Rhetorical Strategies

BSL is a complicated issue that riles emotions pretty easily, and talking about it can be tricky. It’s important to stick with effective arguments, and to anticipate and be able to counter the opposition’s arguments. This is the art of rhetoric, or “saying the right thing at the right time in the right way to communicate the right message.”

Do you have a suggestion? Have you found a tactic that works or fails? Send me an email at stopbsl.org@gmail.com

Effective Rhetorical Arguments

I’m just like you, and I’m on your side.

People tend to listen to and care about others who have similar values. You can get lawmakers to listen and care about you by acknowledging their concerns and fears. Explain that you want to help your lawmakers and your community—in the safest and most effective way, a breed-neutral way.

As you communicate, break any stereotypes associated with ownership of a targeted breed. Use proper English and good grammar, and be respectful and calm.

Breed-specific laws are like racism.

This argument draws quick parallels between humans and canines when it comes to making assumptions about behavior based solely on appearance. We suggest you invoke this point rarely and carefully, because some people object to comparing dogs and people.

You should be prepared for the predictable counterargument that dogs have been bred to exhibit certain behaviors, whereas human races have not. Here are some quick rebuttals, or try to come up with your own:

“If dog behavior is all genetics and no environment, why do we even bother to train our dogs?”
“My dog, like the majority of dogs in the U.S., is a mutt. What behavior was he bred to display?”
“Dogs don’t choose what they’re bred for or how they’re used. We should be regulating the way people behave, not the way their dog looks.”

I care about all dog bite victims, not just a limited few.

The majority of dog bites and attacks are committed by non-targeted breeds. Why are pro-BSL lawmakers only trying to protect a small fraction of their constituents? BSL treats victims and potential victims of dog bites unequally. Those who are threatened by a targeted breed get sympathy and reaction from legislators, while those who are threatened by a dangerous dog of a non-targeted breed get the political cold shoulder. How is that moral, just, or humane?

Legislators need to know that it’s not acceptable for them to play favorites when it comes to public safety. All citizens deserve protection from dangerous dogs, regardless of what the threatening dog looks like. Victims of attacks by non-targeted breeds need to speak out and express their desire for dog laws that will protect them, too.

Ineffective Rhetorical Arguments

Admitting a negative fact in order to seem honest

Honesty is an extremely important part of persuasion, and you should not deceive your audience. However, some advocates feel compelled to mention negative aspects or facts, or weaknesses in their own argument, because they think it makes them seem honest. Quite the opposite—such “honesty” will always undermine your argument. And most of the time, negative “honesty” isn’t very truthful either. Always think about your word choice and the way you are saying something!

A classic example is the statement: “Pit bulls are strong dogs and can do a lot of damage when they bite, but they don’t bite very often.” This statement sounds like you’re being honest, because even though you are a pit bull advocate, you are able to admit what they are capable of, right? Actually, the exact same statement can be made for Labrador Retrievers, Great Danes, Dalmatians, Standard Poodles, and so on. All larger dogs can be strong and can do a lot of damage when they bite. Since “pit bull” is a general type of dog that comes in all shapes and sizes, it’s not exactly truthful to say that they are universally strong. And since the severity of a dog bite depends on many factors other than breed, it’s also not truthful to say that pit bull bites are more damaging. As for “they don’t bite very often”—there’s no way to prove or disprove that! Not only does the statement mislead the audience into thinking that pit bulls are uniquely strong, it does not encourage the audience to think about pit bulls in a positive way. It only associates “pit bull” with “bite.”

There are negative aspects to everything. You are not required to mention those negative aspects “in the name of honesty.” Especially when such “facts” may not really be factual at all!

My dog is sweet, loving, and wouldn’t hurt a fly.

The “perfect angel” image is quickly discredited by media reports of targeted breeds’ attacks—and the interviews in which the guilty dog owner exclaims, “My dog’s a nice dog and has never done this before!” You may think your dog is loving, but so did every other vicious-dog owner before their dog bit someone.

“Friendly” dog breeds bite more frequently

A common argument goes like this: “Cocker spaniels bite more than pit bulls. Cocker spaniels are more dangerous!” The inevitable counterargument: “When a pit bull bites, it does more damage than a cocker spaniel. Pit bulls are more dangerous!”

Neither of these arguments has any statistical or scientific data to back it up. The whole debate dissolves into conjecture. It’s best to avoid introducing non-facts in the first place!

Breed-specific laws are like the Holocaust

Although there are parallels between the legally sanctioned eradication of an entire type of dog based on physical appearance, and the genocide of an entire race of people, this comparison is, for the most part, considered insensitive to the human beings who died during the Holocaust.

Dog ownership rights are like gun ownership rights

These are two subjects that should never come up at the same time. Guns are weapons. Dogs are companions, not killers. Nothing positive comes from associating ownership of pit bulls with the ownership of a weapon. If you must get into a debate about what the Constitution of the United States does and does not permit in terms of dog ownership and due process rights, leave guns out of it!

Dogs are trained to be mean. My Chihuahua is meaner than my pit bull.

A very common argument starts with “Dogs are not born mean. They are trained to be mean” (i.e. owners are responsible for their dogs’ behavior) and ends with “My Chihuahua is meaner than my pit bull” (i.e. not all pit bulls are mean, and not all “family” breeds are nice). The audience immediately notices the contradiction in these two statements. If dogs are trained to be mean, why is your Chihuahua mean?

It does not require training for a dog to act aggressively. All dogs are naturally capable of aggression. Owners manage their dogs responsibly so they are not capable of hurting people. That goes for owners of Chihuahuas and pit bulls alike, no matter whether the individual dog is “nice” or “mean.”

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