I’m ecstatic at being able to write this because last weekend, I very nearly blinded myself.
I needed to spray paint a paper mache box (you see where this is going, right?) and had assumed that the can of spray paint purchased specially for the project would work like other cans of spray paint. To that end, I shook the can vigorously, pried off the “easy remove” lid with a screwdriver, my teeth and a beer can opener, detached the plastic pin from the valve button – aimed, then pressed the nozzle with confidence.
The blast of paint to my eyes was immediate and direct. The minutes that followed involved panic, a lot of water, a heart-to-heart with God, a call to poison control, more water, and a husband who wondered why I hadn’t gone looking for him after he found me with my head under the kitchen faucet (I love my husband, but let’s think about this: Should I have immediately flushed out my eyes just sprayed with a toxic chemical, or bumped into walls “looking” for a husband who could be anywhere in the house to tell him what had happened. What to do, what to do….)
In my defense, it was an easy mistake to make for someone who hadn’t read the directions. I had assumed that all nozzles work the same way and proceeded accordingly. Now I know they aren’t all the same. Now that I’m not blind, I can chuckle about it (but only just now). The name of the paint color was, “Pimento Red,” and I must have looked as if I’d taken a direct hit to the face by an overripe tomato, if not a musket ball. After the dust settled and I knew my eyes would be okay, I reflected on how close I’d come to dodging a life-changing bullet. I had gotten it all wrong.
Don’t ask how I make connections between utterly unrelated things, I just seem to, and I was struck by the correlation between the spray paint incident, a book I’ve been reading, and the realization that while trying to protect the future of purebred dogs, we’ve been getting it all wrong, too.
In the book, Made to Stick, the authors, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, explore why some ideas “stick,” while others never catch on. I imagine it was written with advertisers, marketers, and politicians in mind, people invested in having their ideas resonate (or stick) with the public.
The authors cite the Texas Department of Transportation as a good illustration of how a flat idea was reshaped into one that “soars.” Texas used to have a terrible problem with roadside garbage caused mostly by good old boys of a certain age with whom, “don’t litter” appeals didn’t work. The state developed a clever campaign that recruited native Texans, George Foreman, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson to record commercials in which they said, “Don’t mess with Texas, ” a message that implied that tossing trash out the car window violated the macho ethos of Texas. It worked.
If ever there was a group of individuals that needed a similar public perception overhaul, it’s the dog fancy. The sport is in trouble, the future of purebred dogs is at risk, and everything that’s been done to counter the animal rights message hasn’t worked – in part because not much has been done at all. We expected an organization entrusted to protect the dog fancy to do its job, but when it has done something, it’s been too little, too late. The “heavy lifting” has fallen to individual dog owners, and we’ve made mistakes. The biggest, as I see it, has been in failing to persuade our fellow fanciers that all of us are at risk regardless of our level of involvement. Our second biggest mistake has been in assuming that our adversaries are like us, and therefore, apt to be persuaded by statistics, data, and the hypocrisy of animal rights and hostile rescue organizations.
How’s that working out for us?
What follows are a few of the book’s points that have “stuck” with me and are ones I think have relevance to the dog fancy:
- A few months ago, I wrote that’s it’s all but impossible not to see something once you know where to look. The authors call this same thing, “the curse of knowledge.” Once you know something, it’s impossible to “unknow” it. As dog fanciers, we’ve allowed the opposition to define us. They’ve used photographs of woe-eyed dogs behind bars to suggest that because of us dogs are suffering and dying. Show dogs are portrayed as voiceless commodities schelpped from one dog show to another only to languish at the end of a grooming arm wearing snoods, hair wraps and rubber bands. We haven’t done a good enough job of replacing those images with ones that show what we’re really about.
Here’s a quickie test for those of you who are dog fanciers: Conjure in your mind images of happy, healthy purebred dogs (you pick the breed) horsing around in a backyard, or of healthy puppies nuzzling against their mother in a whelping box. How about one of show dogs working as therapy dogs in a hospice, or breeders interviewing a young family to make sure they get right breed for their home. I’m betting it’s easy for you to imagine because you’ve seen it. Much of the public hasn’t, but once they have, it’s impossible for them to not remember such vivid pictures when animal rights proponents tell them how evil purebred dog owners and ethical hobby breeders are.
