In our present day society where the world of media and advertising influences even the most insignificant of everyday decisions, human beings have become conditioned to react to the constant onslaught of "news." Irresponsible reporting and overdramatization of the reality of a situation often results in missing the true focus. Though the power of the media as an essential ingredient in our everyday life is hardly to be disputed, very little attention has been paid to analyzing the negative effects of erroneous widespread media publicity. This paper focuses on the fashionable world of dogs as pets and how media popularity has affected the general consensus of opinion about a few particular dog breeds. Taking a cue from some of the most highly demanded and trendy dog breeds in the past couple of years, this paper discusses how media popularity affects pet choices, exemplifies breed discrimination and negatively influences the expectations about dog behavior as a whole.
A recent study estimated that by the end of 2011 there would be 65.6 million dogs in the United States, a 5.1% increase since 2001. Approximately 41.3% of homes have one or more dogs. To understand the scope and power of the pet-owning population, consider the amount of money that is spent on pets each year. In 2010, Americans spent $11.1 billion on veterinary care alone, a 65% increase from 2000. There are over 55 "pet vacation resorts" where dogs and cats can go to be pampered. There are also over 650 pet cemeteries in the United States, indicating the extent to which owners will go to memorialize their pets.
Considering these statistics, it is natural to see how important the appropriate breeds of dogs are to exemplify social status, fashionable trends and personal style. An analysis of some 48,598,233 American Kennel Club puppy registrations from 1946 through 2003 identifies rapid but transient large-scale increases in the popularity of specific dog breeds. Nine breeds of dogs showed particularly pronounced booms and busts in popularity. On average, the increase (boom) phase in these breeds lasted 14 years, during which time annual new registrations increased 200%.
Media Popularity and Dogs
The concept of "breed" is a human construct that is used to conveniently group dogs based on similar physical characteristics. There is no scientific test to determine a dog's breed. The only way to determine a dog's breed is to examine its heredity. As examples of the problem of defining and identifying breed, consider the case of Huskies and Pit Bulls. "Husky" refers to a class of dogs, not any one particular breed. Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, and Samoyeds are all considered to belong to the "Husky" family, yet they are all different breeds. Similarly, there is no AKC-standard breed called "Pit Bull" which is instead a collective classification of the American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and Bull Terrier.
Mass media coverage reaches a large audience by television, the Internet, newspaper, books, magazines, podcast and message boards. How a story is told usually affects how the audience perceives information. By telling a story in a particular way, the media persuades readers or listeners to react in either a positive or negative way. News can induce prejudice or bias by showing images that can change viewers' opinions, thus encouraging prejudgment without learning all the facts about the subject. Though there could be various reasons certain breeds are considered more desirable, the power of media popularity and exposure certainly plays a prominent role. The best example is the Disney movie 101 Dalmatians. In the eight years following the 1985 re-release of the film, the annual number of new Dalmatian registrations increased spectacularly, from 8,170 puppies to 42,816 puppies. The peak in1993 was followed by the steepest descent in popularity of any breed in AKC history – a decline of 97% within a decade. An even more dramatic example is the 100-fold increase in Old English Sheepdog registrations over the 14 years following the 1959 Disney movie, The Shaggy Dog.
Over the past five decades, shifts in preferences for some types of dogs show the boom-bust patterns that are the hallmarks of fads. Fluctuations of this magnitude suggest that social contagion is a major factor in the choices people make for their animal companions. In this regard, pets are no different from popular music, athletic shoes, and clothing styles. In short, dog breeds have become a form of fashion. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the case of Poodles, where the rise of popularity of the breed in the mid 1950s literally spawned a change in fashion – the ubiquitous poodle skirt.
Some examples of Media-Popular Dog Breeds are as follows:
• Madison, a female Labrador Retriever, is an animal actor who plays the part of Vincent on the television series Lost.
• Marley is the yellow Labrador Retriever inspiration for the book Marley and Me.
• Some famous Chihuahua animal actors are Gidget, who played the Taco Bell Chihuahua and Bruiser's mom in Legally Blonde 2, and Moonie, who played the part of Bruiser in Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2.
• Willy is a real-life paraplegic Chihuahua, whose compelling story of overcoming handicaps is told in How Willy Got His Wheels and How Willy Got His Wings.
TV shows and commercials have caused a jump in the popularity of certain breeds, yet very few potential dog caretakers take the time to investigate the traits and needs of the breed that they are considering. The level of attention required by dogs can come as a surprise to novice owners and often end in unfortunate situations, such as abandonment or surrender. Further, at puppy breeding mills, dogs are bred for quantity, not quality, so unmonitored genetic defects and personality disorders that are passed on from generation to generation are common. This situation results in high veterinary bills for people who buy these dogs and the possibility that unsociable or maladjusted dogs will be disposed of by their unprepared "owners."
