take action to remove the elements that make pit bull owners and their dogs seem “alien” to society.

Normalization takes a concerted and careful effort on the part of all pit bull owners and supporters; pit bulls themselves can act as unwitting ambassadors for normalization when they are well-trained and correctly managed, but only the dog’s owner can turn his or her dog into an ambassador.

To normalize, it is necessary to reframe the pit bull as a normal—perhaps even boring—dog, and to reframe pit bull owners as normal, polite, socially beneficial and desirable individuals.

What Doesn’t Work

Portraying pit bulls as “the best of the best”

Some pit bull owners and supporters have been attempting normalization for some time by leaning to the opposite extreme: they portray pit bulls as completely opposite the pit bull stereotype. That is, pit bulls are actually uniformly angelic, totally human-friendly, heroic, and far better than other types of dogs. One often hears statements such as, “My dog wouldn’t hurt a flea,” and “Cocker Spaniels bite more than pit bulls.”

Unfortunately, this strategy does not work. First, the “perfect angel” image is discredited by media reports of pit bull attacks—and the interviews in which the oblivious dog owner exclaims, “But my dog’s never done this before!” Never mind that this sort of statement is common with all dog owners whose dog has attacked, regardless of the dog’s breed. People remember that “angelic” pit bulls have injured people.

Second, although other breeds may or may not be responsible for more bites or attacks than pit bulls, detractors inevitably assert that pit bull bites do more damage than other breeds. Although there is insufficient evidence to prove either position—we do not have the statistics to prove that other breeds are more likely to bite, nor do we have data showing that pit bull bites do more damage than other breeds—the average pit bull owner often fails to effectively counter the detractor’s argument.

In fact, some owners have actually stated, despite evidence to the contrary, that pit bulls have stronger jaws and will do more damage than other breeds. This is an unfortunate side effect of the “exact opposite stereotype” strategy; by portraying the pit bull as “the best” dog in the world, it leads (or traps) a person into concluding that pit bulls must also be “the best” biters.

Comparing breed-specific legislation to the Holocaust

Although there are parallels between the legally sanctioned eradication of an entire type of dog based on physical appearance, and the genocide of an entire race of people, this comparison is, for the most part, considered insensitive to the human beings who died during the Holocaust. As soon as this argument comes into play, the speaker is usually bombarded by charges of callous disrespect for human life and an implication that they feel that animal life is more valuable than human life. In this way, the speaker is portrayed as inhuman, and the rest of his or her argument is discounted.

Comparing the right to own pit bulls to the right to own a gun

These are two subjects that should never come up at the same time. The reason is simple: guns are weapons designed for killing. Nothing positive occurs when one draws a parallel between the ownership of a pit bull and the ownership of a killing implement. If you must get into a debate about what the Constitution of the United States does and does not permit in terms of dog ownership and due process rights, leave guns out of it at all costs!

What Does Work

Be an outstanding responsible dog owner

And by this I don’t mean be a “good” dog owner or an “okay” dog owner. Do everything in your power to be the best dog owner you can possibly be.
The fact that you own a pit bull is an automatic handicap. You will have to work harder to overcome that handicap than you would with a more socially acceptable breed of dog.

With many breeds, people think that misbehavior is “cute” or tolerable. With pit bulls, the same behavior is considered “vicious” and “deadly”.

No, it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. Don’t let your dog behave in a way that other people might interpret as dangerous. Keep your dog under control at all costs. Make sure you have done plenty of socializing and training, and seek help from a professional if necessary. If your pit bull goes out in public, he needs to have perfect manners.

Mistakes happen

I have to temper the previous suggestion with an acknowledgement that everyone screws up sometimes. It doesn’t make you a bad person, but you have to accept responsibility for the consequences of your mistake. And learn from it. There’s no reason for the same mistake to happen twice!

Be an upstanding citizen and a good neighbor

Remember, “those people”—the people that Bob Fitzgerald and others like him want to banish—are law breakers, social misfits, and thugs. Don’t prove them right!

Follow the laws, keep your lawn tidy, make friends with your neighbors, show interest in your local government, go to neighborhood meetings, and speak with maturity and wisdom. I know, I know, I sound like an after-school special, but I dare you to prove me wrong. No one can act like a thug, a slob, or a jerk and still leave complete strangers and lawmakers with a good impression. You have to do your part to separate yourself from “those people.”

VOTE. VOTE. VOTE.

The only way politicians get into office is because someone votes them in. And the only way politicians get out of office is because someone votes them out.

With breed-specific legislation and breed bans on the agenda in cities and states across the country, you can not afford not to vote.

There are many resources out there to help you decide how to vote, and when you do vote, be sure you know where the candidates stand when it comes to your four legged family member. If you’re not careful, you will be voting for someone who wants to kill them.

Non-voters, you’re not off the hook: by not voting, you’re still “voting” for BSL. The only way to keep pro-BSL politicians out of office is to vote against them.

Work toward public safety

Many people believe that pit bull owners are not concerned about public safety because we own a so-called “dangerous” dog breed. That could not be further from the truth, and we need to prove it.

Be supportive of legislators and citizens who want better or stronger non-breed-specific dangerous dog laws. If you’re a good teacher, offer to teach classes on dog safety at schools. Take every opportunity to educate others about appropriate behavior around dogs.

If you and your dog are in a situation that you feel might be unsafe for you, your dog, or other people, don’t ignore that feeling or lie to yourself. Take yourself and your dog out of that situation quickly. It’s okay to say “Please don’t do that around my dog” or “I need to put my dog away first”. Some dogs (regardless of breed) are not good with certain types of people, children, or other dogs; don’t put your dog in a situation where he feels the need to bite. Always think about safety first.

Be outspoken against dog fighting and irresponsible ownership

Again, you need to make a clear distinction between a responsible pit bull owner and “those people”. You are not tolerant of misbehavior by other pit bull owners and you are not accepting of violence or abuse.

Throw your support behind legislators who want to impose stricter (but non-breed-specific and reasonable) dog ownership laws, voice your disgust for irresponsible owners, and join the battle against dog fighting.

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