Debunking "Dangerous Breed" Stigma

Have you ever heard about certain breeds of dog being more dangerous than others? Well, some breeds of dog experience negative judgement based on misinformation, which has serious consequences for those dogs and for their caretakers. But, there is hope! Read on to learn more about breed stigma.


Debunking "Dangerous Breed" Stigma


The angelic, perfect face of the beautiful Dessa.

What is breed stigma?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines stigma as "a mark of shame or discredit". It is also known as a negative preconception surrounding a group of people, animals, places, or things. So when we say "breed stigma" in reference to dogs, we mean to refer to the negative stereotypes that surround certain breeds of dog.

Much breed stigma revolves around the apparently inherent danger, aggressiveness, and vicious disposition of certain breeds of dog, which is factually incorrect and serves to villainize innocent animals. The National Canine Research Council, the Center for Disease Control, and the American Bar Association have all shown through research, studies, and policies that Pit bulls in particular are not the brutal dogs that our society paints them to be.

Pit bulls, Rottweilers, Dobermans, Bulldogs, and German shepherds all experience breed stigma  people perceive these breeds in particular to be "dangerous". This isn't a comprehensive list, though. Some people consider Huskies or Dalmatians to be aggressive; others disagree. Mutts experience their own kind of stigma as well, especially when they are mixed with the above breeds.

Fred loves a good cuddle.

Where does breed stigma come from?

The origin of breed stigma depends on the breed. For Pit bulls, breed stigma has a tumultuous history. "Pit bull" actually refers to a number of different dog breeds  the American pit bull terrier, the Staffordshire terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier, the Bull Terrier, and the American bully. For ease of reference, we will continue to refer to them as Pit bulls in this article.

Pit bull terriers were actually once known as "America's Dog", thought to be extremely loyal, friendly, and smart. The muscular build of the breeds associated with Pit bulls attracted those interested in dog fighting, and soon, that's where the reputation of the Pit bull went  straight to illegal activity and fear. Pit bull attacks and bites are reported more than any other dog breed, though any dog who is neglected can develop aggressive behaviors.

Negative stereotypes of these and other powerful breeds abound, whereas positive examples of stigmatized breeds are rarely shown in media. If the only Dobermans you've seen are aggressive attack dogs on TV and in movies, what are you supposed to think of them when that's your only example? If the only references to Pit bulls you've heard have been in songs using them to talk about how violent something was, "biting like a Pit bull", what's the first thing that's going to come to mind when you finally encounter one? When the only portrayal of something is negative, of course most people's perceptions aren't going to be positive  when the brain perceives a threat, your first instinct is understandably going to be fight, flight, or freeze.

The negative media attention combined with the fact that many dogs were bred specifically to be fighting dogs gives several dogs nasty, undeserved reputations. Pit bulls in particular have been bred to be fighting dogs, despite the fact that dog fighting is a felony in all 50 states. Taking back into consideration the fact that "Pit bull" refers to several breeds of dog, that makes reporting on attacks inflated and unreliable. If there's a report of a Pit bull attack in the news, it could be one of many dogs, and it's often the reporter, not an expert, identifying the dog.

Statistics and reports inflate negative perception through misinformation. Dog bites from other breeds are underreported and the situation of the dog bite is usually ignored  was the dog provoked, did the owner train the dog sufficiently, etc. This is not said to put blame on the victims, but rather to provide a more comprehensive view of the situation of dog bites. Nothing happens in a vacuum, after all. There is always context to be considered.

Dessa enjoys a good rest every now and then.


Why is breed stigma harmful?

Breed stigma prevents many dogs from getting adopted or having loving families to look after them. Breed bans force people to give up animal companions, who are often important parts of their family.

Additionally, more Pit bulls are abandoned at animal shelters than any other breed of dog, which means thousands are euthanized annually. This is incredibly unnecessary  these dogs didn't get a chance.

Breed-discriminatory legislation (BDL) is legislation, or laws, that ban or restrict dogs allowed in an area based on apparent breed, as certain breeds are perceived as dangerous. This is purely based on the appearance of the dog, rather than the actual breed(s), as it can be difficult to determine any given dog's breed on the fly.

