Changing Minds about Breed Bans

March 5, 2011  

Experts show how to open minds to better approaches

By Jessica Dolce

“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.

People have been inundated with negative images, false claims and fiction about pit bulls.

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.”

“Once a view becomes hardened and people see it as the truth, it becomes really hard to dispel it,”

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.

« « Did You Ever Believe the Negative Hype About Pit Bulls? | Samantha the Service Dog » »


32 Responses to “Changing Minds about Breed Bans”
  1. Micaela says:

    Excellent article!

  2. Charles says:

    Statistics and surveys are pretty easily misinterpreted and used for biased reasons. Even with the best of intentions the preconceived ideas of the researchers cause misleading questions and “data” evidence to be faulty.

  3. Anne Hanley says:

    Right on the nose!

  4. Carey says:

    Thanks. I get frustrated when I come across ppl who are so prejudice and I don’t understand why they harbor such ill will or ill feelings toward the breed when all they need is a little education. I once thought they were “dangerous” dogs to be around, especially children. Oh, how things have changed. I had an open mind and got education, got some experience, and now I advocate for the breed. I wish everyone could be open like that, but at least with this scientific brain study, I can understand why sometimes I have to walk away knowing some ppl aren’t going to change.

    • StubbyDog says:

      Thank you for your comments. It’s so nice to hear how so many people have not only changed their minds about pit bulls, but have also become advocates for them! Keep up the good work.

  5. Darreena Harding says:

    Beautiful aritcle:) The pitbulls everywhere are smiling and wagging for this piece!!!

  6. Ed Fritz says:

    I couldn’t agree more! Nice article. You hit the nail on the head, and I’ve experienced how your “best approach” is the best approach.

    I would like to add, if I might, that the fiscal calculator does not have to be fear inducing. I’m sure many elected officials become fearful of the economics, but it is just as true that many of these officials are sincerely committed to steering their communities responsibly, safely and humanely.

    Speaking of which, congratulations Oklahoma! On protecting your right, as a responsible citizen, to own the dog of your choice!

  7. baltimoregal says:

    It’s hard sometimes, I admit, trying to convince people. Like when a tollbooth worker in DE looked at a tiny pit bull puppy I was transporting and said, “they turn on you- they can’t help it!” When I told her in my usual calm way that, oh, I have a 3-year old pit bull and she is sweet, she got very defensive- “I know what I’m talking about, I’ve had dogs all my life.” I had to give up. Sometimes you’re beaten.

    But I have victories. By walking my people-loving pit mix through my neighborhood and patiently talking to people, I have been able to convince several that pit bulls are not what they thought. It’s taken a year or two for some but it has worked. It takes a lot of patience and humor but it’s all been worth it to see people smile when they look at my Stella.

    • StubbyDog says:

      Thanks for sharing. Everyone has to do what they can to change perceptions, sometimes it works, sometimes it just doesn’t. But at least we all can try to change our little corner of the world, just like you are doing with Stella. Keep it up!

  8. JenniferAkes says:

    When my husband and I got our first Pit bull we were told by some very close friends to enjoy our new dog because as she aged she would turn on us. She is 4 now and no turning in site. She is the same loving, loyal playful dog she was in the beginning. She has been spayed because although we would love to have a dozen just like her we are aware of the overpopulation issue faced at this time by our country. She is obedience trained and has just recently started agility training which she is enjoying as much as we are. She is our family and we would fight to the death to protect her, as I am sure she would for us. Although she is more of a kisser than a biter. She might tackle them and smoother them with Pittie kisses. Before getting her we were unaware of BSL and how it affects so many people. Since then we have become activist in the fight against it, but we constantly run into people who hate the breed simply because of what they view on the media. It is refreshing when we meet people who know the breed and understand the breed even if it isn’t their breed of choice. But sheep (people who believe everything the media tells them) are everywhere. They chose not to use their minds because it is so much easier to let other think for you. Great article have shared several of the articles on this website with my facebook friends and hope that they all subscribe so they too can gain knowledge about this incredible breed of dog.

