4.1. Incorporating Stereotyped Descriptions
News media sources included a variety of descriptive characteristics, not including those provided within quoted portions of the articles from dog caretakers1
or law enforcement, of both the dogs involved in the shooting incidents as well as of their caretakers when one was identified. As a result, media sources often reify existing hierarchies within each particular species (dog or human) and encouraged reader perceptions of shootings as more or less justifiable based on the social value granted to the parties individually, but, even more poignantly, when taken as a companion animal–caretaker pair. Often these descriptions were specific and most articles included at least one form of description of the dogs involved in any given incident, including the dog’s breed, name, age, weight, and, at times, the dog’s health condition prior to the incident. The following are examples of succinct descriptive characteristics included in articles:
“involving a 12-year-old arthritic golden retriever named Boomer” (Nipps 2011
“The pit bull, a 5-year-old male named Tank” (Graham 2014
“staffordshire pit bull terrier named Jackson Smore” (Anderson 2014
“6-year-old Basset hound/beagle mix, Willy Pete” (Craig 2014
“the 6-year-old pit bull-terrier-boxer mix, named ‘Wheezy’” (Day 2015
“The dog, a 90-pound German shepherd” (Gerez 2015
While the above represents the types of descriptions of dogs occurring most often, overwhelmingly, when the breed of the dog was provided it was a pit bull or pit bull mix. Occasionally articles included other “bully” breeds (e.g., rottweilers, German shepherds, bull terrier, or mastiff), but it was more often, breed was noted when the dog shot was a pit bull or, in opposition, if the dog shot was a stereotypically easy-going, non-aggressive breed (e.g., labrador retriever, golden retriever, basset hound, brittany spaniel). Noting the breed in this way, either only in cases involving a stereotypically aggressive breed or harmless breed, emphasizes the ways media draws on pre-existing notions of the breeds to influence readership understanding of the shooting incident. Similarly, when articles included the name of a dog, the age (often either when the dog could be deemed a puppy or a senior), and the (poor) health status of a dog, it personalizes the dog and draws on readership emotion to influence their perspective of the dog as ‘friend-worthy’ and thereby judge the shooting of the dog as justifiable or not.
In order to examine the consequences of this descriptive writing, take the comparative cases of two differently framed articles such as the one listed above about the 12-year-old arthritic golden retriever named Boomer and the incident concerning the 90-pound German shepherd. In the former article, the journalist and/or news editors begin by framing the shooting as a social violation requiring reform through use of the article’s title: Dog’s Death Influences Police Policy
. This article sets the stage for the readers with its introductory sentences: “Police officers have shot and killed a half-dozen dogs this year in the city. But it was the seventh fatal shooting, involving a 12-year-old arthritic golden retriever named Boomer, that gave St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon pause” (Nipps 2011
). This initial frame introduces the readers to a social problem by providing information about the larger pattern of police shootings of dogs. Then, by noting the consideration of the police chief, the individual in a position of power to implement institutional change, the social problem is justified as a valid issue of concern. The article goes on to describe that “a campaign to demand that police be trained in dealing with animals” was initiated by this dog’s caretakers and has since become a “movement [which] includes an online petition at change.org and a dedicated Facebook page with more than 3700 followers” (Nipps 2011
). In this article, the dog’s caretaker was quoted saying: “’My wife was crying when she heard [of the police department’s policy change],’ Glass said. ‘It’s a mixed thing because Boomer had to sacrifice for positive change’” (Nipps 2011
). Here the inclusion of the caretaker’s perspective helps to further personalize this dog, who has already been described with a name, age, and medical condition. This article did note that Boomer, albeit a stereotypical friendly breed, “initially seemed ‘social,’ according to [the officer’s] report of the incident” yet “became ‘vicious,’” after an officer tried to examine his identification tag (Nipps 2011
). The article also relayed that “an internal investigation examining the Oct. 1 incident in which Officer Misty Swanson, 25, shot and killed the dog, police ruled the shooting was justified” (Nipps 2011
). Even though the dog’s actions could have been framed as justifying the shooting, and although an internal investigation ruled the shooting was indeed justified, the article still frames the story as a social wrong, a part of a larger systemic problem, and needing a social remedy in the form of policy change.
Alternatively, in the latter article focused on the 90-pound German shepherd, the title sets up quite a different frame for readers: Evanston Police Officer Shoots Dog
. Article titles, such as this one, read as factual and confer less emotion than articles like the one previously discussed. The dog in this article is identified only by weight and breed in the title and, later in the article, by a young age (i.e., two-year-old). In our analysis of the data set, the choice of which descriptors to use in the articles helped to support the overall frame of the article. Whereas the previous article on Boomer personalized the dog as a stereotypical friendly breed and offered his age and medical condition to emphasize his vulnerability as a shooting victim, the article on the German shepherd does not include the dog’s name, and offers descriptors that paint a picture of a large stereotypical aggressive breed. While journalists can use descriptors to relay factual information about a news story, they also can use them to frame the scene and characters within the story. However, descriptors may actually detract from other facts of the story. In this article, the author describes how an officer decided to check the basement of the house under investigation: “The dog, a 90-pound German shepherd, then came running out of the basement door after the officer opened it. The officer attempted to retreat back up the stairs but lost his balance and fell to the floor in a seated position before discharging his weapon several times. The two-year-old dog was taken to an animal hospital but then died, police said” (Gerez 2015
). This article lacked information on whether the dog growled, lunged at, or bit the officer, so the actions of the dog may or may not have justified the shooting. Regardless, the reader of this news article is given limited, emotionless information that presents this story in a completely different frame than the story of Boomer, a story filled with emotion, calls for social justice, and reflections of policy changes. Yet, it was Boomer who was described in the police report as “vicious”, while this German shepherd, according to the limited information provided in the news article, may have only surprised the officer who stumbled, fell, and undoubtedly was frightened of a dog with those descriptors—a dog without personal identity representing a large stereotypically aggressive breed. These two stories help to illustrate the overall patterns we saw regarding the use of dog descriptors in the articles.