These laws are meant to make communities safer, but again, any dog may bite, regardless of breed or sex. Some research even indicates that purebred Jack Russel Terriers, Golden Retrievers, and Cocker Spaniels are most likely to be aggressive. Yet plenty of people adopt them and have loving friendships with them. So what's stopping people from having loving friendships with Dobermans and German Shepherds? Nothing! Plenty of people do have wonderful animal companions of powerful breeds. More dogs could have loving homes if it weren't for the negative stigma, however. And fewer dogs would get abandoned at shelters and then euthanized.

BDL is also expensive to enforce thanks to defending lawsuits and paying bills for kenneling and care of removed or impounded dogs. Many states are enacting anti-BDL laws to combat the stigma, realizing that these laws just don't work because of the inherent difficulty in identifying dogs and the disproportionate negative attention given to them. Education is a powerful force, and when people learn about breed stigma, they can begin to understand and combat it when they see it.

Ava and Fred curled up in double-croissant-mode.

How can we combat breed stigma?

A word that many prefer to use over "dangerous" breeds is "powerful" breeds. Changing the way we talk about the people, places, animals, and things in our lives actually does alter our perception of them. This is partially because words have two definitions: A denotation, what the word literally means (like the dictionary definition); and the connotation, or the emotions/ideas that people typically associate with the word.

In fact, "dangerous" isn't a fair or accurate descriptor. Most anything could be dangerous in certain situations, but that doesn't make most anything inherently threatening. You could choke on a chip at dinner, but is that chip dangerous, or is the situation dangerous? A chihuahua could give you a nasty nip to the ankle if provoked or frightened, but do people make a habit of calling chihuahuas dangerous?

Educating people about the importance of proper training can help prevent unwanted behavior in dogs, as well as educating adults and children alike about how to behave around unfamiliar dogs  respectfully and cautiously, and not without that dog's human to supervise. Understanding dog body language that indicates distress is also important for anyone who might encounter a dog to know. Many bites can be prevented this way.

Additionally, more positive examples of powerful breeds in media could change the wider perception on these dogs. The documentary "The Champions" is doing this good work. It chronicles the journey of five pit bulls rescued from a dog-fighting ring. Many dogs would have otherwise been killed if they hadn't been rescued, just because of the negative stigma, when they are perfectly capable of living fulfilling, joyful lives alongside humans. Rehabilitation is possible for former fighting dogs, and this documentary is proof.

If you notice breed stigma in yourself and want to change that, it's okay. Recognizing the preconceived notions you have is the first step to changing them. Congratulations! You're already on your way to growth. Seek out positive examples of these animals, because they are out there. These dogs are worth it.

Hooman! Do you have any snacks?

What can you do to prove to people that your powerful dog isn't dangerous?

As the owner of a stigmatized breed, if you want help break stigmas, you will need to train your dog exceptionally well and with a firm, consistent, and disciplined hand. It is not fair that you should need to train your dog more firmly than other dog owners, but stigmatized breeds have more to prove than other dogs because of negative human perception.

Making sure to take training seriously when you care for a more powerful breed of dog is important, because people will be faster to judge the character and dangerousness of a poorly trained Doberman than they would a poorly trained Shih Tzu.

Socializing your dog frequently in different situations and making sure that they are comfortable with a variety of people and environments can be helpful. Many caretakers of powerful breeds use social media to debunk stigma by posting pictures that showcase the loving and gentle nature of their German Shepherds and Bulldogs. They take pictures of them cuddling, playing with children and other dogs, and relaxing to show people that they are just like any other dog  worthy of love and kindness, and not inherently vicious.

Powerful breeds also do have more physical power than less powerful breeds, so they are capable of injuring or damaging, but that does not mean that they will. Kind of like how riding a bike doesn't mean you'll get in an accident  sure, it's possible, but with enough practice and caution, you're likely to be pretty safe. Of course, you can't always account for extenuating circumstances, like an oncoming car that isn't paying attention or a person who is actively taunting your dog, so proper training on how to deal with these situations is important.

