Viral videos of dogs are perhaps one of the great joys of my life.
Whether it’s a dog in slow motion who is fundamentally incapable of catching a ball, an unsuspecting puppy being caught behaving badly, or a cautious dog keeping an eye on the ever-present threat of ‘vacuum’, they bring me pure, unadulterated happiness. Dogs aren’t self-conscious or awkward or playing anything up for the camera – they’re always themselves because they’re not polluted by the burden that is being human.
But then on Tuesday, I came across a viral dog video that made me feel something different.
In a clip shared on Twitter, the Municipal Police of Madrid showcased a dog named Poncho performing ‘CPR’. In the footage, a police officer falls to the ground, and Poncho runs anxiously towards him. He puts his paws on the man’s chest, and jumps up and down, before placing his ear beside the man’s mouth to check for breathing. He repeats these movements, and after almost 30 seconds, the officer ‘wakes up’, pats Poncho, and gives him a treat for being a very good dog.
“Heroica” actuación de nuestro #Compañerosde4Patas Poncho, que no dudó ni un instante en “salvar la vida” del agente, practicando la #RCP de una manera magistral.
El perro es el único ser en el mundo que te amará más de lo que se ama a sí mismo- John Billings#Adopta pic.twitter.com/yeoEwPkbRc
— Policía de Madrid (@policiademadrid) June 22, 2018Advertisement
The video was widely described as “adorable,” “lovely,” “cute” and “clever,” and people praised how well-trained Poncho was to be able to perform CPR.
Of course, Poncho’s behaviour is ridiculous as far as dogs behaving like humans goes. We look at Poncho and imagine his internal monologue: ‘My human fall down, I halp. I jump on him. I can do a save. Be he breathing? No. Must do more jump. He sit up, I hero.’
But Poncho doesn’t have an internal monologue.
Poncho is a dog.
What struck me as I watched the video was the dog’s palpable anxiety. Poncho is frantic – licking and shaking and jumping. And for what purpose?
Poncho can’t effectively perform CPR. He doesn’t have the upper body weight to effectively compress the chest, and he doesn’t have the physiological ability to open a person’s airway and give rescue breaths. His behaviour in the video, therefore, is simply an endearing trick. Which begs the question: How is that different from any other tricks we train animals to perform for human entertainment?
In some parts of the world, elephants are subjected to violent training tactics to teach them to paint pictures for visitors, or have people ride on their backs. Big cats like lions and tigers are whipped to make them perform, while for all sorts of animals, abuse, starvation, dehydration, electric prods, and chains are common methods to train them as attractions for humans.
I’m not implying that Poncho was treated with cruelty in order to learn his CPR trick – but surely the depth of his distress outweighs the enjoyment of the people who liked watching him.
According to Elliot Mason, a dog behaviour specialist at Dog Behaviour Solutions, "there's little doubt that the dog would be feeling some level of distress/concern over the fallen human especially if they have a preexisting bond/relationship with that person."
Mason says that behind the viral videos of dogs walking or hopping on their hind legs with clothing or backpacks, may be techniques many of us would consider cruel. "Even if this is not the case it can easily inspire others to attempt the same thing with their own animals without proper understanding of how the training may affect the dog psychologically," he says.
"The important question when working with animals is to consider: what did it take to achieve this outcome and how important or necessary is it?
"For example, in dealing with a dog showing signs of aggression or anxiety issues I'm sure most would agree a small amount of discomfort (not pain) or inconvenience is certainly preferable if the end result is a calm, happy and well adjusted dog."
Likewise, Australia's leading expert in dog psychology and dog training Nathan Williams says the purpose of Poncho's trick is ultimately "selfish". It's a clear example of anthropomorphism, he says, the attribution of human characteristics or emotions to non-humans.
The problem with anthropomorphism, in this context, is that it misleads us in understanding the behaviour of animals. Poncho doesn't perceive or experience the world in the way we do, and to teach him to behave as though he does is to reduce him to a source of entertainment rather than his own being.
There was no reason for Poncho's clear distress (which, we can assume, he'd experienced many times before in order to be trained to do 'CPR') other than the amusement of the people watching him.
And for me, that falls wildly short of a satisfying justification.