Likewise, articles included descriptions of dog caretakers to establish not only the appropriateness of a given companionship, but also then, to suggest whether the shooting of the dog within the companionship was reasonable. Among others, descriptions in these cases included: gender, age, employment status, and disability status. Below are examples of the types of descriptions articles included of dog caretakers.
“a homeless man named Lech Stankiewicz” (Kemp 2012
“The dog owner, who has a criminal history that includes assault, protective order violation, assault on a police officer and various weapons offenses” (Mims 2014
“The 28-year-old musician, who has been on the road for 12 years, had hopped a freight train from Lafayette, Louisiana, to Sulphur, Louisiana” (Curtis 2014
As was the case with descriptions of dogs involved in incidents, articles likewise drew on existent social hierarchies within the human species to position the individuals, and therefore the shooting of their dog(s), as more or less admissible. In many cases, including those above, descriptive characteristics aligned with lower statuses on the social hierarchy, such as in cases of homelessness or criminal records, suggested these individuals were unfit dog caretakers and, therefore, unfit as friends to their dogs. Similarly, when age of animal caretaker was included, it often involved dog–human matching wherein an elderly caretaker had a dog that was inappropriate based on being an aggressive breed, large size, or young age compared to the owner, and therefore—theoretically—the owner would be unable to suitably handle.
In the incident of the homeless caretaker, Lech Stankiewicz, and the incident involving the 83-year-old “elderly owner”, the journalists begin the articles by describing the poor health situation of the owners and frame police as intervening as sources of help. In the former, the article opens by stating that, “A NEW VIDEO emerged Thursday that shows police shooting a pit bull in the head in the East Village. The graphic footage, posted to the Gothamist website, shows two uniformed cops approaching the dog’s owner Monday as he appeared to be suffering a seizure on E. 14th St. near Second Ave” (Kemp 2012
). Similarly, in the case of the elderly owner, the article indicates police approached because of need by the owner: “Police shot and killed a dog Friday morning after the Staffordshire terrier attacked two people—including a police sergeant—who were trying to help its elderly owner who had collapsed in the street” (Quinn and Burness 2014
Both articles continue to negatively frame the owners through added stigmatized descriptions. In the case of Lech Stankiewicz, the article stated: “Stankiewicz—who sources said was intoxicated—was taken to Bellevue Hospital and treated for minor injuries. He was later cuffed on an arrest warrant for an open-container summons, cops said. His sister said Stankiewicz, who was born in Poland, left the family’s Illinois home about a decade ago due to a drug problem” (Kemp 2012
). The inclusion of this description minimizes the actual shooting of the dog and, instead, points readers to the status and troubles of the human within the dog–human partnership. This framing suggests the human is not friend-worthy due to his struggles with addiction and the law. While the dog–human friendship relies on responsible caregiving for social approval, addicts and criminals are often socially defined as irresponsible and unable to provide care for themselves, let alone others. Likewise, in the case of the elderly owner, the dog in this incident is contrasted to the owner’s weak status (suggested by the mention of both the age and the physical collapse), when the journalist states, “It is not yet known whether the dog had a history of aggression, though Staffordshire terriers are considered similar to pit bulls” (Quinn and Burness 2014
). Then the article includes a quote from a neighbor who recalled “the owner often walked his dog in that area, and that the dog typically wore a muzzle. She said the dog was unmuzzled on Friday, however” (Quinn and Burness 2014
). The inclusion of the likeness between the dog involved in the incident and that of the breed of pit bulls frames the dog in a stigmatized and stereotyped manner. Additionally, the fact that the owner muzzles the dog when in public suggests the need for additional protection from the dog. Thus, the framing of the feeble owner and a strong, potentially unsafe dog do not make for a socially acceptable friendship.
In comparison to the incidents within which descriptors of dog caretakers were involved, many articles omitted descriptors of the owner completely. By omitting this information, writers suggest there is nothing notable or unusual about the human caretaker involved. Or, in some cases, journalists mention identification of an owner, but specifically state that information about the owner has not been released. This removes consideration of the owner, the friend-worthiness of the owner, and possible culpability in the incident from the dog caretaker. Ultimately, then, focus is placed on the dog and/or the shooting incident itself. Examples of such omissions and limited descriptions include:
“The dog’s owner has been identified, but his name was not released” (Staff 2015
This first example includes no information about the dog caretaker. The following example does provide a name and location of the caretaker, but no other information. Thus, the reader’s understanding of this individual as a caretaker is limited, especially compared to the more nuanced stories that include vivid description about the dog caretakers.