To make others more comfortable around your dog, you can demonstrate how well-trained they are by having them wait for your permission to greet new dogs, not allowing them to jump on people, not allowing them to pull the leash and drag you along, etc. Just by displaying their skills, you can make people feel more comfortable that you, the human, are in control of the situation. Training is a lot of work for dogs and for humans, but keep at it, because your dog is worth it.

No dog is ever a lost cause. There is always hope, if only someone is willing to help.

Fred napping amongst pillows with his adorable little pink tongue stickin' out.


Interviews with Shawn Cruze, the caretaker of two Pit-mixes; and Jewleah Johnson, the caretaker of a full Pit bull: (some sentences may be paraphrased for clarity)

Q: What are your dogs' names, breeds, and ages?

Shawn: There's Ava, and she's ten years old, a Lab Pit mix with a couple other things. Then there's Fred, who's about ten months, and he's a Pit American Staffordshire Terrier mix. They're both black and about 40-42 pounds. I've had both of them since they were puppies.

Jewleah: Dessa is seven years old, and she's named after the Doomtree rapper in Minnesota. She came from a backyard breeder situation and the puppies got confiscated and taken to a shelter. She's a full Pit.

Dessa cuddling with a friend.

Q: Did you buy them from a breeder or adopt them from a shelter or agency? What was that process like for each of them? Was it different because they're pit bulls?

Shawn: Ava is from a shelter in Maryland. She was part of a litter of 8-9 puppies, and her mom was a Lab. They were unsure about the breed of the dad, and she looked just like a Lab puppy at first. Then she grew into a Pit head, you know, kind of blocky. If I'd known that she was part Pit, that wouldn't have stopped me from adopting her. In Maryland, at the time, any bull breeds in shelters had to be euthanized, so I'm glad I got her when I did.

I got Fred from the Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue organization. They get dogs from all over the country, most from Texas, and no purebreeds--all mutts. It's a great organization. I'm glad they exist because I was able to get Fred. The organization only deals with Pits, and Minnesota is more accepting of all breeds than some of the coastal states.

It was harder for me to adopt him than it was for me to adopt Ava  the process was more involved. I just had to bring money to the shelter to get Ava, but for Fred, I had to apply (five others were interested in him, too), drive down to meet him and his foster family, and then a member of the foster family brought him to me at my residence to scope the place out and make sure I had the fenced in yard that I said I did. And since I had Ava already, we let the dogs meet each other to make sure they would get on, because they wouldn't put Fred in an environment with an aggressive dog or generally in an unsafe situation. This organization looks for forever homes for their dogs.

Jewleah: When we got to the shelter, they asked if we would be looking for a Pit bull puppy and that was exactly what we were looking for. Dessa was actually returned from a previous situation, and was on her way back to the shelter because she chewed up one too many pairs of leather shoes. We wanted to adopt a Pit bull because my best friend had a Pit Husky mix, and she was the best dog  had a lot of personality, a lot of energy, and was really sweet and affectionate.

Ava cuddling a stuffie on the armchair.

Q: Do your dogs look obviously part pit bull, or is it harder to tell?

Shawn: Ava is definitely more obvious, she's got the wide shoulders and head. Fred is more Amstaff than Pit, he's longer and more slender, doesn't have wide head yet.

Jewleah: No, people know.

Gettin' in some good cuddles with the cat.

Q: Have you or your dogs experienced discrimination because of their breed?

Shawn: In Virginia, I couldn't get an apartment because of breed restrictions. They saw her, and she's a small dog, one of the kindest, gentlest dogs that I've met. They saw her and said it's against their policy. I've also been out at pet stores where you're allowed to bring your pet on a leash. Once I was walking with Ava on her leash, she was right next to me, and there was a little girl who saw Ava and said "Oh, a dog!" excitedly, and her dad grabbed her arm and said "No, it's a Pit, stay away." That happened eight years ago. I haven't had that happen since, and I think in recent years it's become more accepted that they are gentle dogs. Most dogs are a product of their environment. Just like people. It's not breed-specific.

