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On Ambassadors and Advocating For (Your) Pit Bull Dogs

Here’s some stuff I’ve been thinking about lately:

1. Why is it so hard to find the perfect black hoodie? You know, not too baggy, not too tight, not too lightweight, not too heavy.

2. What is Terminus and how will I survive waiting another year for the new season of The Walking Dead to come out on dvd? No spoilers or I’ll stalk you when I turn.

3. What gets in the way of responsible people making smart choices for their dogs?

 

Since this isn’t a blog about zombies (yet), let’s look at #3:

We already know that it’s our job to stand up for our dogs and be assertive in protecting our dog’s physical and mental health, as well as the safety of those around them. Right?

We know that what gets in the way of us doing that is we often don’t want to be perceived as rude or “bitchy.” Not sure what I’m talking about? See one of my most popular posts of all time: Stop Caring What Others Think and Stand Up For Your Dogs.

But in addition to the regular worries about what other people think about us when we are standing up for our dogs, there’s this other thing that affects a really big group of dog owners that I love dearly and belong to myself. I’m talking about my pit bull peeps.

Many people who own pit bull dogs are concerned about how our dog’s behavior (or our own actions) will influence public opinion about all the other dogs out there that look like ours. It’s not just internal pressure. We’re generally encouraged to make our dogs into “ambassadors.” But here’s the thing:

Wanting your dog to be an ambassador can sometimes get in the way of you being a good advocate (for your actual dog).

 

For those of you who get to go about your daily business without ever spending a second thinking about your dog being an ambassador, please let me explain what that means:

Those of us who share our lives with pit bulls would love to bust stereotypes and change minds about our misunderstood dogs. We know that a positive, real-life interaction with our nice dogs can go a long way in undoing the myths that surround pit bulls. So we’re extra sensitive to how our dog’s behavior in public might either mistakenly confirm peoples’ fears or cause them to have a change of heart about pit bulls. We work hard for the latter. Every time we leave the house.

There’s a lot of pressure on our dogs to be “ambassadors” for all the other pit bulls and that’s a heavy load for the average dog to bear, because guess what?

Pit bulls are just dogs.

And dogs aren’t pre-programmed ambassador robots.

Dogs are, well, dogs. Even the very best behaved dog – no matter what their shape, size, breed, or political orientation – have boundaries that need to be respected. For example, few dogs (even very social ones) enjoy rude, uninvited greetings from out of control dogs and grabby kids.

The point is to say that even dogs that are excellent ambassadors still have needs. It’s our job to pay attention to them and speak up when they need us to, so they stay healthy and safe. We’re our dog’s everyday advocates.

And yet: our desire to change public perceptions of our dogs sometimes means that we ignore what our dogs need, because we’re afraid that if we speak up, that other people will think our dogs aren’t friendly or that we’re mean and that will reflect badly on all the other pit bulls out there.

Look, if you’re ever feeling icky about speaking up for your dog, here’s the deal:

Never put your desire to change public perceptions of pit bulls before your own dog’s needs.

 

Don’t do anything that will cause them to have a training set back or damage their own social tolerance of other dogs or make them uncomfortable or allow them to get hurt because you’re hesitant to speak up for their needs for fear that it will give people a bad impression of pit bulls.

That’s not your problem. Your dog’s needs come first.

problem

 

If your dog seems uncomfortable meeting a new person or dog or is uneasy at an event, please walk away. Don’t stick around because you want people to meet your nice dog and have an a-ha moment about pit bulls.

When someone wants to just “say hi!” but it’s not a good match for your dog, don’t agree to it because you’re afraid the other person will think that all pit bull dogs and their owners are unfriendly if you say “no thanks”.

It’s awesome when our well behaved, outgoing pit bulls are enjoying themselves in public and change some opinions in the process. I love when that happens and I’m super grateful to all the pit bull owners out there who are making a real difference through their public appearances and awards, therapy dog work, sporting events, and parade dance parties.

