The Shame in Dog Shaming

Dog Shaming is an internet phenomenon that began on Tumblr in August 2012. Dog Owners post pictures of their dogs with signs that tell of their misdeeds and then are posted on social media. Dog Shaming has become so popular with the general public it has been featured on NBC’s Today Show. Celebrities have tweeted their dog shaming pictures, dog shaming has been made into a book, and has an entire website devoted to it.
Why is it so popular? We humans love to laugh, and dog memes can provide a lot of laughter! Humans also love to commiserate and share our problems. Isn’t this why social media was invented? We may even take the tiniest bit of pleasure in the fact that a celebrity who owns a multimillion dollar house, also has a dog that eats their shoes.

Where’s the harm in enjoying these humorous photographs? Well first let me say that half of the posted photos are pretty harmless. There are quite a few that say such benign things as: “I just ripped the head off of my stuffed bunny my mommy just bought me” and the picture is in front of a proud puppy. Not all of these signs are harmless. In fact the dog trainer in me gets quite a bit prickly if someone mentions dog shaming. My problem with the dog shaming phenomenon is I believe it perpetuates a certain kind of mentality: “My dog is doing it to spite me!” “My dog knows better.” and the ever popular “My dog knows when he has done something wrong.” This is the kind of mentality that can lead to giving up on a dog and sent to a shelter. For every cute harmless photo there is a picture with a stressed out dog sitting behind an angry note about their misdeeds. Let’s talk about the real shame in dog shaming.
Punishment after the fact: we know from studying dogs that you have 1.3 seconds to reward or correct a dog for a given behavior. After 1.3 seconds if the dog has moved on to another behavior they will not be able to understand why you are rewarding or correcting them. It is simply bad timing, we have all been a victim of it (myself including).

Here are just a few examples of bad timing: your dog sits for a cookie, and as you are rewarding your dog, he jumps up and gets the cookie. In this example we rewarded the dog for jumping but not the “sit”. You must reward the behavior within 1.3 seconds before the dog moves on to something else. After that 1.3 seconds your dog will not associate the reward with the behavior you are trying to train.

Let’s say in this instance you come home to a dark spot on the carpet and you admonish your dog for having an accident. Since you didn’t catch your dog peeing on the carpet with 1.3 seconds how is your dog to know what he is being corrected for? Maybe he was greeting you when you admonished him. You must catch your dog within 1.3 of the act in order for your dog to understand why they are being corrected. Everything after that time is punishment after the fact. Dogs who are punished in this fashion might learn that humans in the household are unpredictable, and not be trusted (but they will still pee on the carpet).
Looking at these pictures you can tell there has been a lot of punishment after the fact. Which leads me to my next point.

The “guilty dog” look: this is the look where your dog tucks his ears back and won’t make eye contact with you. Many owners will tell me “he knows what he’s done/ he looks guilty”. Deep down inside I think most of us know that dogs don’t feel guilt. Although we know from studying the canine brain that they do absolutely feel happiness and fear in all kinds of degrees. But guilt implies a complex moral structure doesn’t it? So what is our dogs really saying when the look guilty? Most of us trainers and behaviorists classify “guilty dog look” as a series of behaviors we call appeasement gestures.
Appeasement gestures are a series of behaviors a dog will display to another dog or human to diffuse a situation. These gestures in human terms mean something a kin to “I am not a threat”. These gestures could be but are not limited to pulling the ears back, looking away, paw lifting, lowering of the body, submissive grin, lip licking, lowering the eyes or even rolling belly up.

For a great video on the guilty dog look click here see how many appeasement gestures you can pick up on:

Now that we have established that punishment after fact doesn’t solve anything and that dogs don’t feel guilt. Let’s get to the heart of the matter!
Responsibility: shouldn’t we take a tad bit of more responsibility as a human? We expect so much from our dogs let’s not forget we are the smarter of the two species. The humans have all the power in the relationship. If your dog has been skunked five times I am one hundred 100% certain at least four of those times were your fault.
Shame isn’t productive: I think this is what I find the most irksome. A big part of my job is being able to effectively communicate and work with people. The worst way to handle any dilemma with a human is to shame them. Most people when faced with these feelings get defensive and shutdown. Shame is not necessarily conductive to action and change. When scrolling through the dog training memes I am remind of all the phone calls I have gotten over the years from people who are close to giving up their dogs. Most of these phone calls are over every day typical problems just like these photos.
I propose we start a dog praising internet phenomenon! Who’s with me?

Train Not Shame!