When news of a serious or fatal dog attack surfaces on the websites and pages of the daily papers, the image used alongside the story is often one of the main features of the article. As the reader’s focus is shifted from the details of the incident to the large colour photograph of the dog, the nature of the report is changed from an informative news story to one that strives to evoke feelings of unease and incite hatred towards the breed as a whole. Often the breed is misidentified in the caption, and it is all too easy for journalists to make a mistake with regards to the dog shown, as highlighted in the coverage of the Lexi Branson case when many national and local papers printed photographs of Lexi with a Dogue De Bordeaux, a dog which was not present at the time of the attack. Although it takes seconds to tarnish a breed’s reputation, the media faces no consequences when publishing false information about dogs.
If a photograph of the dog involved in the attack is not available, tabloids will typically use a stock photo of a similar breed in an aggressive stance with its hackles raised and lip curled back into a snarl. It is not understood quite how the inclusion of an image showing a ‘random’ dog can be justified; it can not be for demonstrating the signs of aggression since we all know what an angry dog looks like. If the media really wanted to prevent further occurrences of bites through the use of photography, a simple ‘do’s and don’ts’ when interacting with dogs would be of much better use than a picture of a supposedly vicious beast. In the case of the photographs used in these articles, the camera can indeed lie; it is easy to make a dog appear to be on the verge of launching an attack despite it being of good temperament. The photograph below is commonly used alongside Staffordshire Bull Terrier and Pit Bull type attack stories, yet it is believed that the dog pictured is a family pet and is actually sneezing.
The real reason that so many papers do publish such images is simply to fill space and to echo the message within the story itself: these types of dog are dangerous. Compare any generic ‘dog mauls child’ article to one of a wild animal attack and the contrast, in both language and accompanying photographs, is obvious. A tiger killing a zoo keeper is an example of a tragic and terrifying incident but is one in which the animal involved is not likened to Satan, as in the case of the child-mauling ‘devil dog’. The reason for describing dogs that attack as such is simply because, unlike tigers, we live alongside dogs, and have done for thousands of years. They help the disabled amongst us, they assist with catching dangerous criminals, they are able to find missing persons, and most of all they are a valued companion. When the dog-human relationship goes wrong, and on the rare occasion a person is seriously hurt as a result, there is an element of shock and an uncomfortable feeling that the cuddly pooch we share our sofa with has the potential to cause life-threatening injuries. It is this response that the media utilises when including images of a snarling Staffie.
Dogs can be trained to show aggression on command, and although this is usually restricted to those in police and security work, can also be used in films. Some examples of training wolf-like dogs to show aggression for ‘acting roles’ can be seen in the video clips here and here. It is also possible to make a dog appear to be dangerous without any training; a photograph capturing a split second of a bark (or even a sneeze) can be misleading when accompanied by a sensationalist headline. In the photograph below, taken from this blog post by Mymegaedog, a friendly German Shepherd is barking in anticipation of its owner throwing a ball. The image underneath it shows the same dog just a few seconds later.
It would be overwhelmingly simple for the media to use a similar photograph of a barking dog and include the caption ‘Danger dog terrorises children in park’. Taking the image out of context portrays a different dog altogether to the playful Shepherd waiting to engage in a game of fetch.
Photographs, and indeed theatrical stories on dog attacks as a whole, do not contribute to stamping out irresponsible dog ownership. Instead they play on the ‘vicious weapon’ look, making Staffordshire Bull Terriers and similar breeds the ideal choice for those in search of a ‘status dog’ and diminishing the chances of a responsible family adopting one. The image is a shock tactic that the media relies on to support the content of their story in the majority of dog attack reports, which somewhat undermines the eyewitness accounts that are surely harrowing enough and do not require a stock photo to demonstrate the severity of an incident. It is unfortunate that such dubious and often inaccurate images are favoured over any photograph showing a friendly-natured example of the breed, which would weaken the story, but also show the dog that the reader is more likely to meet.