But our desire to have our dogs be ambassadors should never come at our dogs’ expense. All dogs, even UN World Happiness Ambassadogs have boundaries and emotions that need to be respected. Never put the needs of the “movement” before advocating for your individual dog’s needs, ok?

And for those of you who have pit bulls that you know are not “ambassadors” because they’re reactive, fearful, anxious, or whatever other common dog behavior issue you may be dealing with, listen up.

Please don’t hide at home because you’re afraid that if your dog has a meltdown on a walk that it will make people think bad things about pit bulls. Go on and walk them in public (if that’s what works for them) and practice their training, just like any other dog owner would do. Don’t deny your dog a chance to work on their leash skills or do some counter conditioning work because you’re afraid of showing the world a not-perfect pit bull.

You are not responsible for everyone else’s opinions about pit bulls.

You are responsible for properly managing and training your dog, as well as protecting their well-being. Just like all the other dog owners out there.

 

Focus on that. Do right by your dog and you do us all proud.

Side bar: If you need to muzzle your dog, just do it. Don’t get hung up on what other people will think about pit bulls because your dog is wearing one.

It took me a minute to be ok with the fact that Boogie, my sensitive, sometimes leash reactive, and fearful pit bull, was not going to be an ambassador. But I realized life is hard enough for him. I didn’t need to put any more pressure on Boogie by asking him to represent every other dog that looks like him.

boogie sun

Sweet Boogie seen here impressing the wilderness beyond the porch with his polite behavior.

 

My job is to be Boogie’s advocate. That means that sometimes people will shout out “Can my dog/kid say hi? Is your dog friendly?” and I have to say “No! Sorry!” and I’m dying a little because I want to say is:

“My dog is so sweet and he lives with another dog and three cats peacefully, but strange dogs and random kids scare him, so he needs his personal space respected. But please don’t think that pit bulls are aggressive or mean because my dog can’t say hi to you guys right now. He’s only representing Boogie. It has nothing to do with his breed. Thanks! Also, do you like the Walking Dead? Do you know what Terminus is? Wait, wait, don’t tell me!”

But there’s no time to say that, so I just say “No!” And I let them think whatever they’re going to think about my dog. Or make whatever generalizations they’ll make about pit bulls and short women with New Jersey accents, because we hustled to get away.

Just in case you’re wondering, I’m not saying you shouldn’t train your dog and help give them the skills they need to be better behaved or more comfortable out in the world. Or that you shouldn’t want your pit bull to be an ambassador. By all means, help them learn how to navigate the world with grace and if you can, change some hearts and minds along the way if they’re comfortable doing so.

But I am saying:

It’s not fair when our desire to make a good impression or change public opinion comes at the expense of our own dog’s needs or their safety.

 

When we do that we wind up setting up our dogs to, at best, have a rotten time, and at worst, force them to make a choice that could get them in a lot of trouble.

Being a good advocate for pit bulls (and all other dogs) means that we make choices based on what our individual dogs need to succeed in our crazy world. Even if that means leaving our advocacy work at our desks when we take our dogs for a walk. Your dog is counting on you to stand up for them, not just on the big issues, but in life’s everyday occurrences. Be your pit bull’s hero and advocate for them first.

 

 

 

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38 Comments
  1. I go through this with Brodie all the time – he is fearful of strangers and super leash reactive and because he’s a pitbull, there’s that added pressure on my shoulders when we go out on walks. On the plus side I think that contributed to how hard Ive worked with him to condition and desensitize him to the world. I never let people approach him or put him in situations that stress him out, he’s not that kind of dog. But because we’ve worked hard, we can walk down the street, past people and cars and dogs (at a reasonable distance). He walks nicely at my side, doesn’t pull me all over the place, and at a glance, looks to other passersbys like a beautifully behaved dog. And if people do ask if they can say hi? I say no, he’s afraid of strangers, and we keep walking. I’ve been fortunate in that most people we encounter admire how well behaved he is, and can appreciate the training we are doing to help lesson his fears. And that’s how we’re ambassadors – to responsible ownership, to protecting my dog, and yes, to pitbulls – by not allowing my dog to get into dangerous situations.

