Animal Farm Foundation was founded and funded by a private individual, Jane Berkey, in 1985. A competitive dressage rider, Berkey originally intended AFF to serve as a haven for all animals, but most especially horses. She donated 25 of her 400 acres to AFF . In 1989, the focus shifted to serving dogs who were the victims of discrimination, and today, to restore the image of the pit bull dog as a member of the family. Their goal is simply that pit bull dogs be judged in accordance with all dogs, being no better or worse. A dog is a dog, after all! Because of this, AFF is careful to share their grants and programs with organizations that serve dogs of all types, not just pit bull dogs.
Pit Bull Placebo
AFF believes that pit bull discrimination comes from a basis in fear. However, this fear oftentimes does not come from personal experience with a legitimate pit bull dog. Instead, it often takes place as a socially constructed image. For example, many people do not understand that pit bulls are a breed or type of dog… instead, they assume that any dog that is aggressive or vicious or dangerous is considered a pit bull. This can largely be attributed to the ignorance in some of our media ‘professionals’… every negative dog story describes the dog as a pit bull, whether or not that has any relevance. These uninformed individuals are not able to understand that there are pit bull puppies or senior pit bull dogs or pit bull family members, because the perception of a puppy or fragile senior does not align with their concept of a snarling animal. You can understand then why they would not consider adopting or embracing a dog labeled as a pit bull.
All Dogs are Individuals
One of the most interesting studies (and there were many!) that were shared with the interns during our time at AFF, was one in regards to visual breed ID. It has been proven that not only are our attempts at breed identification incorrect at least 75% of the time (yes!!) but that professionals (vets, scientists, shelter workers) cannot even agree on the breeds each dog should be identified as. This is because our personal experiences play a large role in the comparisons we draw between a dog’s appearance and their breed of origin. The problem with this? An incredibly tiny percentage of DNA determines the entire physical appearance in our dogs. Out of approximately 20,000 genes, less than 100 play a role in physical appearance. Wow!
Aside from the obvious, what are the issues with labeling our dogs?
Well for one, it makes them disposable. Think about your favorite ‘brand’. Oftentimes, our society proudly aligns themselves with brands they use regularly (Ford, Oakley, Steelers, etc.) That may be all well and good, but if you prefer a specific brand, you probably find yourself comparing it to others by minimizing the competition. You prefer Ford because you think Dodges are unreliable. And in dogs, many well-intentioned but misguided attempts at pit bull advocacy have the speaker spouting off unfounded statements about bite statistics in pit bulls compared to Chihuahuas. To see value in our dogs, they need not be a specific breed, and we need not bash other breeds. By viewing our dogs as individuals, we can appreciate them for all that they are. Your lab might be a phenomenal dog, but that has so much more to do with his individual personality and experiences than his breeding and lineage.
Furthermore, labeling can lead to confirmation bias. Many first-time pit bull dog owners tell silly stories of bringing home their dog, and watching them cautiously, waiting for them to ‘snap’ or otherwise lash out. Of course, in these stories the dogs teach their owners a thing or two by cuddling up to them on the couch and licking them into submission, but this can end poorly. In any situation in life, if we approach with negativity and trepidation, we oftentimes set ourselves up for failure, and unintentionally cause the very events we are anticipating.
Regardless of ‘breed’ or ‘type’ of dog, false expectations can be dangerous or unfair to the animal. For example, if we assume that every lab is going to be naturally comfortable around children and have an affinity for water, we might not take the time to set the individual dog up for success through careful introduction and training. This may create a dog that has fear or anxiety issues. No breed description should be considered a fool-proof road map of a dog’s preferences, personality, or ability. These qualities are heavily influenced by environment and management. If we approach each dog as an individual, and let the animal tell us more than we assume based on their appearance, we are much more likely to wind up with a dog that is a happy member of our families, and of our society.
Additionally, these preferences, personality traits, and abilities, have a large propensity for change over time. When Georgia came to us, she was deemed ‘aggressive’ with other animals, and we saw this with our own eyes. However, by carefully evaluating her actions (her lashing out was not in fact aggressive, but defensive based on fear and lack of comfort) we were able to manage her interactions with other dogs. She is now an entirely happy and confident member of our home, which includes 2 other dogs (one male, one female) and a cat. If we assumed that a dog’s genetic composition determines their personality traits, we would have never taken the opportunity to improve her associations with other animals… we would have assumed that her preferences were intact and not subject to change. This refutes the common animal rescuer statement that ‘
it’s all in how they’re raised,‘ because it is in fact, more in how they are managed, that matters most. If we assumed that all dog behaviors were set by their genetics or their early life experiences, we would never give cruelty or neglect victims a chance, and everyone searching for a new family member would be getting their dogs from breeders. And that would be a huge problem!
As rescuers, shelter workers, and animal advocates, it is always in our best interest to be as honest as possible with potential adopters, volunteers, and the general public at large. By labeling dogs without factual knowledge of their true backgrounds, we are unintentionally being dishonest, and may be setting the dogs up for failure. Instead of meeting an adopter who wants a Golden Retriever, and providing them with dogs that match that physical description, we need to start advocating for “types” of dog. Maybe to the average dog owner, a Golden Retriever fills them with ideas of a dog who will happily play fetch and join the family on hikes, while snuggling in their childrens’ beds at night. Perhaps your shelter has 3 dogs that match this description, but who may or may not look like a Golden Retriever. In this case, you are providing the family with a variety of dog types, all of whom are more likely to be compatible with their lifestyle long-term, and giving many of your rescue or shelter residents an opportunity at a proper home. At the same time, you are doing your part to not reinforce stereotypes or set up false expectations. No breed description entitles an adopter the guarantee that a dog will act a certain way, or have specific preferences… only each individual dog can tell us that!
The world of animal rescue and advocacy is a huge one, and perhaps because of that, it is constantly evolving. That is a great thing for the animals, because it means that we are always being presented with new tools to improve our understanding, and become more competent at finding homes for unwanted pups, cats, rabbits, horses, etc. We have all been guilty of unintentionally spreading misinformation a time or two. What matters is that you take the time to educate yourself as thoroughly as possible, and keep your own missions and morals at the forefront of your mind. Let’s make sure that when we are well-intentioned in advocating for our animals, that we are doing more GOOD than harm.
While these sentiments come from my time spent at the Animal Farm Foundation internship, any errors, omissions, or miscommunications are my own. The information comes from my own notes and understanding, but I have referenced AFF literature, and the inspiration is owed to them.