“Buddy’s owner, Debra Blackmore of Hesperia, Calif” (Kaufmann 2016
Specific information about dogs and/or humans involved in incidents was not always available. However, it was not uncommon for articles to still include broad descriptions based on characteristics of size and/or demeanor, which also encouraged particular perspectives from readership. For example, in one brief article describing an officer shooting a dog in the foot after it approached another officer, the article stated: “Police described the animal as a ‘large dog,’ however the breed was not available” (Day 2014
). Likewise, articles noted the reason police originally became involved in situations when not specific to the dog. Often, these cases involved either domestic disturbances between the caretakers of the dog and/or drug usage. For example, in one article describing the shooting of a pit bull, it stated, “to investigate a report of a domestic brawl involving a resident and her ex-boyfriend” (Valentine 2011
). Though the articles are not incorporating factual information or characteristics of the dogs specifically, the information provided adds situational context to the incident and portrays parties within the incident, either the dog who was shot or the caretakers of the dog as culpable, and therefore, less friend-worthy. This situates the actual relationship between the dog–human dyad—the friendship—as problematic and, therefore, the police shooting can be understood as more acceptable by the general public.
Scripting for Social Context
While above we point to the ways demographic and descriptive factors of the dogs and caretakers emphasize their positions within the species hierarchy of which they are part, articles also more directly aligned characteristics with social stereotypes through use of descriptive language and word usage around the events of a given incident. This included use of words such as “muscular” and “strong” when describing an incident involving a pit bull. Or, in some cases, descriptors of the dog’s demeanor, pace, or way of interaction aligned with characteristics provided by the journalist. For example, in the below incident, the dog caretaker is noted as breaking a law and the description of his behavior when police arrive (e.g., uncooperative) aligns with this. Similarly, the dog involved is noted as a pit bull and then the language around the dog’s behavior (e.g., “aggressively”) draws on stereotypes of the breed:
The incident began at about 10:40 p.m. when a woman in the 1900 block of San Francisco Avenue called police to report a man violating a restraining order […] Officers said the man, identified as Mark Phillips, 37, of Long Beach was uncooperative, and his dog, an unleashed pit bull, was barking and acting aggressively, forcing officers to move away from the front of the home.
Likewise, some articles drew on the descriptive characteristics of both the dogs and caretakers involved in an incident to create a comparison in a given incident, which effectively emphasized both the culpability of certain dogs and caretakers and the vulnerability of others involved. The following is an example from a case occurring inside a large, chain pet store:
After a 16-year-old girl had entered the store with an approximately 90-pound pit bull on a leash. The pit bull encountered a Maltese, a small breed, on a leash. The two dogs began barking, and the owners pulled them apart, Assistant Chief Steve Deaton said. A short time later, however, the pit bull escaped its owner and ran through the store dragging its leash. It attacked the Maltese, which was still on its leash held by its owner, an elderly woman. The pitbull picked up the smaller dog in its mouth and began to maul it, Deaton said.
The above is representative of the ways articles used descriptive characteristics of the parties involved in an incident, both dog and human, to draw on socially recognized stereotypes in order to support police-identified blame (suggested through which dog was shot) within an incident. Specifically, the article draws on age and gender of the owners as well as breed and size of the dogs. The youthful age of the pit bull caretaker, and the associated stereotype of irresponsibility, serves as partial explanation for the inability and/or unwillingness to control the dog. Likewise, the elderly nature of the Maltese caretaker emphasizes increased vulnerability based on social stereotypes of aging populations as unable to respond quickly, feeble, and weak. Similarly, the article draws on opposing stereotypes of the same gender by acknowledging both caretakers as female. The pit bull caretaker is not strong enough to control the dog (but perhaps a boy may have been) and, in opposition, the Maltese caretaker was nurturing when she picked up her companion. Finally, the article includes not only the breeds of the dogs involved, which are both socially stereotyped, but includes the size to further create a comparison. The offending dog is described by weight, reinforcing it as a large, heavy dog, while the victimized dog is described, twice, in terms of its “small” build. Through use of descriptions that hold various stereotypes, both negatively and positively valued, the article supports a particular understanding of the situation. Ultimately, this is that the companionship of the young girl and pit bull is problematic, while that of the elderly woman and the Maltese is favorable. Therefore, the police shooting of this particular dog can be viewed as more socially acceptable.
While it may appear journalists are simply providing the facts of the case, we found that many articles lacked the type of detailed descriptions provided above. The below examples are two articles, nearly in their entirety, demonstrating the lack of descriptive characteristics and word usage provided in other articles.
An Elgin pit bull was shot by police Wednesday after storming fire station 7, according to officials. Police Lt. Dan O’Shea said fire department personnel were outside when a dog ran up from across the street and chased them inside. Another pit bull mix showed up a few minutes later, acting similarly, which prompted firefighters to call the police, O’Shea said. When police arrived shortly after 1 p.m. at the station, 3270 Longcommon Parkway, one of the dogs tried to attack an officer, according to O’Shea. “We truly never want to shoot an animal, much less someone’s dog or any kind of pet,” O’Shea said. “However, if an officer is going to be bit, he has to take appropriate actions”. The dog was wounded by the gunshot and later taken to a South Elgin animal hospital. The dogs’ owner lives in the 9N600 block of Water Road. The owner, whose name was not available Thursday morning, was cited and will have to appear in animal control court in July. Elgin police wrote five citations for each dog because of their behavior and for being at large.