    October 8, 2014
    • Yes, that’s a most excellent way to be ambassadors. Well said!

      October 8, 2014
  2. Very timely since my pittie got caught doing a pittie scream and twirly dance this am as two dogs passed by – and I received a few strange “tsk tsk” looks. I wanted to say – hey, she just walked by a few cats and some wandering turkeys with babies and she did it so well, your dogs were just too much to take after that! But, I just smiled and fell on my butt in the wet grass while I waited for her to calm enough to go in the other direction. So, thank you for this post!

    October 8, 2014
    • You’re welcome! And good for you for staying focused on all the successes your dog had on the walk (turkeys are no joke!). Hanging out in the grass while our dogs collect themselves is an activity all reactive dog owners know well and (sorta) love. You’re in good company today!

      October 8, 2014
  3. Lark #

    Bravo!!! Love this

    October 8, 2014
  4. “Not my problem” – the best advice ever!

    October 8, 2014
  5. My God I love you! This is awesome! I don’t have a pit bull type YET but Melvin has spent his life disproving that all labs are playful and love other dogs and are great with kids (he’s good with kids but he will also knock them down to get at any food they may be holding or have smeared on their faces). I don’t apologize to anyone on his behalf (unless he’s actually done something to them, but never for him needing space from other dogs). There is nothing average or typical about him and i secretly pray that by his not being the stereotypical lab, he makes people realize that dogs, like people, are unique. And he sometimes wears a muzzle, to keep him from eating things he is allergic to on our walks and when people ask if he’s ‘viscous’, i just say, no, he’s Melvin. But even if they don’t ask, I don’t care what they think because that muzzle is protecting him and that is all that matters.

    October 8, 2014
    • My god I love you too Tracey (and I want to punch those meanies at Trader Joes for you)! One of the things that really bugged me when I worked at the shelter is that many people who wanted to adopt our Labs and Lab mixes could not wrap their brains around the idea that not all Labs like to swim or like kids (or whatever breed standard/stereotype fits here). They really couldn’t see the Labs as individuals and it often made for some really unhappy adoptions because they were so focused on what their Lab “should” be that they ignored the individual dog’s needs and kept setting them up for misery. And I know so many owners of reactive Labs who are sick of dealing with strangers that refuse to believe their Labs need space. It’s really time we all start seeing dogs as individuals and not judge one another so much!

      Melvin is such a great example of this and I’m sending you a big hug for all the ways you’ve stood up for his needs over the years. From now on, whenever someone asks me if Boogie is mean, I’m just going to answer, “No, he’s Melvin.” So what if that’s not his name. It’s a good response!

      October 9, 2014
    • Omg, my last baby was a lab who came to me as aggressive towards other dogs. NOBODY believed me! We would be out hiking and come across an unleashed dog and I would ask the owner to please get their dog, only to be told, “don’ t worry, she’s friendly” to which I would have to reply that mine is not. “A lab?? Oh I’m sure she is fine”. My dog lunges/growls/barks, and then I am the a-hole. UGH!
      Now I have a pittie who LOVES other dogs and I can take her anywhere..go figure! I make a point of telling people of my experience..that I had an aggressive lab, and a dog loving pittie. Stereo types are bad no matter which way they go!

      November 20, 2014
  6. Kari #

    This is so Just Right! It is hard when you have a dog that is different than the dog you expected or dreamed of. We do need to do what’s best for them and let other people think what they may. It’s hard not to feel weird or embarrassed when your dog is reactive, especially towards people. We owe it to our dogs to protect them. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

    October 8, 2014
    • It is hard! Luckily so many people really do understand what we’re going through when our dogs have a not-so-perfect moment out on a walk. They just can’t always tell us, because they’re busy hiding behind a bush (with their reactive dog who needs space too)!