Sometimes however media exposure that may be expected to instigate interest in a breed doesn't appear to have any effect on the number of annual registrations for a particular breed. For example the multibillion dollar Taco Bell Advertising campaign featuring Gidget, a Chihuahua which ran from 1997-2000, did not produce any dramatic increase in new registrations of the breed.
One very possible source of increased public interest in a breed is the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show, the oldest and the largest competition for purebreds in the United States. In addition to its obvious interest to members of the dog fancy, the Westminster show is seen by millions of television viewers each year. This is believed to lead a typical boost to the increase in the popularity of specific breeds.
Case Study - How Media Outrage damaged the Pit Bull reputation by creating fear To analyze the negative effect of media popularity on dog breeds, we take the case study of the Pit Bull breeds which faced much hype and ill-repute back in the 1980s. The media's repetition of a negative report triggered such fear toward the American Pit Bull Terrier, that Breed Specific Legislation ordinances were enacted in some American towns and cities. As a result of this media negativity, the American Pit Bull Terrier is still the target of widespread undeserved hatred despite the efforts of many factions of advocates all over the country who appreciate the breed's numerous wonderful traits of affection, gentleness and loyalty.
During the 1800s, the American Pit Bull Terrier (APBT) was deliberately involved in dog fighting activities popular at the time. These dogs fought many animals but were referred to as "bull dogs" as a result of fighting bulls. While the term "pit bull" did not yet exist, the word "pit" was used to describe where the dog would fight. When people today hear the words "Pit Bull," it is immediately assumed it is a fighting dog. In addition, people view these dogs as vicious and unmanageable with a high probability to kill. That status was preceded during the 1900's when the Pit Bull was more commonly used as a working dog or Nanny dog. Used on farms, the dogs would protect the livestock. The American Pit Bull Terrier was a popular dog and was once the most trusted and loyal dog to own. The dogs were used in the war, on television, and on the front cover of a magazine. As the mascot for the American nation, the breed represented pride, strength and dignity. When the American pit bull became the target of negative publicity in 1983, the breed's reputation suffered terribly. Many specimens had lost the physical and mental characteristics of the "real" American pit bull. This is due to one thing: "fad breeders" cashing in on producing dogs for the "fad market" through mixed breeding and no reverence to safe/ethical breeding practices. (Jessup, 2010) Many young people began adopting the APBT for the new hostile image portrayed by the media. Yet, they did not know how to handle the powerful dog nor did these fad-influenced owners train the dogs properly, or at all.
Though movies and advertising may have affected the stature of the Pit Bull phenomenon on a negative note, much less attention is given to facts and the real truth. Dogs on a general level are classified as fierce or loving – according to their looks and appearance thus understating the generic nature of the dog breeds. On top of that, various media stories don't involve knowing or scrutinizing the truth behind a particular occurrence, e.g., dog attacks on humans. The purpose of these stories is to generate public reaction without explaining why the attack happened in the first place. Without knowing more about the details to a story, the public draws its own conclusion that "all" pit bulls are bad dogs and the public profiles these dogs as "dangerous and uncontrollable." During the 1970s, there was a growing concern about the cruel practice of dog fighting. This public awareness resulted in the attention of law enforcement, and to media negativity. During this time, a young boy in California was killed by a dog. Three different newspapers reported this event, each blaming a different breed or with a different version of what happened. In one article the media reported that the dog locked his jaws on the child's neck. It is a myth that Pit Bulls "lock their jaws." Reporting such false information without knowing anything about a Pit Bull's anatomy created a misconception about the dog. People just assumed this myth as the truth for many years along with many other myths about the APBT. However, during this time there were no computers or much information about this breed as we know it today. Still, the media continues to provide misconceptions about Pit Bulls to keep the public in fear of these dogs. After all, this type of news sells and brings the ratings up, keeping the public reading, with fear as the bottom line.
The media has the ability to be part of the solution instead of being the cause of the problem. Through powerful persuasion, the media can change the dogs' image by covering positive news about these dogs and stop focusing on the negative aspects previously circulated. Society has learned to accept the Doberman, German Shepherd, Rottweiler, and other dogs with protective tendencies. Singular incidents of bites or fatal attacks should not reflect on a dog breed as a whole. The solution would be to stop creating fear through repetitive negative media attention and instead concentrate on breed advocacy. A more concerted media effort to present dog breeds without bias will help create more confidence and understanding about all dog breeds everywhere.
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