At 4:55 p.m., two Concord police responded to a complaint related to a homeless camp just off Ponderosa Avenue in Concord. When the officers found the camp, a pitbull terrier mix immediately confronted them. Police said the officers ordered the owner to grab the dog, and when the person didn’t and the dog charged and tried to attack them, they fired. The dog was hit, Concord police added, before it turned and ran about a mile before officers caught up to it. Animal Control officers picked up the dog, which was taken to be medically evaluated. The dog was still alive, but wounded, when it was transported. The dog’s condition is unknown.
Through choosing what and how much information to include, in addition to when and how to include it, journalists ultimately shape not only the reader understanding of the context during which police shoot dogs, but also, as a result, influence the social understanding of both dog–human relationships and police decision-making around shooting dogs.
By introducing humanistic characteristics of dogs into articles, journalists imbued additional social value onto particular dogs, while effectively anonymizing others. When journalists limited the description of the dog to only its breed, or in some cases solely as “the dog”, they encourage readers to distance from the dog because those involved cannot be perceived as relatable. Likewise, the use of limited descriptive characteristics offers readers the opportunity to draw on stereotypes they may hold based on what little they do know of the dog, such as when the breed is given. Similarly, through use of descriptive characteristics of dog caretakers, articles draw on the human social hierarchy to position individuals as more or less suited to care for a dog, perhaps even the specific dog they had. Based on the characteristics included, articles frequently incorporated language that matched the social stereotypes associated with either, or both, the dog and dog caretaker. Together, these decisions by the journalists influence readership views of the dog–human relationship as acceptable or not and the shooting incident as justified or not.
4.2. Applying (In)Humane Rituals toward the Dog
Articles included human social rituals applied to particular dogs which humanized—and therefore personalized—the dog and also spoke to the caretaker’s positioning of the dog as valued or not. This included noting such things as when a dog was buried, received medical treatment following a shooting incident, and when dogs had beds in which to sleep. By including these practices, which are more often applied to humans, dogs could be understood as more valued and, therefore, higher on the species hierarchy. Likewise, we argue that including the presence of these rituals positioned caretakers in certain ways, often mirroring Blouin’s
) orientations of humanistic or protectionist dog owners. This type of characterization of the caretaker aligns them with Brickel’s
(1985, pp. 37–38
) contention of social learning around positive or good animal caretaking as necessitating “that animals are to be loved and cared for, and that such actions will reward us with the affection of the animal and admiration from others” and also reflect Bierne’s
) assertion of respect for animals. Therefore, such caretakers are perceived as higher on their species hierarchy. Finally, emphasis of these rituals indicates a well-matched, socially acceptable dog–human friendship and suggests that the shooting of the dog within said friendship is unmerited.
In one article describing the shooting by an Animal Control officer of a 3-year-old pit bull named “Cage” on his owner’s front porch, the social ritual of burial was described: “After the dog was shot, Law built a wooden coffin for Cage and buried him Monday night on family property in the county” (Avant 2013
). This passage demonstrates not only the humanized practice as applied to Cage, thereby indicating his social value to his caretaker, but also points to his caretaker as having high social value as a dog owner because of the steps he took in caring for his animals in such ways. In this passage, the caretaker not only buried the dog, a human ritual suggesting the dog was worthy and valued enough to be mourned and remembered, but, additionally, the place of burial, “on family property in the country”, aligns the dog as a member of the family. Finally, the owner built the coffin in which the dog was buried. This suggests the owner cared for the dog in such a way as to dedicate time, energy, and skill in using his own hands to make the dog’s final resting place. This highlights the social value of the dog to the owner, which raises the dog on its own species hierarchy, and, simultaneously, positions the owner as deserving of such a dog and in fact, is equally positioned on the human hierarchy.
Another example occurred when a police officer responded to community calls about three pit bulls running loose. Upon investigation, the officer took aim when the dogs charged. Following the incident, the owner sought medical treatment for the dogs: “The owner, Ronnett Chantel Owens, took both dogs to an animal hospital on Bestgate Road where they were treated, police said” (Staff Writer 2011
). The receipt of formal medical attention and treatment following an injury is a social ritual that no animal would receive if not for a connection and relationship to a human. Partaking in this ritual includes the transfer of money on the part of the dog caretaker, which further accentuates the social value of the dogs to their caretaker. As with the case of the burial described above, the willingness of the owner to engage her dogs in these human social practices positions her as higher on the human social hierarchy. Notably, an owner’s willingness and ability to pay for medical treatment also reflects either the socioeconomic status of the caretaker, as having disposable income, or as being willing to draw on alternative economic resources, such as loans or incurring debt, on behalf of their dog. Regardless, this heightens their ‘friend-worthiness’. Taken together then, the social value of both dogs and humans in these situations, again, equate in terms of their dog–human relationship. As a result, the relationships between these particular dogs and humans are established as well-matched and as socially approved friendships. The willingness of the owners to engage in anthropomorphic practices, in the former article, and consideration of what is best for the dog, in the latter incident, suggests the caretakers benefitted from the relationship with their dog and were, therefore, willing to expend resources on the dogs. Simultaneously, the inclusion of these practices in the articles suggests to readers that the dogs benefitted from the humans in the dyad as well—both while alive and, in the former case, after death. Drawing on Payne et al.
), the mutual benefit within these dyads positions them as successful and, therefore, as acceptable friendships. Because of this, the shootings of the dogs can be socially understood as less fair, just, and right.