      October 9, 2014
  7. Victoria Carter #

    My honest opinion is this applies to all misunderstood dogs, such as very focused working dogs (GSDs), guard dogs (Rottis or Dobys), or wild looking dogs (Huskys or Mals). Screw what others think and do whats best for you and your pup(s).

    October 8, 2014
    • I’m not sure that other dog owners who have misunderstood dogs feel as much pressure to have “breed ambassadors” – at least not to the same extent that pit bull owners do – but any way you slice it, we all gotta do what’s best for our dogs! Well said!

      October 9, 2014
  8. This post deserves a standing O. And as an aside, my new motto for walks with Balton is going to be “I let them think whatever they’re going to think about my dog. Or make whatever generalizations they’ll make about pit bulls and short women with New Jersey accents, because we hustled to get away.” Just sub rescued shepherd mixes for pit bull and tall for short, and the rest is completely accurate.

    October 8, 2014
    • Are you from NJ too?! I’m starting to think that being from New Jersey is a protective factor – not giving a &!*@% (most of the time) is woven into our DNA!

      October 9, 2014
  9. I always feel like your dog is an ambassador if you are handling him responsibly — whatever that means for you.

    October 8, 2014
  10. Kathy #

    I just have a scared little terrier mix but I’ve learned to say no. He’s cute and little kids and people with dogs want to approach. It’s just a no go but it’s been a process. I used to be embarrassed but those days are long gone. It’s all about Scooter now.
    Really, are you waiting to watch The Walking Dead until the whole season is available? I can’t believe I’ve had to wait until October! I must find out about Terminus. Not one more day will go by for me.

    October 8, 2014
    • Good for you and Scooter! p.s. We don’t have cable, so that’s the only way we get to watch it (plus, I like watching a whole bunch of episodes at once). I am super jealous that you’ll know what the heck Terminus is any day now!

      October 9, 2014
  11. Dana #

    I give this post (and virtually all of your other posts) an A++! My current “project dog” at the shelter is a reactive pittie mix, and I used to get so stressed when she had one of her “moments” on our walks because I felt like I was giving the public a bad impression of pit bulls and shelter dogs in general. Now that I’ve given both Mabel and myself permission to just do our thing without worrying about the rest of the world, I’ve noticed a decrease in both her reactivity and my anxiety. I think it also helps that we’ve taken up running together…it’s hard to care about what other people think when we’re busy making them eat our dust!

    October 9, 2014
  12. I made a mistake with my pit bull, Herman, before he crossed the bridge. One day, out around some neighbors who’d had been very friendly to him, I decided to use a much longer leash than I normally used expecting the usual friendly interaction. A neighbor’s dog came running at Herman causing him to tell her off (the dog, not the neighbor). Herman growled and barked then promptly turned around and ran back to me. I thought that was the end of it. One neighbor, horrified by this brief exchange accused Herman of “attacking” that poor dog. “Attacking?!” Really?! If anything Herman was the victim! Lesson learned. I never put Herman in that position again.

    October 9, 2014
  13. May I repost this on HERMAN’S HOPE?

    October 9, 2014
  14. EmilyS #

    and btw, not all PEOPLE are cut out to be ambassadors all the time either! Sometimes you just want to walk your dog…

    October 9, 2014
  15. Maddie #

    LOVE reading ALL this great info…..it always helps validate my actions……we always have DINOS who are mixed breeds & abuse cases…..AND after some time, w/lots of work, patience & understanding, become the most super sweetest dogs in the world & I thank them for that. However, out walking around, can be a whole other thing for them….we never put them in any circumstance that would upset their feeling of “safe”….so, no matter who tries to approach me/us about coming over to them, I quickly say, “No, he/she/they are scared of people, so please don’t” & I break eye contact & keep walking. I wish it could be different but it isn’t & we wouldn’t have it any other way. We owe them this protection.
    But I might also use the “Melvin” answer…..good one……

    October 11, 2014
  16. Amazing post. Love everything you said because it’s the straight up truth… sharing far and wide!

