Divisions Among The Choir: Why Pit Bull Advocacy Is In Flux

On December 1st 2007 I attended the American Bar Assoc. Animal Law Committee Regional Conference. The conference attempted to discuss dangerous dogs and what to do about reckless owners. After some 9 hours not a thing was concluded about actual dog behavior or ideas on how to educate dog owners and the general public! There were tons of stories and a whole lot of words; everyone agreed that owners should be responsible. There was an air of hopelessness about the whole affair, as if they had no way of explaining to people that are afraid of dogs that they are safe and they are not inherently dangerous. This can all be done based on factual evidence compiled each year by the CDC.

At one point a women asked “what do we say to people on committees that want to ban dogs when they counter with questions such as “will you be responsible for the blood of the next child killed by one of these dogs”. First of all; one is only responsible for their own dogs or a dog in their charge. I am surely not responsible for someone else’s negligence. We can be responsible for each other’s education though.

I offered this “you should tell them dogs do not have intellectual morality”. It was as if the roof caved in. There was a chilled hushed confusion. Not immoral; amoral folks.. Dogs are innocent, period. They view the world as safe or unsafe, and it’s up to humans to guide dogs through life feeling the best they can about their surroundings, seems simple enough.

I was in the room with what I believed to be educated people, lawyers, professionals from around the country who work with dogs et al…One of the attorneys at the podium said he disagreed with me, that dogs do have morals, however he could not substantiate his opinion. I was summarily shut down. There was no one willing to discuss this line of thinking, that dogs are innocent and do not come equipped with intellectual morality. No wonder why there are numerous states, counties and cities with BSL or proposed BSL. No wonder why seemingly educated people involved in dogs are at a loss. This is it kids, this is the answer. We’re responsible and dogs are at our mercy.

Some of the anti BSL people are confused as well. From what I gathered at this conference they will be confused for a while. Those of us who work to promote positive images of Pit Bulls cannot give false or misleading broad strokes about the breed. Pit Bulls are safe but they are serious dogs, just as Chows and Akitas or 85 pound Labs or German Sheppard’s are serious dogs. Just as the smaller dogs can be serious behaviorally speaking, what I am getting at is we need to educate not just illuminate. No matter how many cute stories are out there about Pit Bulls, we still need people to be educated, this is a mulit pronged affair.

At the same conference I met a woman who is doing PR for a very well respected Pit Bull advocacy group, whom I adore. As we spoke with her I mentioned that alongside my Pit Bull documentary I was working at removing pain, force, shock & startle as methods in pet dog training. She countered with this nugget of street knowledge “Better to have them on a choke chain than euthanized in a shelter”. When I said that many dogs become aggressive because of life on the choke and then they get euthanized in the shelter, she looked confused and hurried herself off to a more safe conversation. She did not want to discuss the topic she only wanted to believe her own “theory”.

This same line of thinking also speaks to the muzzling issue. Politicos will usher in a bill now and again for mandatory muzzling of all Pit Bulls. The problem with this is twofold.

One; dogs typically do not like muzzles. So they paw at it, or shut down refusing to walk. So the owner who needs to get the dog out for a walk will inevitably leave the muzzle off and hope they get away without seeing Animal Control. This is a lot like J walking. By and large people will get away with it.

Two: Many dog trainers, shelter staff and definitely the general public do not know how to properly desensitize a dog to a muzzle; this desensitizing can make the muzzle be a pleasurable or at least tolerable experience. This desensitization is not a difficult thing if done right. But people are too busy it seems.

It is possible to get some dogs and some owners to have their dog wear a muzzle, however it is not the answer in fact it is a waste of time as a law unless you can get the dog to wear it, and it isn’t that easy in most cases. Behavior is based on experience, and if you have no experience or a bad/uncomfortable experience as a dog, the dog sensitizes to it.  Say what you want but the muzzle is not the answer that many people think it is.

Fast forward to 2009, I along with many people in the positive dog training and PB advocacy camps were contacted by a group of people looking to change the image of the Pit Bull. It is agreed by all that the term Pit Bull has become conflated, like Terrorism or WDM’s. This conflation of the Pit Bull term has gone on since the 80’s, mainly by the media, it is unfortunately now a myth in the collective consciousness.

This group had amassed a sizable and impressive consultancy of experts and media people, the hope was high, until the big idea for the rebranding of the Pit Bull came to a name change. The name change… Stubbie dogs. Cute as it is; this does nothing to change how people are educated about dogs, let alone Pit Bull dogs.

A name change from marketing people is looked upon by the entire Pit Bull community as an affront to the dogs they love and live to defend. It will be looked upon by the pro BSL crowd as an admission of guilt, as a way to deflect the real issue. It is a media stunt that has no legs or validity.

