"A breed of satin and steel. Pit bulls are a mixture of softness and strength, an uncanny canine combination of fun, foolishness, and serious business, all wrapped up in love."

-D. Caroline Coile

Monday, February 6, 2012

Changing Minds About Breed Bans

Experts show how to open minds to better approaches.

By Jessica Dolce  (Reprinted from StubbyDog.org)

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” -Mark Twain
Despite overwhelming evidence that breed bans don’t work, cities and counties – even entire countries – still keep them on the books. Breed bans are often put in place by politicians as a knee-jerk reaction to news that someone was attacked by a dog. But these panic-induced policies just don’t work:

• Since its 1989 ban on pit bull-type dogs, Denver, Colorado (a city that is also a county) has killed an estimated 3,497 dogs for being suspected of pit bull ancestry. Denver has the highest rate of dog bite hospitalizations in Colorado.

Miami-Dade County, Florida also banned dogs identified as pit bulls in 1989. It also has a higher percentage of dog bites requiring hospitalization than the rest of the state.

• The United Kingdom has had a 66 percent increase in dog bites since enacting its Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991.

A better approach

On the other hand, when the city of Calgary, Canada, introduced Responsible Pet Ownership bylaws, in 1985, the city had 600,000 residents and 621 reported bites.

By 2008, Calgary’s human population had doubled, but the number of dog bites had fallen to 145!

Calgary’s approach was quite different. Their effective measures included :

Ordinances holding people responsible for their dogs’ actions.

Low-cost or free, easily accessible spaying and neutering, with higher fees for licensing unaltered pets.

Restrictions on the tethering of dogs.

Community education that promotes responsible pet guardianship and dog training, funded through penalties for failure to comply and differential licensing fees.
Discriminatory policies invariably prove to be ineffective and costly. Breed bans (also known as Breed Specific Legislation, or BSL) also rob responsible guardians of their beloved family pets and give the public a false sense of security because they waste resources that should be spent dealing with dogs who actually have behavior issues.

Why are breed bans still being passed?

Yet lawmakers, homeowners associations and insurance companies continue to discriminate against pit bulls. Why do rely on polices that have been proven not to work? For various reasons, they want to be seen as doing something, even if that something provides a false sense of security.

People have been inundated with negative images, false claims and fiction about pit bulls. Over the past 20 years, people’s beliefs have been shaped by hysteria and misconceptions that pit bull-type dogs are more dangerous than any other breed. This makes it a struggle to introduce information that doesn’t line up with their viewpoint that pit bulls are the problem, even when confronted with facts.

New research in psychology and sociology are helping us to understand how people form opinions in the first place, and how difficult it can be to replace opinion with fact.

Photo courtesy of Melody McFarland

How We Form Our Opinions

 Psychological researchers like the University of Michigan’s Brendan Nyhan suggest that people interpret new information with a filter that reinforces their preexisting views. Nyhan found in his study, When Corrections Fail, that when people are confronted with facts that do not support their deeply held beliefs, they may be more likely to stick to their guns – a phenomenon he calls “backfiring.”
This might be because we hate to admit when we’re wrong. Author and marketing specialist Seth Godin says in his book, All Marketers Are Liars Tell Stories, that once a person has “bought someone else’s story and believes that lie, persuading the consumer to switch [ideas] is the same as persuading him to admit he was wrong. And people hate to admit they’re wrong.” (pg. 151) Not only that, but our ability to change our minds and believe newly presented facts also has to do with how ideas become rooted and processed through different areas of our brain.

Changing deeply rooted beliefs is no easy task

“Once a view becomes hardened and people see it as the truth, it becomes really hard to dispel it,” said University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel Simons in a CBS Sunday Morningsegment “Fast Draw.” He noted that when the beliefs pertain to our safety, often facts and logic just don’t apply to the way our brains process information. In the following video from CBS, psychology professor Daniel Simons, along with Josh Landis and Mitch Butler of “The Fast Draw,” show us how beliefs are formed neurologically and why human beings have such a difficult time hearing new facts that contradict these beliefs:

The Solution

So how do we convince people that breed bans don’t solve the problem and that there are better ways to create safe communities?

One: Raise people’s sense of self-esteem

Nyhan’s studies show that raising people’s self-esteem (in his case he used a self-affirmation exercise) makes them more likely to consider new information. Feeling insecure and threatened makes it almost impossible to consider opposing viewpoints. On the other hand, when you feel good about yourself you’re more likely to consider a different approach.

Two: Be blunt, but do it in person

Another study, by James Kuklinski, et al., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, showed that being direct and blunt also helps people to reconsider their beliefs, but only in person. According to Nyhan, delivering blunt opposing views in a news article creates opposition to the new views. (photo, right, courtesy of Lisa Prince Fishler, Printz Photography)

Three: Show that there’s a different and bigger problem

The other option is to demonstrate another problem that people fear more (as suggested by Simons in his measles versus vaccination theory presented in the CBS video clip above). This is how German shepherd dogs and Rottweilers lost stopped being seen as “Public Enemy No. 1.” They stopped being viewed as the most dangerous dog breeds because new breeds took their place as the most feared ones. We don’t want to throw another dog breed under the bus, so if we’re going to take the advice of this research and transfer fears, we need an alternative to fearing dog breeds.

In the case of BSL, it might be fear-inducing for some people to discover how much it costs to enforce this ineffective approach. Best Friends Animal Society came out with a handy fiscal calculator. They note that, in this time of extreme budget cutting, showing lawmakers the numbers might scare them into thinking differently.

Another “greater-fear” approach is making it known that lawsuits by citizens and non-profit organizations will be costly and time-consuming and that the breed-specific legislation is likely to lose.

The best approach

So what’s the best approach to getting panicked politicians to hear a different view point?

If we take the researchers’ advice, the best way to get lawmakers to drop breed bans and adopt breed- neutral laws that target irresponsible guardians would be to:

a) Meet with them in person.

b) Create an atmosphere that allows them to be open to new ideas by making them feel secure and competent.

c) Give them factual information that is direct and blunt.

d) Demonstrate to them that education and breed-neutral laws are less costly than breed bans.

These techniques can be among the keys to changing the minds AND the brains behind breed bans.

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