Scripting the Dog–Human Interaction
The above section explicates the ways journalists included human social rituals applied to dogs in ways that position both the dogs and humans in higher statuses on their species hierarchies. In comparison, however, journalists also employed language and phrasing that facilitated in readership a very different understanding of dog–human relationships. Specifically, while the response to being shot and end-of-life experiences of the dogs described above engage the interaction positively, numerous articles also positioned parties involved in incidents of dog shootings as low on their species hierarchy because of the dehumanizing and inhumane descriptions of events occurring following the police shooting. This framing reflects Bierne’s
(2018, p. 37
) suggestion around speciest language and the contention that “While human ‘corpses’ garner respect for the dead and are honoured with religious, familial and other ceremonial rights, the overwhelming majority of animal bodies (‘carcasses’) are disposed of invisibly, silently and without inspection of record”. Take, for example, the following two selections, which incorporate the terminology of “destroy[ing]”:
“The dog attempted to attack a Northport city employee and to protect the employee, the dog had to be destroyed,” Northport Police Chief Kerry Card said (Avant 2013
“But the last thing police officers want to do is use their firearms to destroy a dog,” he said (Trice and Gorner 2013
Similarly, in an article describing an incident in which police had to shoot a pit bull after responding to a human-on-human physical fight resulting in a 23-year-old man running from police and, ultimately, being bitten by said pit bull in the backyard where he sought refuge, the use of the word “collected” dehumanizes the dog following it’s death: “A Sonoma County Animal Control officer collected the dog” (Johnson 2013
). Just as inanimate objects are destroyed and trash is collected, the dogs in these articles are given less social value. Mirroring Mead
), this language positions nonhuman animals and humans as inherently different with nonhuman animals inferior to the human counterpart. Thus, unlike the previous discussion in which dogs are understood as embodying personhood and/or selfhood, the framing here positions the dogs as objects and catalyzes less emotion around the animal’s death. As a result, readers can distance more easily from the reality that a human officer killed a dog and, therefore, the death is minimized. In these examples, the dog–human interactions following the shooting demonstrate a weak or missing relationship between dogs and humans, which limits their opportunity for higher placement on their species hierarchy. In the case of the dog being “collected”, for instance, there is no mention of an owner interceding or caring for the dog after the shooting, despite inferring the owner was home through mention of the home being accessible (e.g., door unlocked) for a citizen to run away from police through the home and into the backyard where the dog was. Consequently, this aligns the owner as dominionistic according to Blouin’s
) typology. While this framing is not necessarily accurate, the decision by the journalist to omit discussion of the relationship between the dog–human dyad positions the owner as not invested in the dog. As Blouin
(2013, p. 286
) posits, “those with dominionistic views often keep their dogs outside. This physical separation provides a symbolic social distance”. This suggests the owner views the dog as an object, rather than a subject. Thus, the owner is positioned as lacking friend-worthiness based on failure to meet socially valued standards of ‘good’ dog owners. Taken together, through incorporating the perspectives of outsiders, such as members of law enforcement, who position, through their word choice, the particular dogs involved as lower on their species hierarchy, and indicate weak friend-worthiness of owners by omitting discussion of care for the animal involved, the friendship is perceived as weak; this gives readers less investment in the shooting of the dog.
Ultimately, the dog–human interactions, or lack thereof, provided within articles had strong impact on the understanding of a police shooting of a given dog as more or less “right”. In cases involving strong dog–human relationships wherein dogs held great social value to their caretakers, which resulted in various humanized social rituals, their shootings could be seen as more problematic. Yet, in opposition, when the dog–human interactions described by journalists involved no humanized social rituals, dogs were dehumanized through incorporation of seemingly inhumane language that positioned dogs as undeserving and unworthy of such practices. Ultimately, the inclusion by journalists of whether and how dogs took part in human social rituals indicates the social value of both dog and human, and speaks to the suitability of any given dog–human relationship when present.
4.3. Inclusion of Social Roles, Status Position, and Performance of Ownership
When applicable, articles included specific social roles and status positions dogs and/or dog caretakers held within broader society. For example, articles noted when dogs served as therapy dogs to significantly vulnerable human populations (e.g., children, elderly, and individuals in hospice) and those who had passed their Canine Good Citizen certification to become therapy dogs, those registered as companion dogs, and those holding positions as police K9s. While the aforementioned social roles are formally acknowledged through public social structures and organizations, articles also noted informal—yet socially valued—roles dogs held, such as when they served as the protector of their caretakers and families and when their caretakers viewed them as ‘family members’. Below are examples of the inclusion of these types of valued social roles:
“‘The dog was my granddaughter’s playmate.’” (Miller 2011
“‘The dog was like a son to me and my girls,’ she told an officer at the animal hospital.” (Valentine 2011
“She said Jackson Smore is a registered companion dog to her husband, Rick Rodecap, 56, who is disabled, and that his personal care attendant had let the dog out the back door to relieve itself around 1:30 a.m. Friday.” (Anderson 2014
“Dutchess, a 2-year-old rescue dog belonging to a family in Florida City, Fla.” (Robinson 2015
While, articles also included valued social roles of caretakers, such as noting when they were parents, when they owned their home, their occupation, and if they were animal rescuers (their dog was a rescue versus breeder-purchased dog), human social roles were implicated through mention of a dog’s social role as well. For example, when a companion animal is required by a human, it indicates the dog caretaker has an unmet need based on mental, emotional, or physical health status. Similarly, in cases when a dog has a Canine Good Citizen certification or is a therapy dog, it indicates that the dog’s caretaker is ensuring the dog meets their natural and full potential (pointing to a protectionistic orientation (Blouin 2013
)) and, thereby, provides the owner with positive status as a pet guardian. This positively valued form of human caretaking is also seen through the way humans performed the roles associated with their statuses as ‘pet owners’ and the responses they had following the shooting of their dog(s). Importantly, the ways dog caretakers were able to perform their social roles related strongly to their economic status positions. Below is a variety of excerpts demonstrating positively valued performances of ownership.