Jewleah: Ooh, yeah. We have taken her to the beach and other places and one guy who was there with his dogs left the beach and came back without his dogs and told us that we shouldn't be there because Dessa was dangerous. He thought it was okay for his dogs to be there (golden retrievers) but not her. He was saying she was aggressive. I was talking to him and I asked him what signs of aggression he was seeing, and he couldn't name any. He said she's an aggressive, dangerous breed, and I asked him what signs he knew of a dog getting ready to bite someone and again, he couldn't name any signs and I rattled off some things. He didn't know that as a dog owner.

I went to a city forum about a dog park site choosing, and they wanted to put in in my neighborhood at the time, and the site they were thinking of was by a baseball diamond. I was excited, like "Yeah, I can walk Dessa to the park all the time and she can socialize with other dogs more often!" But immediately in the meeting, a bunch of people were so against it. They said it would be ugly, that it would make the neighborhood stink like dog poop, that people would be irresponsible with their dogs, that the barking would be loud, etc. One guy got up and said "I have disabled children and a Pit bull can jump an 8 foot fence and bite your throat out in less than 60 seconds. My children aren't safe if you put this dog park in here." It felt like he was grasping at straws. The dog park was going to potentially be put in the site of another park, where my dog and I already play all the time, and people don't have problems with us. The dog park ended up not being placed in our neighborhood and didn't get put in for another year and a half.

Also, Petsmart doesn't allow Pit bulls in their play groups or puppy play classes, even very young ones. Not even in the store. It's a corporate policy.

Fred sleeping like a Renaissance painting.

Q: Do you feel a need to prove that your dog(s) aren't dangerous to people?

Shawn: No. I used to in my younger years, but now I have a different mentality. If you're gonna assume my dogs are aggressive, I don't care. I'm cool with people keeping their distance from me, which is the only upside to COVID. I will assure visitors that they're not aggressive, they're affectionate. Once you meet them you'll know. When I was younger with Ava, I would assure people, "She's a good dog," constantly.

Jewleah: Yeah, I feel like I felt more pressure. I took her to training five nights a week for five months, and she has her Canine Good Citizen certificate. We did a lot of training, but if she misbehaves or barks at somebody it still feels like poor representation of a whole breed. I don't bring her to dog parks anymore because so many owners aren't educated. Once, she was chasing the ball and ignoring the other dogs, and another dog was chasing her, chasing the ball, and they were just coexisting. That dog got close to her and she turned and snapped and growled, so I went to get her. People definitely tensed up when she was acting like that. This lady came up to me and she said she's also had Pit bulls and assured me that the other dog was actually harassing Dessa. There was a bite mark on Dessa, and her snapping and growling was her warning the other dog to back off. She didn't bite it or fight back--she was in pain and said "Go away." The other dog was a herding dog, a Collie of some kind, so it made sense for her to try to nip or herd, and I wasn't upset with the other owner. I just mentioned it to them.

Dessa, doing her best "hooman" impression.

Q: Do friends or family ever get nervous around them purely because of their breed? If they don't now, did they at first? 

Shawn: Nobody noticed for a year or so. Nobody really noticed because she grew up around us, and one day my sister looked at her and said "You've got a Pit," and I said "What? Really?" and that was about the extent of it.

Jewleah: Yeah. My parents were a little nervous about her being a Pit bull, it took them some time to get to know her and get comfortable. She has lots of energy and likes to jump up and sniff faces to say hi, so I keep her close to me when we are greeting other people. My grandma was nervous too. My parents were with us at the beach when the one guy left and came back, and it was funny to see my parents step in and try to talk to him after a couple years of knowing Dessa. Pit bulls aren't inherently dangerous.

Ava and Fred cuddling a human amongst a plethora of pillows.

Q: Is it hard to find a place to live while you have two pit-mixes?

