Monday, January 21, 2013

The Advocate

Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day. So it seems fitting that last Friday, a few days before the nation celebrates the life of our greatest american civil rights advocates, I was asked to speak to a group of middle schoolers about what it means to be a pit bull advocate. As I sat down a few days before to outline what I was going to talk about, it occurred to me that I've never really given much thought about what it means to be an advocate. Looking at my own journey from middle school the where I am today, the best I could come up with was "I saw something I could help with, so I did." Unfortunately, that's a pretty short speech. Here's what I (with a little help from my friends) came up with instead:

Know your subject. There is a consistent theme in hate and fear: people fear what they do not understand. If a dog is growling at you, that is scary. But if you know that the dog is growling at you because it doesn't want you to take it's bone away from you, and all you have to do to prevent a bite is the leave the dog alone, the situation becomes much less frightening. Most people who are afraid of pit bulls have never met one. All the knowledge they have is from what others have told them. If people start telling others positive stories instead of staying silent and letting the tales of violence spread, then pit bulls become less threatening, less scary, and more like other dogs.

It's no good just to know the positive stories, either. You must know the weaknesses in addition to the strengths. Do pit bulls bite? Of course! All dogs are capable of biting, regardless of breed, age, or sex. Pit bulls are, however, one of the only breeds specifically bred to be tolerant of people while highly aroused. And for every pit bull that bites a person, there are a hundred more that are therapy dogs, service dogs, police dogs, and other outstanding members of society. And for every one of these stellar breed ambassadors, there are thousands more pit bulls that are simply pets and will live out their lives never having so much as lifted a lip against a person.

Be a good example. Not everyone can teach. That's okay. If you have a pit bull, you don't have to say anything. You can let your dog speak for herself. The more people see of pit bulls doing and excelling at ordinary things, the less unusual and exotic the seem. Even something as simple as walking down the street not eating anyone can be amazing to some people.

This doesn't mean your dog needs to be perfect. Play to your dog's strengths. For example, Maus is pretty sure that children are small agents of the devil, and at this point in his life, I don't think I'm going to change that. So I'm careful about situations I place him in where he might come in contact with children. This doesn't mean that he can't be a good example to others. A few months ago, Maus and I were asked to do a nosework demonstration for a group of fifth graders. I had the kids hide Maus's scent objects, and then had them sit in the middle of the room while Maus worked. Maus had fun because he loves scent work and none of the kids were trying to touch him, the kids had a blast watching a pit bull do something amazing. It was a win/win situation, and that's all you really need to be a good example.

Play to your strengths. I'm no good at talking to adults, particularly adults that I think might not agree with me. I mean, there's a reason they put me in the back of the tent with the needles at the Get Your Fix! fairs. But that doesn't mean I'm useless without my dogs. I have a lot to offer. Most people do, if they take the time to think about it. Do you have able hands an a little spare time? There's always rooms for volunteers to help with training classes, adoption days, awareness events, crafting, flyering for shots fairs, socialization parties - all you need to do is say you're available. Good at art? Deviant is coming up in a few months. Paint, draw, photograph, bake cookies (as someone who lacks that skill, I consider cooking an art). Good at computers? Make a website, write a blog, create a better operating system for rescues to use to organize stuff.

Do you have a voice? Tell a story about this awesome pit bull you know to your coworker or kids. Write your insurance agent or landlord or congressman about how wrong it is to judge any living creature on how he or she looks. Never underestimate the power of a simple thank you to those who don't work for money. The support of people who do not own pit bulls and may not have a person stake in the "problem" is a powerful tool.

Be kind. When your most powerful tool is education, the worse thing that can happen is for people to stop listening to you. One of the fastest ways to do that is with two words: "You're wrong." People don't always remember what you said, but they'll remember that not only are pit bulls vicious, but pit bull people are jerks, too. People, much like dogs, are rarely all good or all bad, and I often have to remind myself that just because someone doesn't agree with me doesn't mean they're a bad person. It's okay if I decide not to argue today if it means that I - or another pit bull advocate - have the chance to change their mind tomorrow. There is enough hate and anger out there, and I refuse to intentionally make more of it. After all, there's only this one world and we've all got to live in it, so we just as well be nice to each other.

The pit bull "problem" isn't really a dog problem at all - it's a people problem. People are the ones who want to see the world in black and white then there are so many vibrant and exquisite colors. Pit bulls are not all bad dogs, and people who own pit bulls are not all bad people. What we really need now are advocates who are willing to help open people's eyes and let the light in.

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
                                                                   ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

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