    October 12, 2014
  17. Reblogged this on Griffin the Pit and commented:
    This. I just really needed to hear all of this.

    October 14, 2014
  18. Traci #

    It makes me feel so much better to read this. We currently have a foster Pittie who hasn’t been well socialized, so at 2 years old, she isn’t quite sure how to interact with other dogs. She apparently has gotten along with a few other large dogs in the past, but plays really rough. When on walks, she wants to lunge toward all other animals or humans to get them to give her attention/play with her. She doesn’t bark or growl while doing this, but unfortunately, I’m afraid that many dogs will see this not as playful, but as aggressive, so I try to avoid interaction by doing things others described, such as crossing the street, turning around, etc. We will let her greet humans if they aren’t walking dogs, since we are trying to work on her not jumping on people and being more calm – she’s not afraid of people at all and will usually attempt to lick them to death if not restrained!

    October 19, 2014
  19. Lynn #

    THANK YOU, yet again, for your wonderful blog. Every time i’ve had a difficult day with the reactive and/or anxious shelter dogs with whom i work, or with my undersocialized foster dogs, i read your blog, & get to laugh–and then get great advice, commiseration, & reminders at the same time. You’re a great writer–amazing, funny, encouraging, helpful, & uplifting. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

    October 30, 2014
    • Lynn, this was such a nice comment – thank YOU for being so kind. It really made my day. And most of all, thank you for the work you do with shelter dogs. You’re my hero!

      October 30, 2014
  20. Wow, this couldn’t have come at a better time. I am “guilty” of wanting to prove to the world what great dogs pitties are. My dog is generally great with everyone, however last night I had she and my daughter at a park. We were walking out to our car when someone on a skate board came flying by us and made a lot of noise which startled my pup. Immediately after that a 2 yr old boy holding a stick in front of him no less came up to us and wanted to pet her. Normally, she would be all about meeting a child, but I didn’t want to put her in that position since she was startled already, body language clearly expressing fear, and then a boy with a stick. I said something quickly like, “so sorry, she just got scared” but I felt like the mom was probably thinking I had a dog at the playground that did not belong.- ugh

    I feel a lot of pressure and found myself getting flustered if she is not behaving perfectly in public. (her only “issue” is pulling on a leash when excited- big deal!) I think in my mind if I had a Golden pulling on the leash, people would think, “oh look at that dog so excited, can I pet her” vs seeing mine, “that dog is ill behaved and out of control. stay away”. I need to let this go! love this post

    November 20, 2014
  21. Late to the party here, but I just wanted to thank you for this lovely post.

    Logically I know that my dog is not responsible for changing anyone’s perceptions of pit bulls and that my number one priority is keeping her safe. She’s well trained and polite (when she has space!) but that doesn’t mean that she’s obligated to let random strangers (human or otherwise) get into her space. I should never feel bad about telling someone no, you can’t pet my dog. But I do. I think we all do at times.

    And I do feel like my pup is a good ambassador for her breed. She’s incredibly leash reactive and does not like strangers, but like I said, she’s polite about it for the most part. She’s an example of how every dog has quirks, no matter what the breed, and that with hard work and a strong partnership, you can figure out how to work around those quirks. There are days when I’m driving home from work and it seems like every kid and unleashed dog in my neighborhood is out roaming the streets and I know it’s not going to be a walk day for us. And that’s okay. We’ll play in the backyard or take a short walk right before bed. It’s not a failure on either of our parts. Hard to remember that sometimes, though.

    Anyway, thanks again for writing this and for the reminder that we are doing a good job with our good dogs. They’re perfect because they’re them, and that’s all that matters.

    June 12, 2015

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. On Ambassadors and Advocating For (Your) Pit Bull Dogs | notes from a dog walker | HERMAN'S HOPE
  2. A Must-Read for ALL Pit Bull Peeps! reposted with permission from *notes from a dog walker* Thank You, Jessica Dolce! | HERMAN'S HOPE
  3. On Being (or not!) a Pitbull Ambassador | Griffin the Pit

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