“Vachon, who lives in one of the apartments, was at work at the time of the shooting but came home afterward. Vachon sat weeping in the back of a sport utility vehicle hours after the shooting as she caressed a yellow sheet that shrouded her dog’s lifeless body.” (Sullivan 2012
“Saathoff said he and his wife have consulted with Springfield attorney Stephen Hedinger about what happened to their pet.” (Schenk 2013a
“Luu said she was told by a Police Department supervisor that the surgery exceeded the value of the dog, and suggested she just get a new pet. […] ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about the love.’ Unable to afford the surgery themselves, the family elected to have the dog put down, Luu said. ‘It’s sad’.” (Day 2013
“Brown and Hornberger spoke of the incident and are sad about the loss of their female pit bull named Princess and the injuries to the other female dog named Bella. Both were acquired as rescue dogs and were about 2 to 3 years old, spayed and microchipped. […] Hornberger was visibly upset in describing what happened and shed tears about the loss of Princess and the injuries to Bella.” (Usalis 2014
“A Facebook group he started called “Justice for Arzy” was quickly accumulating posts of support on Wednesday afternoon. According to Carpenter, protesters also are planning to picket the Sulphur Police Department on Saturday.” (Curtis 2014
All of the above examples demonstrate the ways caretakers of dogs were able to perform in their statuses as ‘dog owners’ by carrying out various social roles. In some instances, this is demonstrated through exhibiting responsibility, such as having the dog microchipped and spayed, while in other cases, this was shown through the emotional and practical responses following the shooting incidents. While all of the humans described above demonstrate highly and positively valued statuses because they met societal expectations for the roles they fulfilled, these descriptions also, however, reify the positions the caretakers hold within the existent human hierarchy that is largely built around one’s economic and social capital. Specifically, the mention of the type of vehicle owned by Vechon, that the Saathoffs could afford to seek counsel from an attorney, and that Brown and Hornberger were able to pay to spay and microchip multiple dogs while the Luu family, for instance, ultimately had to euthanize their dog because they could not afford to pay for the necessary life-saving surgery, affects the performance of ownership and therefore, the understanding readers come to hold about not only the dogs’ and dog caretakers’ friend-worthiness, but also the suitability of their relationship. The framing of the relationship positions it as meeting or not the standard of mutual benefit (Payne et al. 2015
) required for conceptualization as a successful dyad and, therefore, friendship. As a result of the friend-worthiness and/or friendship status within the journalist’s framing of an incident, the shooting incident is implicated as more or less acceptable or deserving of public concern.
Contrasting the incorporation of recognized, highly valued social roles and status position recognized as highly socially valued into articles, there were also instances when particular roles and statuses pointed more clearly to low social value and status of either the dog or dog caretaker within their given species hierarchy. While this was present in conjunction with descriptions of dogs that largely drew on identifying the type of call to which police were responding (e.g., public nuisance), it was more often the case that articles included low-value dog caretaker social roles and statuses (e.g., felon, suspect, homeless, elderly). In addition, the performance of ownership included within articles also lowered one’s placement within the human hierarchy. Below are excerpts demonstrating failures at human performance of animal ownership.
“the new charges against Zimmerman will include a failure to license the dogs, letting them run unrestrained in public and failing to have them vaccinated against rabies.” (Malawsky and Thompson 2011
“After Syncere was wounded, Bogansky didn’t want to put the dog in her car [because the dog was bleeding]. So police drove the dog to the animal shelter, where it died while police tried to arrange veterinary care.” (Jackson 2012
These two examples position the owners as irresponsible (e.g., not licensing and keeping dogs up-to-date on vaccinations), pretentious (e.g., caring more for an inanimate object, such as ones car, than one’s still living, although bleeding, dog) and, ultimately, as uncaring for their animals. In line with Blouin’s
) dominionistic orientation, the owners fail to meet Brickel’s
) standard of love and care toward the animal. This results in a weak performance of ownership and suggests that the dog caretakers were undeserving of their dog companions and, therefore, were not friend-worthy themselves. This type of unmatched friendship influences the way readers understand the relationship between the dog and human—suggesting lack of an actual friendship—and may, then, also affect their perspective of the police shooting the dog.
Ultimately, as with the authors’ previous discussions, these social roles also worked most effectively when collaboratively positioned to establish whether the partnership between dog and dog caretaker was matched in social value. This was exemplified in a case describing the shooting of a 2-year-old female pit bull named Cindy and the relationship she had to her human caretaker Adam Arroyo: “It was just me and her,” Arroyo said of Cindy, a rescue dog he adopted upon his return from combat duty in Iraq. “I would do anything to have her back” (Fairbanks 2015
). Taken together, this duo have equal social value as Arroyo increases Cindy’s social value given her status in his life and his claim of interdependence with her, as well as his social value through the roles of serving as active duty military and one who cares for rescue dogs. As is seen in the case of Cindy and Arroyo, based on the roles mentioned within articles, dogs and human caretakers are awarded more or less social status, particularly with relationship to the incident involving a police officer shooting a given dog. As a result, this positions the dyad as meeting qualities of friendship.
