When Raising Awareness Raises Fear

When pit bull dogs make headlines and the community wants to “do something,” the first question we should ask is: “What does the community perceive as the problem?” The answer is often “dog fighting” and a common reaction is to “raise awareness” about the alleged problem.

AwarenessBut when you start digging deeper, you often find that something else going on. That something else is a fear of people. And in our attempts to “raise awareness,” we address the wrong issue and fuel the perception of a problem that often never existed to begin with.

Here’s an example of how this played out in my old town of Philadelphia.

In summer 2010 pit bull dogs made news for allegedly destroying trees in a community garden. The local park group (“Friends of Overington Park”) claimed that dog fighters were using the trees to train their dogs for fighting, and the dogs were threatening community safety — especially for the children.

An article ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Park volunteers say rehab work going to the dogsThe story was picked up by other news outlets, and the fear was so intense that the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society announced a campaign to “raise awareness about dogfighting.”

Philade Inquirer Article

Something sounded fishy and I’ve learned to question hysterical claims about dog fighting because they’re often based on speculation. So I went to the park to see for myself what was happening.

Diane + KevinI found damage to the trees. But unless the “fighting dogs” were literate, it was obvious that the true offenders were of the two-legged kind.

Perhaps the real offenders were named Diane and Kevin?

Still, the fear was there and it was growing. The park group called a meeting with local police to discuss the “dog fighting problem.”

My friend and fellow volunteer/advocate Claire and I attended the meeting. The group voiced concerns about the “fighting pit bulls” ruining the park. The police heard their concerns and offered to help, but said they’d never witnessed any suspecting dog fighting activities in that area, nor had they received reports from other agencies.

Then something interesting happened: the park leaders shared a photo of the men they suspected were fighting dogs and damaging the trees. The photo (below) matched the description they had given to the media.

Alleged Dog Fighters

At that moment, it became clear that the issue wasn’t rooted in fear of dog fighting; the issue was fear of certain people, and the misconceptions that accompanied that fear.

Me and My Dogs

Me and My Dogs

So at this point, I could have brought my pit bull dogs to meet the park group, showing them how pit bull dogs aren’t the snarling beasts they’d envisioned. But that would not have made a difference because the dogs in this photo were behaving no differently than how my dogs would have behaved.

The only difference would have been the person on the other end of the leash.

Even though our dogs look similar, I don’t look like those guys.

“Raising awareness” of pit bull dogs using members outside of the community would not have quelled fears or increased understanding —  it would have fueled the perception of a problem that never existed, and overlooked the one that did.

Now that we understood the root of the hysteria, we needed to accomplish the following:

  • The park group had to see that their assumptions about the guys and their dogs were rooted in fear, not fact.
  • They had to experience firsthand that the overwhelming majority of dog owners — including the people in their neighborhood — care about their dogs.
  • They needed to know that the presence of black men and pit bull dogs does not indicate the presence of dog fighting.
  • Most important, they had to experience this firsthand through people in their own neighborhood, not through outsiders telling them what to think.

Community Pet DaySo Claire and I met with the park group and they agreed to let us host a Community Pet Day at their park.

We gathered volunteers and partnered with a local shelter to provide low- or no-cost vaccinations, pet care, and support to dog owners in that neighborhood. We gave special perks to pit bull dog owners, but the event was open to all dog and cat owners in the neighborhood.

We got to know the community members by attending community events, community meetings, and talking to community people. And in doing so, we spread the word about our event.

Community Pet Day was a tremendous success. The park group watched in awe as their neighbors — many of whom they’d never met before — came out with their dogs to receive pet care and interact with their neighbors. We had every kind of dog and every kind of person stop by, and all of them were united by their love for pets and engagement with the community. We served more than 50 dogs that day and could have served more except we ran out of supplies. To view pictures of the dogs and people we met that day, click here.

Dog 1To conclude: If we had decided to “raise awareness” on the perceived problem of dog fighting, none of this would have happened. 

The fear would have grown stronger, the community would have remained divided, and pit bull dogs and young black men would continue to be linked with dog fighting. 

Instead, we chose to trust the dogs and trust the people who own them, and the results spoke for themselves. 

Last but not least, the neighborhood paper ran an article on our event, which you can read here. The first line says it all: “From adversity comes triumph.”

PS: To read more about this Community Pet Day and others that followed, click here.