UK study finds breed stereotyping in dogs is similar to racial stereotyping of people

A new study conducted by animal behavior experts challenges the basis of breed specific legislation as a mechanism to protect the public from ‘dangerous’ dogs.  A team from the University of Lincoln concluded that rather than making people safer, breed specific laws could be lulling them into a false sense of security.

The study set out to discover the source of people’s perceptions about ‘typical behaviors’ associated with different breeds of dog. The findings were recently published in the journal Human Animal Interaction Bulletin published by the American Psychological Association, Acculturation – Perceptions of breed differences in behavior of the dog (Canis familiaris).

The researchers applied a theory known as the ‘contact hypothesis’ which is used by sociologists to understand the origin of racial stereotyping and other forms of prejudice.  This concept proposes that once culturally diverse individuals come into contact with each other and are able to develop an understanding of their differing cultures, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination should be reduced resulting in more positive interactions in the future

The researchers found significant variations in attitudes between people who owned dogs or had regular contact with them, and those who did not. More than half (54%) of respondents who identified themselves as “experienced or knowledgeable” of dogs disagreed with the statement that some breeds are more aggressive than others. Only 15% of respondents who said they had little or no experience of dogs held the same view.

Similarly, more than half of the “experienced” respondents felt there was no valid reason for breed specific legislation, whereas less than 1 in 10 of the inexperienced respondents felt the same.

The results of the study were consistent with the researchers’ prediction that not just the level, but also the quality of contact with dogs, are major influences on the tendency to believe breed stereotypes, despite all the scientific evidence which challenges the validity of such generalizations.

The researchers discovered that a dog’s physical characteristics and appearance informed strong attitudes, resulting in over-generalization.  This did not only apply to pit bull-type dogs, but also to dogs with characteristics such as being well-muscled, or even short-haired, were stigmatized more often as “dangerous” by those with less experience or knowledge of dogs.

While the survey pool was small (160 people), the results of the study are of scientific, ethical, and practical significance since they suggest breed stereotyping in dogs is a similar phenomenon to the racial stereotyping of people.

The research team suggests that further scientific research is needed to improve understanding of the origins and basis of negative breed stereotypes and, in turn, should be used to inform future legislation.

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