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Dangerous assumptions

The negative affect breed stereotypes can have on public policy

Growing up, my family had golden retrievers and other fluffy golden mixed breed dogs. I’m not sure that I met anyone with a pit bull-type dog until I moved to Pittsburgh for college. My first personal experience with breed stereotypes occurred only a couple years ago, when I was walking my sister’s dog, Bojey—a medium, short-haired dog with a muscular build and big head—and my dog, Charlie, a skinny, tall dog with a long muzzle and medium-length fur. Both dogs were walking politely on leash when a stranger approached us, expressing disbelief that “such a nice young lady” would have “that kind of dog,” and that I “better be careful,” because I would never know when he might “turn on me.”

I was stunned and speechless, and we continued on our way. I couldn’t help but become increasingly frustrated that she so quickly cast judgment upon Bojey based on his looks. She didn’t know anything about him. She didn’t know that he loves to snuggle and give kisses, play with toys, run in the yard. She assumed that, just because he looked a certain way, Bojey couldn’t be a friendly, well-behaved dog like Charlie.

Though ignorant opinions and stereotypes happen everywhere, my sister is still lucky that she lives in a town that doesn’t restrict dog ownership by breed. Is Bojey a “pit bull?” Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know for sure, but in some towns, all that would matter is that he “presents characteristics” similar to the American pit bull terrier.

The issue of breed profiling is a complex one, and often has as much to do with the judgment of people as it does dogs. When this stranger made assumptions about the dog I was walking, she was already carrying assumptions about the kind of people who own them. She just couldn’t imagine that someone like me, who appeared to be a “nice young lady,” would choose to share her life with a dog who appeared to be a pit bull. 

Assumptions can be dangerous. In most cases, I don’t believe people intend to offend or cause any harm, but when assumption and prejudice impact public policy, it can have significant negative consequences. Breed-specific legislation separates families based on shallow surface assumptions and creates obstacles for many dogs and their families. State laws have been an effective tool in eliminating harmful and ineffective breed-based policies, and many states have stepped up to reject breed-specific legislation, including several legislative efforts this year in Delaware, Vermont and Missouri. We’re committed to seeing this trend continue until all 50 states provide this most basic of protections for the dogs and families of all communities.

These policies don’t work, and that’s why we are committed to replacing them with more proactive and humane animal management strategies. Enforcement balanced with community support is the best way to reduce animal bites and create a safer, more humane community. The truth is that breed-specific legislation and policies have never and will never eliminate a specific breed from a community—and there is no data to suggest that it improves public safety. People love their dogs and will do whatever it takes to keep them in their homes, including attempting to fly under the radar. This makes the problem worse because people and dogs become more difficult for providers of animal care and wellness services to reach. Breed-specific legislation creates more unvaccinated, unsterilized and unsocialized dogs which don't benefit any community. 

 

About the Author

Samantha Nelson works on companion animal public policy at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), assisting efforts to prevent pet homelessness and strengthen communities through state and local legislation across the country. Prior to joining The HSUS, Samantha earned a degree in economics and political science from the University of Pittsburgh, where her interest in animal welfare began. In her spare time, she volunteers for a local animal rescue and has fostered over 50 dogs and cats with the help of her rescue dog, Charlie.