by Branwyn Finch
As the mother of a teenage daughter, I am very aware of the cultural messages young women receive regarding interpersonal relationships, especially those surrounding the issue of domestic violence.
The 2014 media firestorm over NFL player Ray Rice’s assault of his fiancé in an elevator brought renewed focus on how we, as a society, view violence against women when perpetrated by a husband or domestic partner. Preventing teen dating violence and educating young people about healthy relationships has been the goal of a domestic violence prevention group in my community. I once served as a parent representative in a focus group held by this organization, and have watched a few of their presentations to our Parent/Teacher Organization. I also attended a very moving lecture sponsored by this same group, where a young woman described her own experience as a victim of domestic violence.
I have come to notice striking similarities between the messages sent by advocates for aggressive dogs, and the messages internalized by victims of domestic violence. In particular, pit bull rescuers/supporters and the perpetrators of violence against women and children seem to share the same techniques for convincing victims that they are to blame for the injuries they suffer at the hands of a violent partner.
Dogs are unique among animals, in that they have evolved alongside us. Current research shows that dogs can read human facial expressions and emotions, understand non-verbal cues and gestures, even experience true affection for their owners. We live with dogs as social partners, and as such we have the right and the obligation to live safely, and without fear of violence.
Yet promoters of dangerous dogs tell victims of dog attacks that they are the ones responsible for the dog’s violent actions. If only they were better owners, if only they hadn’t provoked the dog by not recognizing his discomfort, if only they had understood the dog’s triggers, the attack or bite would not have happened. The dog just needs more love, more understanding, more training. Sound familiar?
The dog is sometimes affectionate, just as the abusive husband or boyfriend is…he is “nice” much of the time. But don’t get him angry, don’t upset him, don’t let him get frustrated, or else you deserve what you get. This message is being sent to women by virtually every shelter that is adopting out bully breeds, by every reality show trainer who tells the owners of clearly dangerous dogs that everything will be fine if they would just change their behavior. Women and children have been fighting this culture of violence for centuries, which has been bolstered by the widespread belief that violence within a relationship is somehow acceptable. And it’s not. It’s not acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, and it’s not acceptable for a dog to bite and inflict injury on its owner.
Advocates for violence
Relationships with pet dogs should be held to the same standard as our relationships with each other––and violence should not be a part of it. Humane organizations have become advocates for violence, blaming victims of dog attacks, telling the public that they should accept dangerous aggression from their pet as part of normal dog behavior. Shelters and rescues prey on the mentally ill, emotionally unhealthy, and the intellectually weak by exploiting the public’s natural love for animals through guilt and manipulation.
This cultural message is promoted by a host of reality show dog trainers, whose heavily edited performances set the stage for a “blame the owner” mentality. Violent, dangerous dogs are portrayed as misunderstood “victims” of their owner’s poor training methods. This popular TV storyline was evident on one recent show where a trainer told a sobbing, clearly disturbed young woman, who had crated a rescued pit bull in her bedroom because he had attacked her and her other dogs multiple times––she displayed her arms covered with scars––that she just needs to “try harder” with this dog.
It’s hard to imagine the emotional disconnect that drives dangerous dog advocates. If a daughter, mother, sister, or friend came to me, bruised and cut, confessing that her human partner had attacked her, my response would be swift and certain: I would tell her to end the relationship immediately, for her own safety. I would not suggest that she “give him another chance,” or that she “should have known better to bother him while he was eating.”
I wouldn’t suggest that she should rearrange her life and walk on eggshells to avoid being attacked by her husband or boyfriend.
Yet as a dog owner, if you don’t commit to keeping your dog, even if he bites you, even if you are afraid of him, even if he brings no joy to the relationship. Rather, you are shamed by the rescue community for “giving up on the dog” or “not trying hard enough,” “condemning the dog to death.” It’s a message we, as a society, need to reject.
Young women seem particularly vulnerable
As responsible adults, we have a duty to help young people recognize and define what constitutes a healthy relationship. A loving relationship between social partners is based on trust, respect, and shared affection. The humane community has launched a campaign to convince the public that loving a dog means having to accept and tolerate aggressive behavior.
Young women seem particularly vulnerable to this damaging message. As “dog experts” continue to lower the bar as to what is considered normal dog behavior, an entire generation is growing up thinking that keeping a dog means accepting physical aggression toward people as a fundamental part of the human/animal bond. This is nothing short of tragic, a perversion of everything wonderful about sharing our lives with pet dogs.
While social media continues to reflect our collective outrage over the latest celebrity case of domestic violence, perhaps it is time to examine how attitudes about healthy relationships are cultivated closer to home.
Dogs who maul children become social media heroes, while their victims are forgotten. Celebrity dog trainers glorify ownership of dogs so vicious that their owners live in fear of them. Shelters and rescues spend enormous amounts of time and resources “saving” dangerous, aggressive, non-social dogs, while safe, social, friendly dogs are ignored. Owners who suffer serious attacks by their own dogs are accused of being liars, animal abusers, or of causing their own injuries because they failed to “properly train their dog.”
Until we all recognize that no one should accept pain and fear as the price of loving another being, cruelty and violence will continue to be a part of our lives.
Humane organizations have a moral responsibility to promote safe, friendly, behaviorally healthy dogs as pets, and to stop convincing families that being afraid of the family dog is acceptable and normal.
If they won’t, those who love both dogs and people must reject their message and show the next generation what a loving relationship between two people––or a person and their companion dog––should look like.
See also: “Don’t bully my breed, but we will bully the victims,” by Beth Clifton; “Three pit bull stories to chew on,” by Barbara Kay; and “The science of how behavior is inherited in aggressive dogs,” by Alexandra Semyonova.