Stereotypes and Breeds of Dog

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Can social psychological theories of stereotypes about people also explain people’s attitudes and stereotypes of different breeds of dog?

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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That’s the fascinating question posed in a new study by Tracey Clarke, Jonathan Cooper and Daniel Mills of the University of Lincoln.

Some jurisdictions have breed-specific legislation that bans particular breeds of dog, usually those of pit bull type. This includes the UK, where this study took place. Stories of attacks by this kind of dog also often get significant media attention. One question behind this research is whether people’s beliefs about certain breeds of dog are influenced by stereotypes.

The “contact hypothesis” is a well-known and well-tested idea in social psychology. It says that our attitudes towards other groups of people – such as those of a different race to ourselves – are influenced by contact with that group. In particular, if people have positive contact with members of another group then their attitudes to that group are very likely to improve. One interesting thing is that it does not even have to be actual contact – imagined contact (such as imagining a positive first meeting with a stranger) is enough to bring about a change in attitudes (Crisp and Turner, 2009).

If applied to dogs, we might expect that people with less contact with dogs would be more likely to believe stereotypes about the behaviour of particular breeds.

Although there is some evidence for breed-specific behavioural traits there is also wide variation, with some studies finding that breed type is more important, and that differences within a breed are very large. People who are more knowledgeable about dogs might be more aware that behaviour is not just influenced by genetics. For example, they might know the importance of early socialization for puppies, know more about dog training, and have a better understanding of the consequences of abuse and neglect.

The researchers developed a questionnaire that assessed people’s level of contact with dogs in three ways: how many dogs they lived with (0, 1, 2 or more); the role that dogs played in their life (e.g. pet, family member, or no role at all); and the amount of knowledge they said they had about dogs. Of these, they expected the last one to be the least useful, since it is difficult for people without much knowledge to accurately assess how much they know (or don’t know).

The questionnaire also asked about people’s attitudes regarding the link between dog breed and behaviour. One hundred and sixty-six people took part, most of them from the Greater London area in the UK. The researchers used a sampling method designed to get participants who had different experiences with dogs, and to include men as well as women (it is much harder to recruit men than women for this kind of study and so they deliberately included a soccer team in their target audience).

The majority of participants (57%) were dog owners and 41% were not dog owners. The role that a dog played in people’s lives was family member (43%), pet (16%) or ‘no role’ (27%). The reason the numbers don’t quite add up is because some participants did not answer this question. In terms of knowledge, 63% said they were knowledgeable and/or experienced about dogs. 

The results found a link between people’s knowledge about dogs and their assessment of a link between breed and behaviour. In particular, people who said they were knowledgeable about dogs were more likely to disagree with the statement that “some breeds of dog are more aggressive than others”, and to disagree that “there are sound and valid reasons for breed-specific legislation”.

There was a link between ownership of dogs and attitudes, in particular to the two statements mentioned above. Also, people who said the role of dogs in their life was ‘family’ were more likely to disagree with these statements than those who said a dog was a ‘pet’ or had ‘no role’ in their life. They were also less likely to agree that a dog’s appearance is linked to its behaviour.

This suggests that the contact hypothesis can also be applied to people’s relationships with dogs. The authors say, “Those with little experience of dogs …are more likely to have stereotypical images of breeds, as are those for whom the dog occupies a more instrumental role in their life (as a pet rather than a family member)”.

As the scientists note, stereotypes about breeds could become self-fulfilling, as people avoid certain types of dog and those dogs therefore have a different social environment than other dogs for which such stereotypes don’t exist. The contact hypothesis also says that people will generalize to others who look similar to a particular group. In terms of dogs, this means that attitudes towards bull breeds could be generalized to other dogs that are also short-haired and muscly.

The researchers say “The image of the muscular and powerfully built bull terrier type appears to have entered the public consciousness as the stereotype of a dangerous dog that poses a threat to public safety, despite such a generalization being scientifically unsound. The negative labelling of breeds such as the American Pit Bull Terrier and other breeds of similar appearance leads to simplistic social perceptions of their behavior.”

Although this is a fairly small survey, it opens up a very promising line for future research to investigate perceptions about aggressive behaviour in dogs. It also shows that people’s knowledge about dogs in general is important in shaping their beliefs about BSL. This study used a relatively simple classification of knowledge and contact; having demonstrated that it makes a difference, future research could look more closely at these variables.

Some owners of so-called ‘status' dogs are very keen to improve attitudes towards certain breeds. The results of this research suggest that positive contact with any kind of dog will have an effect on people’s attitudes towards Breed Specific Legislation.

How have your prior experiences with dogs shaped your current attitudes towards them?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and one cat. 

Clarke, T., Cooper, J., & Mills, D. (2013). Acculturation-Perceptions of breed differences in behavior of the dog (Canis familiaris). Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, (2013).
Crisp, R. J., & Turner, R. N. (2009). Can imagined interactions produce positive perceptions?: Reducing prejudice through simulated social contact. American psychologist, 64(4), 231.

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