We have so much going for us and we’re squandering it. If every fancier posted on Twitter a picture similar to the ones I described above just once a week along with captions like: “The life of a well bred dog,” “a show dog at home,” “what show dogs do for fun,” and so on, I like our chances of reversing public perception.
- Pictures tell a story, but there’s nothing like story telling to shape opinions. A thousand words ago, I told you that I nearly blinded myself. What was I painting? What color was the paint? What did I do in the minutes that followed the accident? I bet you remember. I bet you even recall what my husband wondered when he found me under the faucet.
You remembered my story better than if I’d written that somewhere in the world, someone goes blind every five seconds and that at least 7 million people go blind every year. And yet as dog people, we continue to cite statistics to prove our opposition wrong: HSUS spends less than 1% of its charitable contributions on shelters; PETA killed 29,000 dogs in the last ten years at its Norfolk headquarters, HSUS spent, $17.3 million lobbying governments between 2005 and 2009, and so on. I do it myself all the time.
Statistics, however, put people in an analytical frame of mind and less receptive to embracing an idea. We need to make our message “emotional” to make people care because feelings inspire people to act, and for people to act, they have to care.
The Humane Society of the United States knew this when they created the gut-wrenching commercials with which we’re all familiar. They don’t glaze our eyes over with numbers that indicate an “overpopulation” problem in shelters – they tell their version of a story by showing sad pets caged in shelters.
An anecdote told at a conference a few months ago will “stick” with me for as long as I live, and it fuels me whenever I grow weary of pushing back against those who mean us harm. As the story goes, it was in the course of examining dogs and puppies imported from other countries to fill demand in this country that airport workers came across a crate containing a litter of puppies that had been spayed and neutered before their eyes were even open. I don’t think there was a person in the audience who didn’t cringe or tear up upon hearing this.
That is the power of story telling.
If I were the AKC (say, now that’s a good title for another article), my version of an HSUS-type ad would acknowledge the plight of shelter dogs but make the point via a “voice over” that the best way for a dog to avoid becoming a rescue in the first place is to ensure that it’s the right fit for a family, and no one does that better than an ethical breeder dedicated to their breed. The television viewer would be shown a caring breeder sitting with potential owners in a home environment, happy health puppies playing at their feet.
It’s not likely that the AKC will make such an ad, but we can by using the video cameras and cell phones most of us own. Uploading to You Tube is free, and the cuter/funnier/better/more poignant the video, the more apt it is to go viral. Money can’t buy the kind of attention a video-gone-viral gets because it’s authentic and organic. Our passion and our access to good dogs who love us give us advantages professional ad agencies don’t have. Are we using the advantages we have to help ourselves?
- Self Interest. For an idea to truly “stick,” it has to matter to people, and at the end of the day, what matters to people are themselves whether they admit it or not. Buying a dog from a shelter makes people feel good about themselves, and telling friends that their new dog is a “rescue” makes them feel even better.
We, on the other hand, are so busy telling anyone who will listen that they should get a dog from an ethical breeder that we forget to tell them why. What’s in it for them? In what way does owning a dog bought from an ethical hobby breeder make them feel good? How does the dog benefit?
We all know the answers, and we should be shouting them from the rooftops. Instead, we grouse about the APHIS regulation, the latest hit piece on the AKC, etc. Is that working for us?
Yes, it’s a tough time in which to be a hobby breeder or show fancier. Get over it. Each of us is a soldier in the frontline, and if we fail, it’s the beginning of the end for well-bred dogs.
As a “foot soldier,” are you able to respond to the person who wonders why it matters if some breeds go extinct? After all, we don’t bait bulls anymore. No one herds sheep as a livelihood, and we don’t need Arctic breeds to make serum runs when we have helicopters and snow cats. Are you prepared to explain why it’s in their best interest to preserve our breeds in a way to which they can relate?
At some point, I have to wrap this up, and I do it with the final point that the easier it is for us to relate to something, the better chance of it has of becoming a “sticky” idea. As someone who has written about the emotionalism of animal rights proponents, I have to adjust my own approach in light of what I’ve learned from this book because using logic to refute misinformation isn’t working. I’ll continue to gather statistics and use them as another tool in my arsenal when appropriate, but taking a page out of the opposition’s playbook is long overdue.
Needless to say, I recommend reading “Made to Stick,” but a brief synopsis can be found here. Let’s learn from this. Let’s “stick it” to our enemies.