Scripting the Hierarchy
While some articles included the social roles, status positions, and descriptions of ways dog caretakers performed their ownership responsibilities, others drew direct comparisons within one or both of the species as a way of further scripting the dog–human hierarchy. In articles that included this type of comparative work, journalists frequently incorporated quotations of parties involved within the incidents, such as the dog caretakers, law enforcement representatives and, at times, government officials. The decision-making power of journalists in determining whose voices are heard and in what ways they represent those voices is especially poignant when examining the construction and reification of hierarchies. Take, for instance, the case of 6-year-old Basset hound/beagle mix, Willy Pete, and his 32-year-old owner, Ginger Sweat, a wife and mother to two toddlers. The article describing the incident states:
She was putting one of the children down for a nap about 1 p.m. when she glanced out the window and saw eight officers in tactical gear coming out of the woods near her home. One had a barking police dog on a leash, she said. That piqued the interest of her dog, who had been lying on the porch that afternoon. Her 6-year-old Basset hound/beagle mix, Willy Pete, left the porch and made his way toward the troopers. The dog, she said, suffered from arthritis in his back legs and was not aggressive. Her other dog went into the house. Sweat said she was still inside when she saw the trooper raise a weapon at her dog. ‘I ran out my door, jumping up and down screaming don’t shoot my dog, he won’t bite, just let me get him in the house,’ she said. She said the officer fired one shot toward the dog but missed. She said Willy Pete turned tail and was running back toward her. ‘He ran towards me with desperation in his eyes,’ she said. ‘They fired again in my direction. In the direction of my home where my kids were.’ She said three more shots were fired, a total of four shots. Willy Pete, she said, was hit three times. The dog went to the back of the mobile home. Sweat said she found the dog near the air conditioning unit. ‘I watched my dog struggle and then die,’ she said. ‘I collapsed in a puddle in the floor, screaming and crying. ‘I watched that dog born and I watched him die.’ She said the troopers came to her home and one of the officers told her “Ma’am we’re dog people, too, but we couldn’t let them fight, she recalled him saying. ‘He said, I’m sorry. Where’s your shovel, I’ll bury him.’ She said her dog wasn’t vicious and that she wouldn’t have allowed a vicious dog around her children.
There are a number of characteristics included within the coverage of this incident, by both the journalist and the dog caretaker, that affect the social value, hierarchical placement, and, ultimately, friend-worthiness of both the dog and the human within this dyad. First, Sweat is identified as a mother—a socially valued role in society. Not only this, but her concern for the safety of her children positions her as a ‘good mother’. Additionally, in her recounting of the incident, she stated that Willy Pete “ran towards me with desperation in his eyes”. This suggests that Willy Pete found benefit in his relationship with Sweat through his view of her as a source of protection when he faced danger. Sweat also noted her emotional behavior following the incident and introduced the length of the relationship she had with Willy Pete through mentioning she had witnessed his birth. These characteristics all position Sweat as friend-worthy. In comparison to the clear ways in which the journalist’s decision-making and owner’s framing positions Sweat, the description of Willy Pete includes differential framing dependent on whose voice is heard. For instance, the journalist includes the dog’s name, age, breed (stereotypically known to meet Brickel’s
) description of animal qualities allowing for dog–human bonding), and health status. Additionally, Sweat identifies Willy Pete as unaggressive, retreating when fearful, and as family-friendly.
In comparison, the journalist presents the juxtaposition of the K9 officer and Willy Pete—pointing to the presence of the intraspecies hierarchy. In Sweat’s recounting of the officer explanation for the shooting it is implied that the dogs were fighting and that Willy Pete was perceived to have initiated the fight—thus contrasting Sweat’s description of the dog as unaggressive. Through inclusion of the officer’s interaction with Sweat, a second dog–human dyad, that of K9 officer and human officer, is introduced. This dyad is socially recognized as a ‘partnership’, and the officer’s choice to shoot Willy Pete, rather than his own dog who was also involved in the fight, points not only to the ways the K9 officer is more highly valued than Willy Pete, but also speaks to the loyalty of the officer to his K9 companion, which positions him as being friend-worthy. The presence of the roles and statuses of both Sweat and Willy Pete, as well as the ownership qualities of Sweat, demonstrate the ways articles effectively represented the friend-worthiness of both dogs and humans within the dog–human dyad. Through comparison to another dog–human dyad, this article speaks to the presence of an interspecies hierarchy built upon both the friend-worthiness of each entity within a dyad, but also the presence of a friendship, too. With much to unpack in this story concerning the dog and human hierarchies and friendships, it is also worth questioning why the type of home (e.g., mobile home) was called to the reader’s attention; the relationship between social class and police surveillance, while not the direct focus in the analysis here, nonetheless, is an important and relevant facet. Ultimately, the story of Willy Pete likely leaves the reader feeling upset about the shooting. Due to the rich narrative of the social actors involved in the scene, the journalist has helped to paint a picture of an individualized friend-worthy companion dog, cared for by a friend-worthy mother and pet caretaker, and juxtaposed against a working dog and human partner. Albeit perhaps unknowingly, this writer helps to create and maintain multiple species hierarchies.
