Jasper Copping, Telegraph (London), November 5, 2013
It is an internet craze that has inspired and amused thousands of dog lovers: Misbehaving pets are endearingly photographed looking suitably hangdog, in front of a sign broadcasting their misdemeanours to the world.
But the phenomenon of “dog shaming” is not the harmless fun it seems, according to vets and animal welfare experts.
They have warned that many of the images of pets supposedly looking sheepish and guilty in fact show the animals exhibiting fear or anxiety.
Owners who have posted such pictures of their dogs have been criticised for “mocking” their dogs, with the experts warning that the trend is undermining pets’ “dignity” and could be masking underlying health and behavioural problems.
Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club, who has studied several “dogshaming” photographs, said: “The idea of shaming a dog is daft. Dogs don’t like having the mickey taken out of them and can undoubtedly plug into that. So why would you do that to your pet? You wouldn’t mock your family or your friends like this, so why your dog?
“It might be a bit of fun, when it is kept to a reasonable level, but people take them too far and it stops being funny for the dog. Dogs have a level of dignity and we don’t want to undermine that. They are meant to be a companion, not a joke.”
The craze started last year, and there are now dedicated websites and Twitter profiles on the subject, as well as a spin-off book.
In some cases, owners post only images. In others, videos of “shamed” dogs are put online. In America, celebrities such as Lauren Conrad, the television personality, have posted pictures of their own pets.
Among the most common are images of dogs which have eaten something they should not have, or destroyed items belonging to their owners.
The experts have warned such behaviour could be a symptom of stress or underlying health problems.
Professor Peter Neville from the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology, said: “Things soon get confusing for our dogs when we believe that they can experience higher emotions such guilt, shame or spite. Or that they can predict the consequences of their behaviour and so learn to behave differently from what we falsely interpret as their embarrassment or shame if their mistakes are pointed out to them after the event, or explained in human language.
“Such confrontation, while intended as a spot of fun for owners. can simply be unkind because the dog cannot experience or empathise with these emotions in their owners and simply feels threatened by their negative attention at such times.”
He said that owners who insisted in shaming their pets online could cause the animals “acute or even chronic stress”. He added: “That ultimately leads to depression, inappetence, reduced immunity, one unhappy dog and a decayed relationship.”
The warnings follow a study by Drontal, the veterinary treatment manufacturer, involving analysis of 12 family pets, which found that in each case, the owners were consistently misinterpreting “fear” as “guilt”. A wider study, involving almost 500 owners, found 40 per cent making the same mistake.
Emily Rackley, small animal vet, said: “On the surface of it dog shaming appears to be a humorous trend, merely making light of a bad situation and capturing a dog’s ‘guilt’ on camera. But, what many pet owners don’t realise is that dogs don’t feel guilt. It is not one of their emotions. What pet owners commonly photograph on these dog shaming images, is actually anxiety or fear – the classic signs being head down, ears back. It really isn’t kind to laugh at the animal and mock them – you wouldn’t do that to a friend, so you shouldn’t do that to your pet.”