The Language We Use to Talk About Dog Fighting May Do More Harm than Good

If you hang out with us on Facebook and Instagram, you know we’ve been raising awareness about dog farts. Although you are likely amused by this campaign, you’re probably wondering why we, a mostly serious organization, are cracking jokes about big ol’ stinkers.

Source: Animal Farm Foundation

For one, if you are a dog guardian, you know the high risk to your health associated with dog farts, but also:

April 8th was Dog Fighting Awareness Day. We wanted to draw attention away from this day, so what better way than to talk about dog farts? This sounds shocking coming from us, we know, but it’s really not shocking if you put on your critical thinking hat. We know the day is well-intentioned, but the day itself and the language we use around it are misguided. 

At AFF, you know we’re all about language and labels. That means how we talk about all dogs matters. The way in which we frame those conversations matter.

Dog fighting is abhorrent. There’s no debate about that. Even the criminals who participate in the activity know what they are doing is atrocious. State governments are already on board. Dog fighting is a felony in every state.

Source: Animal Farm Foundation

Because everyone already knows it exists and we all agree it’s a criminal offense, we must ask ourselves:

What are the consequences of the discussions we have surrounding this crime?

At first glance, the effects seem positive. We’re saving dogs, right? We’re employing the “if you see something, say something” mentality. We can’t deny the positive effects of awareness campaigns, but we also have to be honest about whether or not the negative effects outweigh the good.

We know what you’re thinking: What could possibly be negative about dog fighting awareness? Remember when we said we have to think about the way we frame conversations and the language we use?

Think about the labels we use to describe the dogs who have been in these situations.

Let’s deal with the idea that “pit bull” dogs are sought after and bred for dog fighting. There is no specific set of physical characteristics or breed standards that designate a group of dogs as “pit bulls.” In fact, the AKC doesn’t use the term “pit bull” at all.

Source: @DoggyDynamics/Instagram

It’s misleading to say that all dogs from fighting rings are “pit bull” dogs. It’s an abstract concept, so how would you know? Are these dogs of a variety of breeds and breed mixes and you’re just guessing based on the socially accepted idea that all fighting dogs are “pit bull” dogs?

Plus, the majority of dogs labeled as “pit bulls” are in no way associated with dog fighting, then why are we constantly talking about dog fighting in the same breath that we talk about misidentified and stereotyped dogs? The consequence of that conversation is that the concept of a “pit bull” dog becomes synonymous with dog fighting. That’s not helpful and it’s not accurate.

We tend to focus on the cruelty that befell the dogs, not on the dogs themselves.

You’ve heard this said many times in the media, focusing on the crime and the criminal only empowers the perpetrator.  It makes the victim a one-dimensional bystander – a symbol of suffering. Dogs, like people, who are victims of crimes are still individuals and they still have their own personality and their own way of processing things.

Source: Animal Farm Foundation

When we consistently describe particular dogs as “a former victim of a dog fighting ring,” we are, inadvertently, giving power to that dog’s past, when we should be giving power to the dog’s present and future.

Animal Farm Foundation has been rescuing dogs from animal cruelty cases, including dog fighting, long before anyone ever even heard of Michael Vick. We can tell you for sure that the dogs who come from these cases are individuals. 

Source: Animal Farm Foundation

Some dogs are terrified and some dogs come out of the yard unfazed, acting like, “well that sucked. What’s for lunch?” Some dogs enjoy the company of other dogs, some don’t want other dogs anywhere near them.  The overwhelming majority of dogs from dog fighting cases are somewhere in the middle.  Why is that? 

Because they are dogs. Nothing more, nothing less. 

But what about a dog’s genetics and breeding, you ask? Genes are not an either/or thing.  Breeding for behavior, like wanting to fight a member of your own species, is considerably more difficult than breeding for a consistent appearance.  And – hold on to your hats – even if someone did purposely breed a dog to fight with other dogs, they would need to handle that dog in a specific way and exercise extreme environmental control to make sure the desired behavior is consistently expressed. This process is called “epigenetics” and, according to Scientific American, it’s pretty “arduous” stuff. 

 

Source: Animal Farm Foundation

 

Dogs are individuals and have individual responses to members of their own species and other species, as well as to their experience and their environment.  None of it is static.  This is true for all dogs, not only the dogs someone has labeled “pit bull.”

One final point…

By trying to stop dog fighting with awareness campaigns, we’re making it sound like it’s a bigger problem than it is. Let’s be clear, we aren’t saying it isn’t a problem. Of course, it is. Again, we’ve rescued dogs from cruelty. We know the facts.

Source: Animal Farm Foundation

What we’re talking about is perception. The hyper focus on “pit bull” dogs and animal cruelty can lead people to believe that all rescue “pit bull” dogs are victims of abuse. It’s reinforcing the stereotype that all dogs who look a certain way were made to fight. If this is such a big epidemic and there are so many dogs who need help, then it stands to reason all rescue dogs labeled “pit bull” are somehow associated with dog fighting.

If you work in animal care, you know that this is 100% false.

The dogs labeled “pit bull” in the shelters are likely not even close to being genetically similar to each other at all. (Because visual id has zero scientific basis.) The overwhelming majority of dogs in the shelters have never been anywhere near a dog fight or bred for fighting. They’ve likely never even been within a mile of anybody who has ever been to a dog fight.

Source: Animal Farm Foundation

But due to media attention, many adopters don’t know this. They also don’t know that just because a dog has cropped ears or scars doesn’t make it a “former bait dog.” (And while we’re at it, unless you have documentation, you don’t know that either.) This is one of the reasons why a lot of people don’t want to adopt a shelter dog. They’ve heard that they have bad histories – and in the case of a dog labeled “pit bull,” that history most certainly includes fighting. That’s what pop culture says, anyway, and so it must be fact. Right?

So here’s what you can do: Before you talk about animal cruelty, whether it’s dog fighting or another form, ask yourself if you are playing into stereotypes. Is the post you’re about to make feeding into hysteria? Is it playing on emotions and not facts? Is what you’re saying about a specific dog or is it a generalization about a group of dogs?

Source: Animal Farm Foundation

We abhor dog fighting.  The people who fight dogs need to be met with swift and severe penalties.  We should regard the dogs were victims of this cruelty with compassion. We must give them individual consideration for their individual needs. 

If you have dog fighting in your community and the authorities are not doing anything about it, then get active.  Get your facts together. Document what you can. Then call your city council, call your mayor.  Stand outside the police station with signs that call for immediate action. 

But please don’t make social media posts that perpetuate the incorrect notion that dog fighting is something that the general public needs to be afraid of.  You are reaching the wrong audience and you are driving adopters away from the shelters for no good reason.   

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