Linguist George Lakoff rose to national prominence during the 2004 presidential campaign for pointing out that conservatives have done a much better job than progressives at framing political debate, and for encouraging the left to stop shooting itself in the foot with the words it uses. While no doubt the good professor would be surprised to hear it, his ideas also shed some light on a very canine subject: the war of words being waged over raw diets for dogs.
Pro-raw feeding extremists tend to be bombastic and refuse to admit any variation among individual animals, nor the needs, wants or desires of the owners of these animals as regards diet. Any problem can be solved by diet, and if problems persist after switching to a raw diet, then the diet needs to be further refined and tweaked. They tend to be anti-veterinarian, anti-commercial foods, anti-cooked food, anti-grain and often anti-supplement.
If your dog fell down the stairs and sprained his shoulder, diet caused it and a diet change will fix it. Raw meaty bones are the universal prescription.
Anti-raw feeding extremists tend to be bombastic and refuse to admit any possible benefits of a raw or homemade diet. They lump all homemade diets together as unbalanced and dangerous. All raw meat, from contaminated ground meats labeled unfit for human consumption to a $19-a-pound grass-fed steak, are considered equally dangerous. Commercial diets are above reproach, formulated by scientists who are completely removed from any marketing, pricing or competitive realities. Health comes in a sack labeled “Complete and Balanced,” and dogs fed raw meat and bones are doomed to have their skeletons dissolve and their intestines turn to bloody jelly, shortly after which they will all die long, painful deaths from parasite infestations.
If your dog is hit by a car, and needs surgery, the accident was caused by diet and putting the dog on kibble will fix it. Commercial diets are the universal prescription.
Forgotten on the sidelines is everyone else—those who feed a little “people food” to their pets but feel bad about it; those who wouldn’t dream of supplementing their dog’s “complete and balanced” commercial diet with anything beyond the occasional complete and balanced Milk Bone; those who regularly feed pizza, Big Macs and French fries to their dogs and can’t remember the last time they bought dog food for the dog or ate a salad themselves; those who use a wide variety of fresh foods with premium kibble; and those who feed an entirely homemade diet but aren’t “pure” enough to satisfy the raw-food extremists. And most importantly, there are the seekers—the legions of dog owners flooding the email lists and message boards trying to figure out how to feed their pets better; wanting to understand what “the raw diet” is, exactly; looking for hints on switching their pets; or trying to find out if changing to a better commercial diet or completely to homemade will help a pet with a health problem.
These folks are met with a hailstorm of advice, most peppered with acronyms that make no sense to them. Some people suggest books they can read, while others warn them to forget the books and listen to their common sense and/or Mother Nature and/or evolution. Feed bones, don’t feed bones, don’t feed raw, you are killing your dog by feeding him kibble, keep feeding kibble until you’re ready to feed raw responsibly, and above all, don’t commit heresy. (“Heresy” would be advocating Billinghurst to a crowd of Lonsdaleians—and if you don’t know what I mean, be thankful and move on.)
I have fed raw diets to my dogs for 20 years, and spent much of that time in the crossfire of this debate, criticized as “not holistic enough” by the raw-feeding extremists, and as a “wild-eyed fanatic” by the commercial foods camp. Although I’m always happy to share my experiences and ideas about canine nutrition, I don’t shove my way down anyone’s throat. I usually recommend several books representing a number of approaches to canine nutrition, and suggest that people experiment and see what they like best and what works well for their pets. To me it makes sense, but there’s a problem with that seemingly reasonable approach.
David Brock, in The Republican Noise Machine, points out that television news shows often bring on a conservative guest to represent one side of an issue, and then “balance” that with a supposedly “liberal” guest from the world of journalism or academia. The journalist or professor takes each issue separately, looks at it from all sides, and expresses her viewpoint in a way she perceives as objective. The conservative guest will relentlessly and often powerfully deliver the message d’jour of the conservative movement, while the supposedly liberal guest appears weak and uncommitted, exemplifying the famous quote by Robert Frost, “A liberal man is too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”
At some point in the raw diet debates, what I see as my broad-mindedness and objectivity come across as an unwillingness to take a stand, a loathsome form of wishy-washiness. It’s frustrating, because I’m allergic to gurus and would rather people make their own decisions than adopt mine, even if their decision is, in my view, the wrong one. So, what to do?
Those on both sides could learn a thing or two about framing the debate from Lakoff. We need to use terms that will be helpful to the seekers, those swing voters of the dog food wars, and stop using language that triggers fear. Extremists arguing either way, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unconsciously, use fear to get people to do what they think they should do, and the only ethical course is to stop. Stop telling them they are killing their dogs.
Millions of dogs live long, relatively healthy lives eating kibble. It’s just a fact. Their health may not be as good as it could have been, and many of them would have been healthier on a better diet, but a blunt statement that “kibble kills dogs” is going to ring false to nearly everyone who hears it. Just the same, anti-raw fanatics can’t tell me that “raw meat kills pets” when I’ve had so many cats and dogs live long, healthy lives—longer in the case of my Deerhounds then their kibble-fed littermates raised by other people—on raw diets.
Those of us who advocate home-prepared diets need to stop implying that diets based on bones are the only alternative to kibble. Lead people by the hand through easy stages. You can jump from generic grocery store kibble to whole prey carcass in one step, but hardly anyone does, or will. Many of us started out slowly, adding fresh foods to commercial foods, improving the commercial foods we used or switching to cooked homemade diets, before we started really experimenting with diets based on carcasses and bones and hunks of meat.
The process does matter, because it’s by going through their own process at their own pace that people become invested in preparing their dog’s food themselves. It’s a way for them to build confidence in their ability to feed their pet, and to find ways to make it work with their lifestyle and financial constraints. If they are by nature someone who goes whole hog with new ideas, there is nothing wrong with making the big leap—but there is also nothing wrong with crawling before you walk and walking before you run. Be gentle.
We also need to take a long, hard look at the words we use. We can use terms like “nutritious home-prepared diets” instead of “the raw diet.” (Since there is no monolithic “raw diet,” such a phrase is meaningless anyway.) We can use terms like “fresh,” “variety” and “wholesome” to talk about the kind of diets we advocate. We can defuse 90 percent of the criticism of raw and/or homemade diets by simply changing our terms. Specifying the diet be nutritious and wholesome somewhat inoculates the seeker from being told they are feeding an unbalanced or contaminated diet.
Of course, in the end, the pro-raw and anti-raw dog owners will not agree, any more than conservatives and progressives do. Still, before you enlist in the “Red Dog/Blue Dog” wars, consider the power of a few well-chosen words, and at least raise the level of the debate—good advice in politics as well as dog food.
Illustration by Cary Soockocheff