Stubbie dogs or whatever you want to call them, can still bite, be trained to be aggressive and harbored by people looking to do nefarious things with dogs. It will only take one idiot with a “stubbie” dog to make the news for a bite incident to have those dogs banned, oh wait they already are.

Changing perception is a large part of the Pit Bull issue, but the problem is not solved by more adding more confusion to the debate, which a name change will cause. Not one person I have spoken to thinks it’s a good idea or will do anything substantial to effect change.

If in a perfect world all BSL was forever gone and never again allowed, and the world at large did not prejudge Pit Bulls, we’d still have the issue of education for dog owners, education for people who work with dogs and education of the public.

In my interview with Jean Donaldson for my Pit Bull documentary, she says “When it comes to things with pointy teeth it hits something primal in us and we don’t always use logic”.

Logic and truthful education about dog behavior is the only way Pit Bulls will get a fair shake. There will always be people afraid of dogs, Pits or otherwise. That’s fine, however the media, shelter staff, “trainers” and ACO’s along with dog owners need to realize that it’s not about breed, it’s about knowing how to deal with dogs based on the fact they view the world as safe or unsafe, when they do display behaviors that make us concerned we need not push the blame the dog button, instead consider what the dog has suffered from at the hands of humans along the way.

Dr. Ian Dunbar states that “humans are the biggest variable in a dogs training and behavior”.

No amount of media trickery or cute stories will alone reshape the Pit Bull image. It will only be reshaped when people are educated. After all ignorance is the cause for prejudice, so to combat it effectively we’ll need to get down to the truth of the matter, which is clearing up the mess that is legitimate dog behavior education. What everyone is concerned with is dog behavior, dogs doing things that we are concerned about, be it jumping to greet or aggression it is dog behavior.

I spoke at two Pit Bull Awareness Day events this October. In Connecticut & Philly, I saw an abundance of prong collars and owners, jerking, snapping and verbally shunting the dog to stop reacting. It surely was not the first time these dogs have been given a prong pinch, so even after repeated aversives applied, the behavior persists. It’s not working kids, please move on.

At one point when two dogs were a bit too close, I could see all the warning signs of two dogs about to react, stiff body posture, low level growls, dilated pupils, avoidance, appeasement lip licking, so I asked one of the people to move away a bit, and just as I asked there was a minor outburst from the dogs. Once the distance was increased, the dogs were fine. One gentleman offered his insights that the “tails were wagging so they are ok”, I countered with “Well that’s not really an indicator of dogs feeling ok about each other”. He disagreed, even though the tails were wagging, and an outburst occurred and distance was shown right before his eyes to relive the stress of the situation, he carries his “opinion” that a wagging tail is a sign of all things are ok. It’s not.

One well intentioned girl with absolute horrible leash handling skills said “A trainer told me to use the prong, but I don’t like it”. If in your heart it does not feel right, then stop is what I told her. In addition if you’ve cranking your dog’s neck and it is still reacting, maybe it is the cranking that is making it worse? There are more effective ways to stop leash reactivity and I offered her some pointers.

In my presentations in both the CT & Philly PB awareness day events I reminded people that how they act with their dogs is the best way to show the world that Pit Bulls and there owners are not all thugs and hooligans. Every time you choke your dog and give him a verbal what for in public, someone will look on and say “there’s those Pit Bulls and their angry owners”. They may be other dog owners, a passerby or even the police. It will not be viewed kindly.

The essence of advocacy is to protect and defend dogs. Dogs however are subjected to the whims and the mercies of those humans who are in their care. People do not always stop and think about what they are doing, they just want a quick fix. Well quick fixes are usually not the solution in total, perhaps some strides can be made at the outset, but it is a daily cumulative effect that dogs need for solid training.

Pretending to know something about dogs is why they are in trouble. This false knowledge that permeates dog owners, “trainers” on TV shows, shelter staff’s, ACO’s and the world at large is the main aspect fo the dog issues that needs to be addressed. It is easier to change laws than change beliefs especially when bellowing media machine often drowns out the legitimate educational efforts of some of the best minds out here.

Education costs less than media gimmicks. Education s the only thing that has ever solved issues in our society, agreed education has also marred some of aspects of culture, but ask yourself if the education was legit?

It’s not rocket science, but it does take people willing to play their positions and accept that just because they love dogs does not make them equipped to shift culture in the right direction at the proper intervals. In order for a positive cultural shift to take place, we’ll need an overhaul in the way people who work with dogs are educated. A blockbuster movie starring a Pit Bull would help as well. Both would surely do the trick as far as mass perceptions go, but one without the other is half of the equation solved. I agree we need media to be responsible, and we need more proactive efforts on the parts of Universities and Humane Organizations to step up their education.

Know that it is my intention here is to help dogs, and get dog owners and people to realize dogs are not out to get us and that we humans already have the knowledge to fix the majority of issues that surround all dogs, it just takes a willingness to learn with an open mind founded in logic and legitimate education.

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