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.