Monday, August 1, 2011

Re-Branding a Pit Bull

Hello Everyone,
This month's post concerns the importance of sticking to who you are long enough to change perceptions.  I've been reading a lot about "The Lost Generation" - these twenty-somethings who are emerging from college with staggering debts and virtually no job prospects.  Just today the top headline on the Huffington Post was about the increasing number of educated young women who are turning to online sites that hook them up with "Sugar Daddies" who will pay their bills in exchange for "physical access" to the women.

Moral judgments aside, I was struck by the dilemma these women face; the tough personal choice to offer yourself up to a stranger for money in exchange for your Sallie Mae monthly note being paid.

So I decided to post the chapter in my upcoming book about sticking to your principles and the courage to go after what you feel is right (and true to yourself) in the face of societal pressure and perceptions.  I suppose this could be interpreted two ways: (1) the courage to resist a "sugar daddy/sugar baby" relationship when the alternative is debt default or living on Ramen Noodles, or (2) the courage to enter a "sugar daddy/sugar baby" relationship as an Ivy-League grad (yes, over 100 women from Harvard are registered) despite the fact that 99% of society considers the arrangement thinly-veiled prostitution.

So without further ado, let's take a look at one of the toughest "brands" to manage: that of the Pit Bull.

this?  or...

(excerpted from Get the Cookie, Paco! Lessons in Everyday Leadership from My Dogs)

Courage to be who you are long enough to change perceptions

Part of being a leader is having the courage to be who you are long enough to change people’s perceptions.  We all have different skills and different strengths to offer, but often there is an immense pressure to conform to some concept of ‘normal.’  The problem with caving to this pressure and trying to just fit in is that you don’t stand out, by definition.  If you spend all your time trying to conform to what you think is normal, then you will be actively working against being a leader, as you will just blend in with the crowd.  You’ll be just another ‘normal’ person.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, but we’re after excellence and improvement, not merely status quo.

In the first weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Michaele and I evacuated with her family to a friend’s ranch outside of Houston.  We had only been dating for a few weeks at this point, and here I was living under the same roof as her whole family.  Michaele’s mom, Kathy, had adopted Paco and Pancho from that same ranch about six months earlier.  She is a dog lover from way back.  However, at this point she wasn’t so sure about poor Zeke.  He’s officially a mutt- an inner-city pound dog.  But he looks like a Pit Bull[1].  Somewhere back there he has some strong heritage.  This in itself is not surprising as pit-mixes make up the majority of pound dogs in the New Orleans area.  

Kathy heard from Michaele that I had a ‘Pit Bull,’ and was concerned to be sharing a house with this beast (the fact that one of our first dates was on my motorcycle probably didn’t help Zeke’s and my reputation).  She had not really spent too much time with him—only a quick introduction—so she was a bit suspicious.  Unfortunately, Staffordshire Terriers and Pit Bulls have been unduly demonized in the press, and most people accept the stereotype without a second thought.  I too was guilty of this before I adopted Zeke.  Kathy, like so many people, didn’t know that the breed was actually considered a ‘nanny dog’ in frontier times as it protected the kids against wild animals.

Zeke had his work cut out for him.  He was accused of being a threat before he walked in the door.  Yet I wasn’t worried.  I knew Zeke to be a big goofy marshmallow of a dog who loves everybody, and I was interested to see how this would unfold.  Zeke, of course, was just himself.  

We arrived late at night in Houston, the trip lasting a grueling eighteen hours instead of the typical six by car.  The next morning Zeke went about his normal goofy routine, making the rounds to get his back scratched.  He stopped to put his bowling-ball head in Kathy’s lap and turned on the charm.  He looked up at her with soft round eyes and wagged his tail.  This earned him a smile and a polite pat on the head.  By noon she was beginning to think that maybe he wasn’t so scary after all.  In the evening she was wondering why this breed had such a horrible reputation.  And come bed time, she shocked us all by insisting that Zeke come and sleep on the bed with her.  

