The language we use is important because it is the lens through which potential adopters see the pets in our care. In an effort to keep communications brief, we may use as few words as possible when describing pets, but everything these subtle changes communicate to the wider world may not be obvious to us. Could something as simple as one or two words be hindering our fostering and adoption efforts?
Think of the term “behavior dog.” What does it imply? When you hear it, what are your assumptions? Is it clear whether this condition is permanent or not? In fact, a dog who guards his kibble in a shelter may not do this at all in a home, and a behavior that is problematic for one adopter may not be an issue for another.
“Terms like ‘behavior dog’ or ‘ringworm cat’ don’t tell the potential adopter much at all, and instead feed into potential stereotypes or fears they may have about pet adoption,” says Caitlin Quinn, Director of Operations for HeARTsSpeak. “How often have we heard, and been frustrated by, the perception that all shelter or rescue pets are damaged, behaviorally difficult, injured or ill? We have more power in changing those misconceptions than we think. We have the opportunity to show that these pets are so much more than that, and have wide-ranging personalities and needs when we break away from dated language. What makes that cat purr most? What is their personality when meeting a new person? What positive traits does that dog have and how can we support both person and pet in overcoming the specific behavior they are experiencing in the shelter?”
In the human services area, using person-centered language is recommended. It prioritizes the individual instead of a characteristic that may make up only part of their identity and/or experience. The change in language is more respectful and less stigmatizing. “We can apply the same concepts of person-centered language to pets and how we market them by taking an individual-first approach,” says Quinn.
How can we do this?
- Mention the pet first. Focus on the pet as an individual, not their disability, condition or behavior. For example, “a dog who is recovering from distemper,” instead of, “a distemper dog,” or “a cat who is fearful,” instead of, “a flight risk.”
- Use strength-based language. Emphasize a pet’s strengths and abilities instead of their challenges or conditions. Instead of “a wheelchair cat” use “a cat who uses a wheelchair.”
- Define your terms and give detail when needed. Not everyone knows that ringworm is not actually a worm, but a fungus similar to athlete’s foot, or that pets can behave differently in shelters due to stress than they might in a home. Explaining terms and conditions that potential adopters may not be familiar with can help them to empathize and understand.
“Rather than falling into the traps of breed stereotypes or making assumptions about a pet’s future based on what has happened to them, we can describe them in ways that fit their particular personality and known behaviors,” says Quinn. “This ultimately helps us make better matches and meet each animals’ needs because we’re focused on who they are first and not on lumping them into a stereotypical group or type.”