Social media: plenty of animal content, not enough science or kindness
I spend my fair share of time scrolling through Instagram. I’m there mostly for the cute cat videos, but frequently animal training or behaviour posts will come my way and I will slow down to peruse the content. Over the weekend I saw numerous accounts that I follow sharing a post featuring a vet attempting to make friends with a fearful looking puppy cowering in the corner of his exam room. The approach was entirely inappropriate. He reached out to the puppy in the corner, laid on the floor, wiggled the leash in the puppy’s face, put his face close up to the pup, and eventually tried to crowd the pup out of the corner by leaning against them. Finally, at the end he tossed some treats and the pup began to emerge looking brighter and less afraid. Success! At least according to the Instagram post and the account’s many followers.
I hunted down the original account and found that this vet is all about helping dogs get over their distress at being in a vet clinic. Sounds wonderful! But almost every video I watched featured an incredible lack of understanding of dog behaviour and even a few mentions of dominance (*cringe*). To be concise, the vet posting these videos is displaying content to a vast audience of followers that promotes a dangerous approach to animal handling and ideas that are detrimental to animal welfare.
If you have seen the original post or the one that has been shared around social media, then you might question why it’s so horrible when in the end the puppy came around and all was well just like the many other cases presented on the account. This brings me to my first point: what you’re seeing is the effect of habituation. (If you would like a detailed analysis on this, please DM! )When an individual is exposed to something continuously (the scary vet invading their space), there is a good chance they will stop responding at some point and even choose a different, more adaptive response. In this case, it’s a stressful process for the animal and the vet in the video was lucky not to get bitten. But what matters to others viewing those videos who may not know about animal behaviour is the end result and this helps further harmful concepts in animal care. There are many other examples of this on social media. Rather than denying the efficacy of what some others are doing, I think its important to know why techniques work. Once we understand how an approach works, it becomes clearer why not to choose that route and we can then learn better ways that decrease fear and distress for animals.
I am very careful about posting good examples of training or bits of educational material because I want to influence animal care and welfare for the better. If a viewer is going to take what I am doing in a training session as an example, it is important to me that I exemplify the best possible care for animal welfare. Influencing human behaviour change is a complex science in itself and arguably the most important part of improving animal welfare. It is generally agreed upon that a kind approach to teaching is always more effective whether with human or non-human animals. Providing people with welfare friendly approaches that work is one of the ways to help create change. For the folks that shared the post in question, they appear to have done so to display their outrage and disparage the vet for his lack of understanding of dog behavior.I assume their underlying goal was to encourage viewers not to follow the methods in the post. This brings me to my second point: in my opinion, we need to focus on what to do and how to do the best for our animals. I won’t be sharing anyone’s posts as an example of what not to do. I worry that doing so would promote the general unkindness of the social media environment. And veterinary professionals face enough threats to their mental health; shaming on social media won't serve a constructive purpose of teaching anyone.
Whenever I come across the many negative posts on social media, I find myself inspired to create some type of educational material that will help provide solutions to animal behaviour issues or help fill apparent gaps in knowledge amongst animal guardians and other professionals. And I attempt to always provide scientific support to show how training works, not just that the way I have chosen is better and others are wrong. So, on the note of what to do rather than focusing on what not to do, here are a couple of suggestions. If you see a social media post showing animal behaviour change using scientifically valid, welfare friendly methods (or maybe you have your own) then share it! Spread that for others to see as an example. If you see a questionable video or post that is effective, try to understand why. You may find that although a training method or explanation of behaviour “works”, there is distress caused in the process or a lack of evidence to support the concept. Once you have that knowledge, you can learn a kinder way.