It’s A Shame

cocker spaniel sitting in a garden facing a wallImagine creating a website where pet owners could commiserate about their sick dogs. They could post pictures of their dogs to share with others who were also dealing with life with a sick dog. Now imagine that people were also sharing advice about illness in dogs (you don’t have to imagine it, just go online) and someone posted in response to an image with the caption “My dog has swollen lymph nodes,” this reply, “Infection can cause a dog’s nodes to swell. Try adding echinacea and golden seal to your dog’s diet for a week. If you don’t see a decrease in the size of the nodes add flax seed oil and try warm compresses.” Now imagine you are a vet reading this and know that there are other reasons a dog may have swollen lymph nodes and that in the case of some diseases waiting even a week before starting treatment can impact whether or not it is successful.

At a recent conference I presented on behavior myths and misinformation and the responsibility of bloggers to make sure they are sharing accurate information about dogs. I gave the example of the site featuring owners’ images of their dogs with placards describing their dog’s transgressions. “I eat socks, I threw up, I shredded mom’s favorite shoes, etc.” Before I continue and come across as a completely humorless, I get the joke. I even find some of the images funny, the dog with what could be called “a shit eating grin” being labeled a “poop eater” pulls a smile from me. But most of the images show dogs looking worried or distressed. It may be that they are afraid of the camera, or their owner chastising them with “what did you do?” that is causing the response. These are not images of dogs who are experiencing guilt or shame because of their actions, they are displaying what are often called “appeasement” behaviors, which in a nutshell could be described as the dog saying, “Please don’t hurt me.” Why anyone would find that funny escapes me, unless they are unaware of what they are seeing.

As luck would have it the creator of this particular website was in my session (and to her credit for choosing to attend) and we also happened to sit next to each other at breakfast the next day. We chatted and she explained that she created the site so that other people who were living with dogs who were naughty could know they were not alone. She defended herself by saying that I had used old images and that she will make suggestions to pet owners, such as telling a pet owner to see a vet if their dog is being shamed for eating chocolate. The site is also being used to find homes for dogs (which I know is suppose to help buff up one’s halo, but it’s not that clear cut for me).

She went on to talk about the dog who was the inspiration for the site, a rescue dog who when left alone was destructive and was a compulsive eater of non-food objects (pica). Her conclusion was that this dog was simply “destructive.” As a dog trainer warning bells went off in my head. The dog might be bored and having a grand time racing around the house and shredding things, or he might be anxious and stressed and performing the same behaviors. Rather than posting images of the dog looking guilty to derive solace from others experiencing similar challenges with their pets, her dog’s behavior should be addressed by a vet or trainer, or both. Gut obstructions would be a serious concern for me.

To perpetuate the misunderstanding that dogs’ brains are sophisticated enough to sort out that chewing a computer cord is appropriate payback for being left home alone all day, is irresponsible. It impacts how people think about their dog’s behavior and subsequently how they respond to that behavior. It may be comforting to know that others are living with dogs who behave inappropriately, but it would be better for the dog if the owner understood that there is an underlying issue that should be addressed for the dog’s emotional or physical well-being. Behavior doesn’t occur for no reason and in the case of our dogs it does not happen out of spite. As sophisticated as their brains are, they’re not that sophisticated. This  does not take away from how amazing dogs and their brains are. Rarely are they ever simply being “bad” for the sake of it.

My goal in pointing this out to the website’s creator was not to “shame” her into changing her ways. The website is hugely popular, a book by a major publishing house is in the works. If our conversation did not encourage her to rethink the premise of her work, at the very least I hope she finds someone to help her out with her dog in between photo shoots.


13 comments so far

  1. Donna Mae on

    I’ve always thought it was stupid for anyone to suggest that their dog was doing something for spite or to get even with them. it’s ridiculous. That is a human trait, not that of an animal.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      You’d be surprised then to hear how often trainers are told exactly that by clients who think the dog is behaving the way they are because they are angry with the owner.

  2. Leslie on

    That breakfast conversation was pretty surreal for those of us ordinary dog owners listening in. I do hope/think the seed was planted.

    I have been called humorless as well for not finding the the site 100% funny. I see some pictures that are amusing but I cannot deny the number of pictures I find disturbing. I hold out hope that the site owner will take the popularity of the site to educate rather than simply entertain.

    It was great to chat with you.

    • Debbie on

      Thanks Leslie. I didn’t want to make her feel bad or defensive. That her vet did not clue in on the pica was unfortunate. Poor dog. Hope your contribution was taken to heart as well.

      Wasn’t it you who shared the hosta info with me? They’re

    • Natasha on

      I have seen “cute” videos of people scolding their dogs… for example a Husky who responds in that “verbal” way Huskies do. Very disturbing.

      • Debbie on

        Surprising that we’ve lived with dogs as long as we have and are as clueless as we are about

  3. Gillian Shippen on

    Oh I couldn’t agree more…..I think with that kind of mind set, when it comes to someone suggesting otherwise and giving proper advice, it actually closes their minds.
    although not dog related but is animal related, My Cat From Hell’s Jackson Galaxy saw a cat once where one half of the owners was utterly convinced the cat vomited out of spite. There was friction because this half did not like the cat because of how the actual owner acquired the cat (petty jealousy, but it seriously affected the relationship between cat and the other half). Jackson first this was to say “you know the cat is not vomiting out of spite don’t you?” ….No, she was adamant this was the reason. Once JG was able to change her perspective and see things from the cats point of view, the whole dynamics of the relationship changed.
    One program I particularly don’t like (other than the obvious dog trainer/rehabilitator) is BAD DOG……the way they place the human interruption to describe just makes me so sad and angry.
    And as far as people that blog and or share information simply because it proves some argument they may have against a disease, vaccinations procedures, or surgical procedures….saying they are presenting the “true facts” is just down right irresponsible.
    If I write any thing that has some medical component to it I make sure it is balanced……..i get so tired of “anti-vet” posts…..yes I am a vet nurse (technician)

    • Debbie on

      Sometimes our own brains get in the way of our thinking.

  4. DogRelations on

    I have not seen this blog you talk about but it sounds very disturbing. As you mentioned there are too many people already who ascribe traits such as “vindictiveness” or “simply destructive” to their dogs.

  5. sarahhosick on

    Yes. Exactly. I have not enjoyed these sorts of images, either, and have been chastised for not having a sense of humour. I currently blog for a certain Facebook app and I wrote a post on 5 Nice Things I Can’t Have Because I Have a Dog. In most articles like this, it is exactly what you see on those websites… dogs having chewed furniture, shoes, broken out of their crate, etc. I wanted to do it in a way that made sense for me, writing about things like fur-free and slobber-free clothing; things that all dog owners deal with, but have nothing to do with the dog suffering from anxiety. What did they do? Post it with a picture of a dog sitting surrounded by the remains of a destroyed couch. I was furious. Luckily (unluckily for me in terms of people clicking through to read the article) many of their FB fans were upset over the use of the image. At least some people have caught on.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Things are changing, but of course never as fast as we’d like!

  6. Anthony on

    I may drive my wife mad with how much i analyze our dogs’ behavior to make sure I’m not missing anything. As our girl, Prudence, suffers separation and other anxieties I’m constantly looking for what triggers them. I’ve never evened jested with the dogs that they may be “bad” when doing something undesirable. I’ve seen the appeasement you are speaking of first hand and change MY behavior as best I can to not illicit again.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      And that’s exactly how those appeasement behaviors are supposed to work! Good for you for noticing.

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