  9. StubbyDog says:

    @JenniferAkes Thanks so much for your comments, you dog sounds wonderful and we are so glad to hear that you have become advocates for pit bulls. Thank you for your support and for sharing the article.

  10. JessDolce says:

    @JenniferAkes So glad to hear your dog found a safe and loving home with you and that she inspired your family to become activists! Thanks for reading the article and sharing with your friends!

  11. annav36 says:

    I love this site and this article. I am a 21 year old girl and a proud owner of two amazingly sweet, beautiful pits. I found this site doing research for my informative speech on pits that I will present in class. Where I live is currently trying to place a ban on all pits in the city limits. Lucky for me I live just a few miles outside of the city limits. I try everyday to make sure people are more aware of what great dogs they can be with responsible owners. Keep up the great work you do!

  12. StubbyDog says:

    @annav36 Thanks for your comments and for your support of StubbyDog. And keep getting the word out about how sweet pit bulls are!

  13. LovingPits says:

    I love this site! I have three pits and they r our life. People need to be educated and it’s rare for anyone to understand how we keep them in our house with our daughter.

  14. I love this site. Very amazing post.

  15. sunkissedbutrfly says:

    Love it. I passed this along. Very good post!

  16. Tlp81 says:

    We rescued a dog from the shelter and none of the papers says he has pit in him when I posted his picture on Facebook lots of people said he looks pit. However I walk him to pick up my kids from school and everyone loves on him and he is the sweetest thing. Is there somewhere I can upload a picture of him and get opinions from people who have pit bull and see what you all think?

    • StubbyDog says:

      @Tlp81 You can upload it to our Facebook page and ask,, as long as you have a wonderful, sweet boy who loves everyone and who you love, it really doesn’t matter what breeds are in him, does it?

      • Tlp81 says:

        @StubbyDog. To me it don’t matter. I’m more curious then anything plus if people want to say they are mean I can argue that with them and introduce them to our family dog! He is so good with my 8 and 6 year old plus my 2 cats. The papers say he is Boston Terrier but I don’t know that it’s accurate ! Thanks.

    • AlexandraBeck says:


      if you really want to know what your dog could be, the best method is to get a dna test. Either a veterinarian can provide a blood test that is sent to a lab, or you could get one from pet smart (a mouth swab). The thing to remember about genetic testing is the parameters. you must order a test that includes a great variety of breeds. If you order a test that fails to include the genomes of staffordshire terriers for example, it will then give you the next and closest genetic matching. Remember, pitbulls (am staffs, staffs, etc) are decendents of bully and terrier breed mixes. Hence once being called bull and terrier. It can be very subjective, especially in the area of appearance. I met a dog on the street that if you asked me subjectively what he was by appearance I would have said a rottweiller shepherd type mix. However, he turned out to be a purebreed a lesser known breed. I cant even recall the name because I never heard it before. when my girl was a pup, people asked me if she was a boston terrier (she is black and white with markings of that of most bostons). again, this was one of the breeds that are in a pitbulls ancestry.

    • Ursus says:

      We adopted our dog from a shelter- he was listed as an Australian Shepherd mix. After we brought him home, everyone was saying he looked part Pit Bull. Because of this, I started learning about Pit Bulls. I also started volunteering at the shelter and worked with all breeds of dogs there, including Pits. I discovered that the Pit Bulls & Pit Bull mixes were some of the nicest dogs in the shelter. Recently we had out dog DNA tested- turned out he was actually part Aussie, Rottweiler, Catahoula, Spaniel, Anatolian Shepherd and Corgi! Anyway, to make a long story short, we love our mixed breed dog, and I have come to love Pit Bulls, too.

      • Tlp81 says:

        @Ursus The papers from the vet say he may be mixed with American staffordshire. it don’t really matter to us. He is wonderful with the kids and cats and all our guest have loved him and he loved them. He walks with me and doesn’t bark at other dogs either. He is very well mannered and lovable!