Shawn: Maryland and Virginia apartments have very strict breed restrictions. Even Dalmatians are listed as an aggressive breed, I don't know where they're getting their list from. If the dog's not under twenty pounds, they don't want 'em. No Huskies were allowed either.

Jewleah: I haven't rented in a long time. We checked with the landlord before we got Dessa, and they were okay with it. We moved into a home we bought after that, and we had to find a homeowners insurance company that would cover her breed. State Farm covers Pit bulls. When I sold my house last March, I was worried about finding a new place with her and ended up living with a friend and her own two Pit bulls and Chinese Crested Dog. That friend volunteers with a Pit bull rescue. I don't want to deal with renting while having a Pit bull, so I'm looking to buy again. When I was visiting a good friend in Missouri, I brought Dessa, but I didn't realize that you can get your dog confiscated if people deem it "dangerous or disruptive". So we stayed inside except for bathroom breaks. With travelling, you have to research laws and attitudes of the places you're travelling to.

Dessa, ready for adventure!

Q: Why do you think there's stigma against certain breeds of dog?

Shawn: In dog fighting, there are certain breeds that are more powerful, often Pit breeds. It's also a status thing, like "Look at how big my dog is". Dog fighting gives them a reputation. Pits and Amstaffs were bred for dog fighting, for that purpose, so they weren't in a great environment. In old time gangster shows, sometimes there's dog fighting, and they use certain breeds. People who haven't met those breeds of dog only have that info to go off of.

Jewleah: Looking at her from a complete outside perspective and if I'd only ever heard bad things about Pit bulls, she's super muscular. She can easily jump a five to six foot fence, she's dense, 70 pounds, she's got big ol' teeth, and she might bark at you. That could be scary.
She hasn't nipped or bit while playing intentionally. Once she grabbed past a rope toy and I ended up with a bruise on my leg, but I knew she didn't intend to hurt me, she was excited. You can't tell a dog's demeanor just by looking at her. You need to know dog behavior to really analyze the situation.

Fred and his adorable ears looking forlornly through the baby gate.

Q: How would you describe your dogs?

Shawn: Lazy. They're both sleeping on clean laundry right now. They're fun, playful, affectionate, and one of them is too smart for her own good. The other is getting there.

Jewleah: Dessa has a sense of humor, her own goofy personality. I learned that dogs laugh, so when they pant it's usually to cool off but when they're panting a weird rhythm, that's laughing. She'll roll on her back and scratch her back and laugh, wiggling her legs around. She's a goofball, and definitely hyper; that's another reason people aren't able to handle them as first time dog owners because Pit bulls have a bunch of energy. When she's not all over the place, she's laying with her head on my leg and completely passed out. She's cuddly, and wants to be close to you to steal your body heat. She sleeps under the covers, and is very serious about squirrels. She loves stalking them. She has a sense of adventure and wants to explore. She's obsessed with sticks and especially chasing sticks in the water--on land, sticks aren't a big deal, but she will cry at you until you throw a stick in the water at the beach. She's also opinionated. Her favorite pastime is stealing butter off the counter, and she'll carry it into the living room and get caught.

Dessa has no shame when it comes to food. A couple of friends came over and we ate together. When the last person sat down, Dessa went over and grabbed something off her plate and carried it away to eat it. Then Dessa came back over and took the whole paper plate and carried it away. She'll lick the air by you if you're eating something she really wants. She makes me laugh every day.

Dessa doesn't like scary storms.

Q: What do you love about your dogs?

Shawn: I've had Ava for 10 years, we've been through things. She's helped me through some stuff, and other people too. She's great at emotional support. She can tell when I'm not doing great and she wants to be there to help out. With Fred, I just love that he gets along with Ava so well. She seems to have aged back a few years with him around.

Jewleah: I feel like she between her sense of humor and her loyalty, she just really loves the humans in her life. Dessa always wants to be around me and my roommates. She gets offended when people go outside and don't bring her with. She sleeps close to me, which is really comforting if I get up in the night and can touch her. Dessa's here. Her sense of humor is the most precious thing about her, she constantly has facial expressions and goofy little things she does, like the butter sticks, always keeping you on your toes. She has a little happy run she does when she gets something she probably shouldn't, and she scampers away. She's so animated when excited; without her life would be a lot more boring. It's like living with a cartoon character.

