Words Matter

At the beach this weekend I found a cute sign that really hit home for me and for probably many others of you who have overzealous “pit bull” dogs (or any kind of dog – they had them for all breeds).

Something that sums up the way I feel about the overly friendly, in-your-face “pit bull” dogs in my life? A warning that they’ll attack you with kisses? Awesome! It’s funny, it’s adorable, and it’s true. So of course I’ll spend the absurd $2.99 on it.

While I love this sign and the silly joke it sends across, I probably won’t put it anywhere that the general public can see. Why? Because in a quick glance, it gives off the totally wrong message.

Look at the two most prominent words:

WARNING” and “PIT BULL.”

Imagine that you’re quickly walking by it and see it in maybe a car window, or hanging up in a store. You don’t have time to process the whole thing, but what you do see is a big red sign that says “WARNING” and “PIT BULL.” What are you going to immediately process from that sign? Not good things, right? Sure, you might have an extra two seconds to read the rest of it – but what about all the people out there, the non-“pit bull” dog people, that won’t have time to read the whole thing? They’re left with another reminder to “beware of pit bulls” like the media tells them to be – even though that’s not what the sign says at all.

It’s scary, but language can have a dangerous effect on public perception. Take a look at these two sentences: “Pit bulls are not fighting dogs and do not have locking jaws,” versus, “My pit bulls are loving, affectionate, and love to wag their tails.” Both work to change others’ views on “pit bull” dogs, but one leaves a much more negative impression. Think about all the positive pit bull articles you’ve read that start off their first paragraph with, “People think pit bulls are aggressive dogs who are prone to biting.” Again, what happens with all the people who don’t continue reading the article?

As pit bull advocates, we have to be careful with the way we speak. Animal Farm Foundation uses this table to demonstrate how our language can come across to those unfamiliar with “pit bull” dogs. In the right column are popular phrases used by people trying to help these dogs.

Our intentions are so well meaning, but are we doing more harm than good? Now don’t feel bad if you’re a frequent user of this kind of language. I’m pretty sure we all are/were at some point. Do you see what it’s achieving, though? We are accidentally framing these dogs in a way that makes them scary and different to the public.

When I talk about dogs – any dogs – I always try to be careful about my phrasing, my word choice, and my delivery. The practice I generally like to follow is, as always, to stay positive. As long as you’re not lying, then sticking to the good stuff – the warm and fuzzies – is usually your safest bet. What is a stranger going to take away from listening to you gush about the lap snuggles you got from your favorite shelter pittie last week? Happy vibes, not weary ones (ideally, of course!).

If you’ve got any questions about this concept, including the above images, I encourage you to comment and ask! It’s a tough pill to swallow when you see your favorite pro-pittie arguments up there, but most of them aren’t doing dogs any favors. We have to remember that our subconscious does a lot we don’t know about – for better or for worse – so what we say, and especially how we say it, will always matter.

11 thoughts on “Words Matter

  1. Laura M

    We received that exact sign from a family member (we also got an identical one for our “overly affectionate” Puggle), we thought they were cute, but decided to hang them above their kennels in our home, sort of like their own personal “welcome signs”. Our Pittie is the only Pittie in the neighborhood (that I’ve ever seen), we are trying to do our part to help our neighborhood see him as a good mascot for Pitties and I agree that hanging the big, red “warning” sign on our house or fence wouldn’t be a good “quick glance” message.

  2. Diana Ritter

    Wonderful article that helps us think carefully about what we are saying and how we are saying it. Shared it with my rescue group’s pitbull relations committee.

  3. This is great, thanks! We are fostering a pit mix and knew nothing about them prior to Huey. I have been happily surprised that at least 80% of the people who have met him have had positive things to say but I have been amazed at the other 20%. Intelligent people, people who know us, people who know dogs… and still the comments are astounding. This article affirmed my reactions because as I stand there completely dumfounded with my mouth hanging open and have no idea what to say to defend the breed all I seem to come up with is how smart and sweet and lovable he is.

  4. Married with Dawgs

    Great post! One of the things that bothers me most about a tremendous amount of pit bull rescues is the emphasis they put on pit bulls being different and needing a special kind of owner. In the long run, I think it does more harm than good. I try so hard to treat & present my Sadie as just one of my dogs, neither special nor different because of her breed. Just special cause she’s my girl.

  5. Great post! We always try to keep everything we say positive, but it’s taken a while to “master” the task! Not really because we’re prone to the negative words, but more because momma needed to learn patience when people would say negative things about pitties. She used to get super frustrated and mad, but now she takes a deep breathe and tries to engage the conversation so she can contribute the positive things about pit bulls and hopefully the other person will leave thinking a little differently :-)
    -Corbin

  6. Karen Wagner

    You and everyone on this post really put thing’s into great perspective! Thanks for the awesome post and thank you all for the wonderful comments!! Hugs and kisses to Otis…xoxo!

  7. Pingback: Things I’ve Read While Lollygagging on the Internet | Rescued Insanity

  8. Dave

    I have done everything I can to try and teach myself how to speak properly on this subject…since working at the shelter we have to hear soooooo much anti pit bull stuff from potential adopters, and although I know I am trying it is so hard to do it well from the defensive position. These days I pretty much just try to focus on dogs in general and not pit bulls as a breed. The biggest soft spot in my heart is still exclusively for these goonie big head dogs…because I’m pretty much just a goonie big dog kinda guy and they do have it harder than most breeds but the more and more involved I get in animal welfare….the more I find myself trying to advocate for dogs’ (and cats and guinea pigs and chinchillas and…) INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS AS LIVING CREATURES, and less on what kind of living creature they are.

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