Dogs Don’t Influence Weight Bias

A rare example of when our dogs can’t help us
By Karen B. London PhD, May 2018

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Dogs make us appear more attractive, more desirable, less threatening and more likable. Is there anything they can’t do in terms of making us more appealing? Sadly, there is. Though dogs enhance perceptions of a range of people in many different settings, a recent study found no evidence that they counteract negative attitudes about people who are overweight.

People who are overweight suffer some of the most severe bias in society. Studies have found that children prefer people who are in wheelchairs, have crutches, are missing limbs and those with facial disfigurements to people who are overweight. The extreme pervasiveness of the bias against overweight people reveals a need to develop methods to counteract it. Because dogs positively enhance perceptions of people as diverse as psychotherapists, police officers, and prospective romantic partners, they are an obvious choice as a potential way to counteract the bias against overweight people.

Researchers of the study “Evaluating The Influence  of the Presence of a Dog on Bias toward Individuals  with Overweight and Obesity” studied 314 observers to determine if dogs can counteract the negative views toward people who are overweight. Each person was shown one of three types of photographs of an overweight woman: 1) the woman with a dog next to her, 2) the woman with a plant next to her, and 3) the woman standing alone. The purpose of the photograph with the plant was to explore the possibility that any object would reduce weight bias. There were two different women featured in the photographs but each person in the study only looked at a single photograph. Study subjects were asked a number of questions that have been validated in previous studies. They are reliable ways to measure attitudes towards people who are stigmatized, to determine people’s interest in interacting with such people, and to assess people’s fat phobia.

The results of the study reveal that dogs have no influence on attitudes towards people who are overweight. The presence a dog made no difference in people’s opinions towards the women in the photographs, revealing weight bias to be an especially strong one in our society. (It would be interesting to see if the same holds true about perceptions about overweight men.) The researchers conclude that although dogs have a positive effect on perceptions and attitudes in many cases, weight bias is too strong and pervasive to be influenced by the presence of dogs.

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This study shows that it is important not to assume that the influence of dogs on attitudes towards other people will be true in different situations and with different subjects. Each effect of dogs on our biases and attitudes needs to be studied individually for confirmation that the most common effect—dogs positively affecting attitudes towards others—is true.

In other words, although dogs function as the ultimate accessory, they are unable to act as the perfect slimming black suit. They do not have the social power to counteract the bias that people have toward people who are overweight.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.

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