How studying dog behavior ruins “cute” dog videos … and why that’s a good thing

By Bill Mayeroff

One of the unanticipated side effects of studying dog behavior is that videos of dogs that at one point I might have thought were cute or funny now just make me cringe.

Take, for example, this commercial for the Toyota RAV4:

In it, this couple imagines going camping with their dog and their new Toyota RAV4. The man imagines a scenario in which he throws an object into a river (that appears to have a VERY strong current) which the dog chases. As the dog swims after the object, he and his female companion jump into their SUV and drive along the bank and meet the dog, with the object in its mouth, as it emerges and shakes itself off. The man then throws the object back into the river and the dog jumps back in after it.

Now, at one point, I might have found that funny (though it’s hard to say, as the commercial was released long after I began studying at FetchFind). But today? Not at all.

In what world is it ok to send your dog into a river with such a strong current, jump into your car and meet it downstream? If that happened in real life, the likelihood of the dog surviving are slim. Even a dog that’s a strong swimmer would have issues swimming through that.

Another example of a commercial encouraging bad behavior toward dogs comes to us from Amazon.com:

In this commercial, a baby girl appears scared of the family’s dog – a doofy-looking golden retriever. But what she loves is her stuffed lion.

Her father decides to use Amazon Prime to fix things. He orders a lion mane costume for the dog from Amazon and thanks to the magic of Amazon Prime, he has it the next day. The dog, wearing the costume, comes into the room and slowly approaches the baby, who at first appears hesitant. But at the 28-second mark, the little baby reaches out toward the dog and gently touches its nose.

preview-full-lion_dog

Now, at first blush, this might seem cute. But as a trainer (even though I’m only a rookie), it scares the hell out of me.

I’ll explain.

There are two big problems here. First of all, kids the age of the one in the commercial move in very jerky and awkward ways. Jerky and awkward movements can easily spook a dog, causing it to snap or bite. The other problem is that the girl is reaching toward the dog’s face. And even if the girl had moved smoothly and slowly, some dogs just hate things near their faces. Either way, letting a baby reach for a dog’s face is just generally a bad idea.

There was one other thing that really scared me about that commercial. If you blink, you may have missed it. But it was definitely there. When the baby reached for the dog’s face, the dog wrinkled its nose slightly. While such a thing might look cute, it’s actually a sign a dog might be preparing to snap or bite. That dog was definitely telling the girl it did not want her anywhere near its face.

What bothers me about both of these commercials is that the problems I pointed out were unnecessary. Toyota didn’t need to show a dog jumping into a raging river to show a fun camping experience. There are plenty of fun activities the owners could have been doing with their dog on a camping trip that didn’t involve putting the dog’s life at risk and could have still shown off the RAV4.

And in the Amazon commercial, the girl didn’t need to reach for the dog’s face. It would have been better to show the girl reaching to pet the dog’s back or somewhere around the scruff of the neck or maybe the top of the head. What they did not need to show was the girl reaching straight for the dog’s nose.

Not only that, but by airing these commercials, Toyota and Amazon are tacitly implying that doing these things to dogs is ok. On a rational level, I realize that nobody takes advice about how to interact with dogs from commercials for either car companies or online retailers. That said, both reinforce the misconception that behaviors that appear cute or funny. And in the case of the Amazon commercial, it ignores how dogs communicate and tell us how they feel.

There’s not really any great moral to this. Too often, dog videos touted as “cute” or “funny” or “hilarious” show the dogs in uncomfortable or even dangerous situations. Or they show the dogs displaying behaviors that look “cute” if you don’t know how to read a dog’s body language but that actually indicate high levels of fear, stress or anxiety.

And I just ask that you think about that before you share those videos on social media.

********

Look at these two handsome gents.

After five years as a newspaper reporter in western Illinois and two more as a freelancer in Chicago, Bill Mayeroff‘s life has gone to the dogs in the best way possible. These days, Bill lives in Chicago with his terrier mix, Chester, and works at a small, no-kill animal shelter while he studies to be a professional dog trainer at FetchFind Academy. Bill also blogs about his two favorite things – dogs and beer – at Pints and Pups. 

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