It is really hard to look back at videos of my training from the 80’s! I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just didn’t know. I was using a lot of aversives, and I wasn’t always fair to my dog. I didn’t recognize when my dog was upset or distressed and I often set her up to fail. It really wasn’t particularly nice or fair to my dog. None the less, from time to time, I go back and watch those videos because at the end of the day, I loved that dog, and I never meant her any harm. I just didn’t know.
Recently someone posted this video to Facebook, and John came across it in his feed. The person posting stated that she thought that this was a fun and funny video. What do you think?
John watched the video and posted that the dog was obviously either in pain or deeply distressed and that this was not funny. If you go into the comments, you will see that the back story on this dog is that he was severely arthritic and his owner would take him to swim in Lake Erie in the summer, but in the winter someone volunteered the use of their indoor pool. Possibly heartwarming, but certainly not funny. The problem is that most people thought the video was funny.
What is it about humans that we see funny in animals that are in distress? I think the problem is simply that we don’t know! We don’t recognize distress and then when it is pointed out to us, we often feel judged and disrespected. This is just what happened when John pointed out that this dog was uncomfortable. He was met with a strong volley of “Well, that is just your opinion” and “you just cannot see the light side of anything!” There was a mismatch between what his educated eye saw and what his friends were seeing in the video. They saw something amusing and John saw something deeply disturbing. Without the backstory, neither side was seeing the whole story, but there is another sad part to the story too.
The other sad pat was simply that John has a lot of education in dog behaviour, and his friends do not. They felt that John’s understanding of what he was seeing was no more valid than their own. There is a popular point of view these days that an uneducated opinion is just as valid as one that comes with years of education and experience. Remember where this blog started; it is hard for me to watch myself training thirty years ago because now that I know better, I can see how badly I did! It can be really hard to forgive myself for the things I did in the name of training that were outright harmful, but if I am honest with myself, I didn’t know. Just like these folks just didn’t know.
So what can we learn from this? I think the very first thing to learn is that we should always be striving to learn more and change what we know with more information. Be humble. It is actually okay to be wrong, because when we know better, we do better. It is okay for me to say “yes, I probably injured my dog by using a choke chain” and “no I wasn’t always fair in my expectations” not because I am okay with having caused harm to my dog but because I know better now, and not only do I do better, but I help others to do better too. The advice to forgive yourself is sound because it allows you to move forward and do better, but if you just wallow in the understanding that you have caused harm, you never get to take joy in the process of progressing; you are always stuck in regret. I know now that joy is a much more productive emotion than regret, especially when it comes to training my dog.
Next, now that you know that many of the videos of dogs that are presented are actually videos of dogs in distress, you can start to speak up and help others to know better too. At the very least, don’t like those videos and don’t share them. I think of liking these videos as vicarious abuse. We may not be actively abusing an animal, but we are contributing to the culture of acceptance of abuse, and it is time that we stop this. Sharing with an educational intention is good, IF you think you can be effective. That is why I have included the links that I have in this blog; so that you can see what I am talking about and you can help others to learn about what a distressed dog might look like.
Here are some links to some videos that I have found that people often think are funny. The first video is one of a dog attacking his foot. What do you think might be wrong with this video? Watch it, and then read below to find out why I don’t think this is funny.
There is a lot to be concerned about in this video. The first thing to recognize is that the dog doesn’t have control over the situation. His hind foot may be twitching or scratching and he does not recognize that as his own foot. The next thing that deeply concerns me is that there are kids and an adult laughing on the laugh track; this situation is dangerous because the dog is actually biting his own foot and if he were to be interrupted or restrained, I would be very concerned that someone could be injured. Not only do I see a dog who is anxious and conflicted and exhibiting a very abnormal behaviour, mom and the kids could be at risk. Just not very funny to me!
How about this one?
The duration of this behaviour alone is concerning! When dogs spend this much time barking and spinning in circles, it is absolutely not a normal behaviour, and yet, I have seen people suggest this is fun or funny. This dog likely has a form of Canine Compulsive Disorder and cannot choose to stop engaging in the behaviour. You can tell he is distressed by the sound of his barking, but also by the rate of his breathing.
Here is a final video of something that a dog is doing that is unusual and that has attracted some online attention. Some folks find this sort of thing very interesting, and some just think it is funny.
This case is one where the dog is exhibiting a very unusual behaviour and that interferes with its ability to engage in normal social activity and self care such as grooming or eating. You can see the dog lip licking which is a behaviour that comes along with internal conflict. The dog is clearly not behaving normally, and expending a lot of energy doing something that is not good for him. It just isn’t funny. If you want to help dogs, laughing at this sort of thing or encouraging others to laugh just isn’t very kind.
I value education. I feel that my many years of experience and education count for a lot, and I think that gives my observations much more weight than simple opinion. According to Wikipedia, an opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive. My observations are founded on the science of ethology or the study of animal behaviour. When I observe a dog slowly blinking and not moving, I know that the dog is either in pain or in distress. My observations are how I make my living. When I have a dog in my classroom that is stuck, and not moving, I know that the dog is in distress and my job is to alleviate that stress. When I see a video like the one of the husky, I can recognize that the dog is in pain. The dog may be in the pool therapeutically, and I can feel good about that once I have the back story, but I can never ever feel good about the distress that I observe the dog experiencing and I know that the dog is experiencing distress because of the education that I have to do my job.
It is important to ask questions. I saw a thread about a year ago that included a comment from a woman lamenting how some sheep were distressed by the herding dog that was moving. Quite innocently, because I know little about sheep, I asked how did she know that the sheep were distressed? I got a complete earful about how this person felt that keeping sheep at all was cruel, and got no information about what she was seeing that made her feel that the sheep were distressed. On both the questioning side and the answering side of the equation, we need to interact respectfully. Instead of starting from the point of defensiveness, if you know how to identify when a dog is in distress share that information, humbly and with a great deal of care. Help the viewers of the behaviours learn to recognize when what they see is an animal in distress.
If you don’t know what a behaviour means, ask that too! Many people from all over the world have reached out to me to ask what a particular behaviour means and I am always happy to either explain what they are seeing or to refer them to a resource that will help them to learn more. If you actually want to know more and do better, you always have to be willing to learn and that means being willing to ask questions and change how you look at things.
I don’t know a single person who is sharing these videos who is actually cruel or who wants to cause harm to the animals that are distressed in these types of videos but as we learn more, we can begin to make the world a better place for our animal friends. The best trainers I know have always encouraged my learning by reminding me that when we know more, we can do better. It is still hard though to watch my own errors from the time when I didn’t know as much.