Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Pervasiveness of Stereotypes

Love and a Six Foot Leash wrote a great post last week on the importance of words in advocating for pitbull type dogs.  How sometimes the well-intentioned can do harm with a poor choice of words or with assumptions and generalizations.  I believe we are all sometimes guilty of a poor choice of words, eliciting an unintended reaction.  It was a post that made me self-examine; to think about the challenge of advocating for a breed (or rather a group of dogs, many of whom are mixes, who are classified as pitbull type dogs - see I was listening!) without assigning positive or negative attributes based on appearance only.  To treat dogs as individuals; to describe them as individuals; and to recognize and constantly reinforce pit bull type dogs as a diverse group of canines.

I never thought her post would have such resonance in my own life.  This week, I received a little writeup from a blogger with the Oregonian.  He had stopped to inquire about a new business opening up across the street and stayed to discuss NoPo Paws with me - my background, why I opened the store, my pledge to donate 10% of my profits to animal rescue & welfare organizations, and my goals and plans for the future.  I spoke about all of my dogs, how working through their issues made me want to volunteer with our local Humane Society and how that translated into this passion to spend my life & career helping dogs. 

This was what he wrote:

"She got bit by the doggie bug four years ago when she adopted a pit bull mix named Sadie from the Oregon Humane Society. Fuller says the dog had “aggression issues,” and that prompted her to want to learn more about dog care and training."

It is the distillation of my comments on Sadie to "pit bull mix" and "aggression issues" that brought me back to Aleksandra's post.  While not an inaccurate way to describe the behavior problems Sadie had, fear was such a bigger part of the picture than the aggression.  As those who are familiar with fear-based aggression know, the difference is critically important.  In all fairness, someone who has no experience with fearful dogs or the various forms that aggression and reactivity can take, this distinction may seem completely unimportant.

But what strikes me even more about this choice of words is how stereotypical they are.  A pitbull mix with aggression issues.  That sentence could have been about my lab with aggression issues; it could've been about my pitbull mix with fear issues.  But it wasn't.  I know there was no ill intent, no desire to sensationalize and no awareness of the stereotype being used.  That's what makes it so dangerous. 

What affects me personally is the image I know is formed in many people's minds when they hear "pitbull" and "aggression" used in the same sentence, where they are consciously aware of that image or not.  And that image is so far from who my Sadie is, so far from who the overwhelming majority of pitbull type dogs are.  I wonder how I could've better communicated her issues.  And I regret that my dog, my precious Sadie, might just be another pitbull stereotype to a stranger reading this. 

Sadie is my pitbull mix.  We don't know for certain her breed heritage so pitbull/lab mix is a best guess.  We were told she was a lab mix.  But they didn't tell us about her behavior issues.  She was unsocialized and had fear issues.  She dealt with her fear by acting out - snapping, growling and otherwise warning people of her uncertainty and fear.  We trained, we encouraged, Maggie showed and we loved.  Through trial and error, tears and smiles, we made it through.  While she is not perfect, Sadie is now a happy and mostly well-adjusted dog.  Her favorite things are giving & receiving love and water.  She really digs water.  That is Sadie's story.  She is not a stereotype; she is an individual. 

Just to clarify, Maggie is the one adopted from Oregon Humane Society.  Sadie was rehomed by a family who couldn't keep her and were going to take her to the local county shelter if she didn't go home with us.


  1. Ugh. It sucks that a well-intentioned write-up turned into a stereotype about pit bulls. Luckily, you are doing your part to SHOW what a good dog she is by example....but it still just sucks. :(

  2. I love so many things about your post. That you adopted from OHS, that you adopted a pit bull with issues, that you are bringing attention to fear as the source of much, if not most, of the aggression we see in rescue dogs.

    And you are so right--what would it do to change the reputation of these much-maligned dogs if more people understood that that snarling and lunging is rooted in insecurity and fear?

    Wish I'd known you when I lived in PDX--I'd have come by NoPo Paws all the time. I didn't know much about pitties at the time but I did know that most of the animals in shelters there--as here, in the Washington DC area--are pitties. Why is that, I wonder?

  3. I'm very sensitive to these types of things too. And it's funny because the average person really doesn't understand the differences and 'leash reaction', 'anxiety', 'fence aggression' all become "aggression". I think we are all just doing our best to try and educate more people and lead by example.

  4. I second Two Pitties' comment. It is such a sensitive issue, and the media typically leans toward sensationalism anyway... but education is the most important piece.