In another example, the voice of a dog caretaker who initiated a social justice campaign after the shooting of his dog offers a counterargument to framing by law enforcement of the incident. The caretaker contended that law enforcement shot his dog because “‘[The officer] thought I was just a train-hopping punk, and he could shoot my dog and get away with it,’ Carpenter said. ‘You messed with the wrong traveler’” (Curtis 2014
). Here, the dog caretaker draws on the existing human social hierarchy in their decision-making of shooting his dog. The caretaker rejects his assumed placement on this hierarchy, engaging in tertiary deviance (Kitsuse 1980
), and works to establish himself as higher on the human hierarchy by reframing the presumed label (i.e., “train-hopping punk”) given by law enforcement to a more socially acceptable label (i.e., traveler). He also engages in a socially valued performance of ownership to the shooting of his dog (i.e., a social justice campaign claiming the dog was unjustly shot).
While the above passage employed the language of the dog caretaker directly, whom often positioned themselves as falling into Blouin’s
) humanistic or protectionistic orientations, numerous articles involved the perspectives of law enforcement. These articles created a different view of dog caretakers by emphasizing low and heavily stigmatized positions on the human hierarchy. See, for example, the below passages:
“‘But if you’re looking for a felon, you may be kicking the door in and have no time to restrain the dog,’ [the police department representative] said. ‘Every situation is different’”. (Laker and DeHuff 2015
“Pat Camden, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, said he has no quarrel with officers receiving extra training but believes that dog owners need to do a better job of controlling their pets and making sure they’re on a leash.” (Trice and Gorner 2013
In the first of these excerpts, use of the term felon highlights the status of the dog caretaker within the human hierarchy and is used as a justification for not having concern of any dogs who may be in the home. In the second example, the spokesperson for the police attempts to place onus for the shooting of dogs on the dog caretakers, rather than on the police who respond to incidents. The shared perspective within these passages and similar articles to these is their clear indication of the humans holding lower positions on the social hierarchy of humans and as embodying failure in meeting friend-worthy traits. Specifically, law enforcement departments draw on their own socially valued roles and statuses within communities to emphasize the lower placement of other populations (e.g., felons and dog caretakers who are not police officers).
In comparison to the above perspective, some articles incorporated counter claims wherein individuals worked to negotiate or resist the claims by law enforcement about the social status of dog caretakers on the human hierarchy. For example, Colorado congressional representative, David Balmer, himself a dog caretaker said, “‘Landscaping companies, delivery companies—they deal with dogs all the time, and they don’t shoot dogs’” (Bartels 2013
). This quote by Balmer suggests that while law enforcement, which is equipped with weapons, such as guns, cannot seemingly interact with dogs without shooting them; other individuals, often with lesser positioned occupational statuses on the human hierarchy, interact with dogs much more frequently and without the use of any injury or death-inducing weapons. Ultimately, this challenges the assumed placement of police officers, and law enforcement more broadly, as high on the hierarchy.
The above speak to the ways journalists constructed and reinforced the human hierarchy within articles. Below, we point to the ways journalists also elaborated on the dog species hierarchy.
“Blue pit bulls are generally the same size as standard pit bulls but are considered rare because of their grayish blue coloration. Cage was 85 pounds and slightly taller than the standard pit bull. He was considered to have a “purple ribbon” bloodline that can be traced back 14 generations of breeding, Law said”. (Avant 2013
“On Nov. 17, about 5:30 p.m., a Champaign police officer was called to southwest Champaign where two dogs were fighting. One, a family pet, was on a leash being walked by one of its owners. The other, a stray, was not. […] [The responding officer’s] actions that night resulted in the death of the family pet, a bullet penetrating a nearby apartment, the wounding of the stray, and an offer by the city to pay the family of the dead dog for its loss. […] [The stray] was euthanized at the county’s animal control department about 10 days later because no one claimed it.” (Schenk 2013b
“Officers shot and killed a pit bull that attacked a police dog and arrested six people, including the pit bull’s owner, at a south Livermore apartment complex Tuesday after a shooting into a nearby home, officials said.” (Ivie 2013
Here, the examples work to position the dogs shot by police in high positions on their species hierarchy. In the first passage, Cage, a blue pit bull, is rare and, therefore, special and different from other dogs, especially other pit bulls. This is particularly important given the negative stereotyping the pit bull regularly receives in media and by society more broadly. Likewise, in the second example, a clear comparison is made between the two dogs fighting. One dog was leashed and being walked by its owner, therefore it is cared for and part of a dog–human friendship, while the other dog was identified as a “stray” (i.e., uncoupled from a human) and was unleashed. The use of the dog–human relationship within this excerpt is particularly poignant as a mechanism for reify the dogs’ placements on the species hierarchy. Finally, in the last selection, the distinction between a police dog (also referenced in articles as K9 officer) and a non-police dog (often referenced only by breed, such as in the example) emphasizes the placement of these dogs within their species hierarchy based on social role. Each of these dogs meets one or more of the characteristics outlined by Brickel
) as possessing qualities necessary for creation of a dog–human bond and, therefore, catalyzing a possible categorization of friendship.
The ways articles established and built onto existent species hierarchies and coupled dogs and their caretakers, particularly when both held socially valued status positions, works to demonstrate the inter-species hierarchy the authors contend is present in cases of police shooting incidents of domesticated companion dogs. This inter-species hierarchy relies on the strength of the relationship between a given dog–human pairing, which is ascertained based on the individual and collective social roles, status positions, and performance of ownership of the parties involved within the pairing.