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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Viewing 'cute' videos of pets through an anthropomorphic lens is a dangerous prospect

Social media is great, though I have to say at times, I find it a little frustrating. No, it's not due to the current political climate, though that could be enough. People love to share things on social media, especially things that are funny or cute, at least things that they think are so.

Several posts per day on Facebook and other platforms contain 'smiling' dogs or those looking 'guilty'. Many seem to demonstrate family dogs 'nannying' the new baby in the house, while others are caught on video pulling off their best Houdini impersonation as they willfully escape their well-secured wire crate. 

When you work with animals, and have a decent working knowledge of animal behavior and health, you see the world through a very different lens than other people do. And when it comes to interpreting what a dog or cat or other creature is doing behaviorally that's very much the case. I do realize that because a video seems fun and happy to others, they feel compelled to share with me. The sentiment is appreciated, but the visuals that I see make me sad.

That dog that's smiling? They're often either very uncomfortable or fearful and demonstrating calming signals—signals to other party that they'd like the current interaction to cease. And as for dogs and guilt, that look that they're offering up isn't one of feeling remorse or an apology, it's a simple learned association based on classical conditioning, whether it be punishment or other exchange that makes the dog uneasy, and yes, yet another signal that they're uncomfortable and communicating that they'd like the interaction to stop. In other words, the dog is displaying appeasement: behaviors that actively or passively, depending on how far the situation had escalated, convey anything from I'm uncomfortable to, this is my limit.

And if a dog is craftily, frantically breaking out of their wire crate, it's not funny, nor is it demonstrative of their intelligence. It's fear—and a clear signal that they can't cope with being confined in that way, and shouldn't be.  

It seems important to mention that those dogs who are seen with the littlest of human housemates to be 'guarding' or displaying other human behaviors or emotions often are very uncomfortable with what is going on and giving clear signals that they need personal space, or want the noise, hugging, tail pulling or otherwise offensive interaction to stop. This is true for families with newborns as well; the wriggling, noisy, tiny human can pose a serious source of feeling overwhelmed for a pet. 

Children are even less able than grown ups to cue in to the calming signals, the demonstrations of fear and other examples of non-verbal communication, and they're the most impressionable and I might add, equally vulnerable as the pets in situations where the animal feels like they've no way to navigate out of them. It's our responsibility as adults, as advocates for both parties, to keep them safe.

This trend of putting our own personal stamp on the way that we think that an animal responds to a situation is well-cultivated thanks to the ease of sharing on social media platforms. Sadly, and it's nothing short of anthropomorphizing at its most vigorous. Interestingly enough it's in sharp contrast to the strides that have been made in understanding animal behavior, which in my view illustrates how much work needs to be done to bring better understanding to the masses. That's not to say that healthy efforts aren't being made. One counter to the misinformation, Occam's Rover—which was created by Jesse Miller, current editor of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAAABC) journal—deconstructs and explains the seemingly harmless videos that are enthusiastically posted on Facebook, Twitter and other places. For less-trained eyes, it helps the rose colored glasses that are much more comfortable when positioned squarely onto the bridge of nose, to slip down, if one is open to that. (Miller also pens the blog, Dogs + Ethics, which is equally terrific and can also be found by clicking here.)


Though it seems heartwarming to think of our four-legged housemates having qualities that seem to be on par with our own, it's important to remember that they're animals, not humans. There's nothing with saying that. We're doing them no favors by imposing unreasonable expectations on them behaviorally and emotionally. In fact, we cause them needless strife. So, much like with any other blurb or content that you find making its rounds on the internet, consider taking a minute to think about what might really be going on before you share. Together, we can better serve our animal friends by seeing them through an unadulterated lens, and not one that we unwittingly filter through wishful thinking.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and writing about her experiences. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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