Recently, I attended the Purina Better with Pets Summit. It was a day filled with learning, attended by people who love pets and are dedicated to the wellness of animals and their people. (Read my summary of the day.)
Not only did I get to spend the entire day doing what I love, surrounded by people who love the same things, and learning about how we can all do it better, but I was also asked by Nestlé Purina to write two posts about my experiences at the Summit. And they said they’d pay me to do it. It doesn’t get much better than that.
The power of dogs and the power of video
At the Summit I (and many others around me) was moved to tears by Dr. Arleigh Reynolds as he told the story of how dogs saved the people of Huslia, Alaska. We watched a short film that described how the culture of this small native community changed with the coming of snow machines, and dogs became less central to life. Depression, suicide and a loss of a sense of purpose became the norm, until Frank Attla, a renowned dog sledder created the Frank Attla Youth Program to once again put dogs at the center of the life. Dr. Reynolds volunteers to support the program. (See the 10-minute film here.)
Dogs brought meaning to Huslia, bringing generations together and healing the community. The emotion generated by that film was palpable, as attendees wiped their eyes.
Video clips of dogs, cats and humans that aren’t funny
The power of video — and the power of the influencers in attendance at the event — were the catalysts that encouraged me to ask a question during another part of the summit. I asked the panel on Raising Pets and Kids something like this, “I see all kinds of pet videos on the Web — and there are some that people think are funny, but I know they’re not. The videos may show interactions between dogs and cats, or between pets and people, and I can read the behavior enough to know that what I’m seeing on the screen is at the very least cruel to the animals, and at worst a setup for a horrible disaster.” I asked Dr. Ilana Reisner, a veterinarian and behavior consultant, what she thinks when she sees these videos. What does she do? And what can we as influencers do to not perpetuate the dangerous misinformation contained in those videos.
Dr. Reisner’s response was to thank me for asking the question, and to explain that she does her best on her Facebook page to debunk some of those videos. Later, I caught up with her and we talked some more.
An example of what I mean is a compilation of videos showing cats stealing dogs’ food, eating out of their bowls, and swatting at the dogs for trying to eat. The dogs are puzzled, frustrated, worried, unhappy. This video is labeled by the Huffington Post as comedy.
And I don’t think it’s funny.
I think it’s cruel. I think it’s sending the dogs the wrong message. I think it’s reinforcing the cats’ bad behavior. What bothers me the most is I can predict the future. At some point, one of those cats may push one of those dogs too far. And I don’t want to think about the result.
My blog is called Life with Dogs and Cats for a reason. It’s not Dogs versus Cats. It’s about helping all our pets get along.
But I didn’t feel comfortable speaking out against the incorrect behavior. I can’t tell you why; maybe I was afraid of the trolls who would slam me for raining on everyone’s parade. Or spoiling people’s fun. Or maybe I felt that people would think I’m judging them. But I’m not; who am I to judge?
It was only a few years ago that I learned some of the subtle cues of a stressed dog: yawning, licking lips, shaking it off. Before that, I simply didn’t know; I was essentially deaf to my dog’s signals. I know better now, but I’d be willing to bet that much of what is done in the name of humor is merely ignorance. I like to believe that people are not intentionally cruel, and that once pet parents learn to read their companion animals’ language a little better, they wouldn’t continue behaving in a way that is hurtful.
As more and more studies are done on animal behavior, intelligence, and emotions, we are all (and by all I mean everyone from scientists to pet parents), realizing there’s so much we don’t know and so much we need to learn about the non-human souls with whom we share our lives.
But wait, there’s more
The cats stealing dog food video is mild.
I’ve seen others that show interactions between children — even young babies — and dogs that make me cringe. For example, Ilana told me about a video she posted on her Facebook page featuring an interaction between a dog and a baby. The baby is laughing hysterically at the dog. And I will be the first to tell you that there is no sound on earth more wonderful than a baby’s laughter.
But the dog is confused, stressed, unsure and agitated. Reisner describes his “his wide eyes and indirect approach” that “are consistent with nervousness.” She continues, “An excited, vocal dog and proximity to a loud, rocking baby’s face are not a safe combination.” And even though the dog’s tail is wagging, it doesn’t “indicate relaxation and friendliness. It basically just indicates that the dog is interacting and somewhat excited.”
The last paragraph on Reisner’s analysis of the video hits home to me: “There’s good reason to worry about interactions between dogs and babies. Babies are vulnerable and are bitten severely by familiar dogs who decided they’re threatening. Remember that in several dog bite studies, including our own at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, parents or grandparents were present in two thirds of cases when children were bitten. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to have an abundance of caution and keep everyone safe.”
Keeping the “and” in dogs and cats
So what does this all mean? Dr. Reisner inspired me to speak out. From now on, when I see these videos, if I can offer some science-based, non-accusatory comments, I will. Even if one person learns to look for behaviors they might have known about, then perhaps we can prevent just one pet-pet or pet-human interaction from going terribly, horribly wrong.
And I hope to seek input from Dr. Reisner and other behaviorists so that I can continue to learn, and continue to share what I learn with my readers. So we can continue to live in homes of “and” — creating happy, trusting and safe environments for dogs and cats and humans and other pets.
And now for a video that does amuse me
What do I think is a funny video? Check out this clip of Elsa Clair trying to get a toy that got hung up out of reach. Note that I let her puzzle through a solution; this is good mental stimulation. Eventually, we help her because I don’t want to be frustrate her too much.
And while I’m at it, a disclaimer: the toy that Elsa Clair is playing with is one I rarely bring out, and one that I supervise very closely. I would never let her play with this unsupervised because she could easily get tangled or strangled. In fact any cat toy that includes a string or a feather is kept in a drawer in my house, and only brought out when there’s someone watching. So we can be safe, and still have fun.
What do you think? Am I a spoilsport for wanting to let people know what’s not funny?Tweet