What? We're out of treats?!

Q: How do your dogs show affection?

Shawn: They like to sit on you wherever you are. That's mainly Ava. She really needs to be right next to you. Fred enjoys licking, so if you pet him, he will lick your hand.

Jewleah: Dessa is super enthusiastic about greeting you, and she really needs you to also greet her. You need to immediately go to pet her. She makes a scene if you don't. She's not a huge fan of being petted, she has other things to do the most of the time, but she needs to be acknowledged. She follows me everywhere and hates being separated, and she will constantly be right by me unless she's getting butter. You get little kisses from her. If my roommates and I are all in the living room, she'll lay on the ground and pick one of us to look at and rotates through all of us with a loving stare. She's very cuddly. Occasionally I'll get down on her level and her other way of showing affection is headbutting me to knock me over and stepping all over me while I scratch her, she likes roughhousing. She also offers you toys if she likes you.

Dessa and a friend lookin' fly in their bandannas. Look at that happy face!

Q: What would you say to anyone who is unsure of Pit bulls being a safe breed?

Shawn: Try to be around them more often. Go find shelters that specialize in those breeds. You can contact them, and they have events where you can meet the dogs. For lots of rescues, there are strict requirements because they don't want dogs to go back into the system, they want to find a forever home. If your dog is not trained or well-behaved, it can reflect poorly on the breed and further the stigma. Also, don't get a dog for the wrong reason. Don't get a dog because it's a fad or because you want to impress someone--dogs are a responsibility. Educate yourself.

If you're getting a Pit bull or any type of bull terrier, don't just go for the puppies, because puppy mills are bad. But if you can't find an adult dog that will fit in with your family (if they haven't been around kids much they might not know how to behave appropriately), then don't get an adult dog. Find the fit that works for your family.

Jewleah: Just like in life, you can't really tell if something is safe until you've assessed all the different risks and looked at the situation in terms of specifics. You can encourage people to learn about dog body language and behavior, and take a humane education course. Knowing what to do if you are ever attacked by a dog is also important. Know that you should judge each Pit bull based on circumstance, and if you're afraid of them, consider interacting with them in whatever way that you feel safe and comfortable doing. See how you feel after that. A Pit bull is not a dog for just anybody, not a first-time-dog-owner dog. Some are really mellow, but you can't guarantee that. Some breeds have more energy and need someone who knows dog behavior and knows about the breed.

Ava lounging with an adorable ear stuck up.




Sources:
  • “Ending Breed Discrimination.” Best Friends Animal Society, bestfriends.org/advocacy/ending-breed-discrimination.
  • Gately, Hope. “Breaking the Stigma: How To Prove That Your Powerful Breed Is Safe and Utterly Awesome.” The Honest Kitchen Blog, 22 July 2016, www.thehonestkitchen.com/blog/breaking-the-stigma-how-to-prove-that-your-powerful-breed-is-safe-and-utterly-awesome/.

  • Hurst, Carol. “Addressing the Stigma Surrounding Pit Bulls: Canine Breeds.” TexVetPets, Dec. 2017, www.texvetpets.org/article/pit-bulls/.

  • Morrissey, Devin. “The Stigma of Aggressive Dog Breeds Among the Homeless.” Pets of the Homeless, 21 Jan. 2020, www.petsofthehomeless.org/2020/01/21/the-stigma-of-aggressive-dog-breeds-among-the-homeless/.

  • “Position Statement on Pit Bulls.” ASPCA, www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-pit-bulls.

  • “Stigma.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stigma.




Photo credit: Shawn Cruze (Ava and Fred croissants); Jewleah Johnson (Dessa); Skye Iwanski (the rest of the Ava and Fred photos)
Written by: Skye Isabella Rose Iwanski

Thank you to Shawn Cruze and Jewleah Johnson for participating in this interview and allowing it to be published. We appreciate you.

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