Zeke won her over just by continuing to be himself.  There was no need for him to be anything else to change her opinion and make her question her original bias against him.  To this day he continues to display all of the positive qualities that this breed is known for (by those who take the time to actually get to know one): he’s a big, roly-poly clown with a simple and bright outlook on life who loves everyone.  Often we joke that we should have named him Ferdinand, after the bull in the children’s book of the same name.  Ferdinand was bred to be a fighting bull, but instead he preferred to sit under a shady tree sniffing flowers.  Zeke is Ferdinand, choosing to sniff or quietly munch on the plants at the park rather than wrestle around with other dogs or live up to some ridiculous media image of a ‘Pit Bull.’ 

In San Francisco there is an organization called B.A.D. R.A.P., an acronym for Bay Area Dog owners Responsible About Pit Bulls.  It operates a rescue center for abused Pit Bulls where the dogs are rehabilitated, temperament tested, and put into loving homes.  Unfortunately, some animals have been abused so horribly that they can no longer safely be around people or other dogs.  Their previous owners—the true monsters—broke their spirit and personality.  But the best dogs, the ones whose true loving and clownish personalities stand out despite a history of abuse, are designated “Ambassadors of the Breed.”  They represent the true qualities of the breed to the public and counteract biased perceptions.  Of course there are certainly animals of this breed that have been turned vicious by their owners, but as a breed they are consistently some of the best-temperamented dogs.  According to the American Temperament Test Society (, American Pit Bulls have an 86% pass rate on their standard temperament test, which is higher than most dogs, including Beagles, Basset Hounds, Chihuahuas, and Golden Retrievers!  

Most recently, the media coverage of the fate of Michael Vick’s dogs has helped change many people’s opinions about this breed.  They see that even in the worst of situations, most of these dogs can be brought back with love and care.  They can be rehabilitated and showcase their true warm selves.  Unfortunately, there is a set bias against the breed.  On a recent trip to the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, Michaele and I happened upon an exhibit detailing the H. Nelson Jackson’s completion of the first transcontinental automobile trip[2].  We were delighted to see that his companion (and marketing mascot) was a dog named Bud, clearly identifiable from original pictures and a plaster reproduction as a Pit Bull.  However, the museum sign indicated he was a Bull Dog.  Now there’s a big difference between a Bull Dog and a Pit Bull[3].  It angered and saddened us to think that even the venerable Smithsonian seemed to have a bias against the breed.  Was someone concerned about a public backlash if this faithful and famous dog was actually identified correctly as a Pit Bull?  Would mothers cover their children’s eyes with a protective hand, fearful their progeny might actually see a Pit Bull cast in a positive light?[4]  

The point is that generally “public opinion” is wrong.  So why spend so much time, energy, and worry, trying to conform to what “public opinion” thinks you should be doing with yourself, and how you should be doing it?  

Recently I saw a handwritten sign posted behind the counter at a coffee shop.  It said “In a world where you can be anything you want, why not be yourself?”  This is a lesson that true leaders know well, and live every day.  They have the courage to be themselves, and to believe in themselves.  They spend less time worrying about how they might stack up against conventional views and more time doing what they feel is right.  Eventually, when you are true to yourself and your interests, those who doubted you or were biased against you should come around.  And those who don’t would probably never have been satisfied anyway, so why worry about them?

Be real, be authentic, be enthusiastic about what you believe is right.  Temper this with humility.  Your drive, coupled with the reactions and responses of others, helps to shape who you are.  Be grateful to others for their feedback, because it makes you grow.  But don’t always assume they are right.

Don’t put too much stock in opinions of what others expect you to be.  Have the courage to be yourself and work towards what you believe in.  If Zeke could change Kathy’s opinion of him from dangerous dog to snuggly bed buddy in twelve hours, chances are pretty good that you can change people’s perceptions too.

[1] Every vet we’ve ever used—over six—has classified him as a mutt.
[3] Go ahead and Google images of both.  I’ll wait.
[4] Of course, there’s always the possibility that the museum just made an innocent mistake, but that seems unlikely.