Thursday, 4 January 2018

Bursting The Feel-Good Bubble

The Dodo is an American web site headquartered in New York.  It was started and is run by Izzy Lerer, daughter of media executive Ken Lerer, founder of the Huffington Post.

The site was set up in 2014 and makes its money from advertising. Every click on a video, every like or follow on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram or viewing on You Tube puts money in the company’s pocket.  It delivers a constant stream of ‘feel good’ videos usually with advertising embedded at strategic points. It has a massive Facebook presence, generating 1 billion video views in 2015.  

It focuses on stories about wild and domestic animal rescues and recently has begun pumping out loads of videos about severely disabled animals that people have adopted. It often takes anthropomorphism into the realms of the truly delusional and animals are often featured wearing human style clothing with the ubiquitous references to ‘fur babies’. 

There are seldom any identifying elements in the story and you don’t usually get to know the names or locations of the people who feature in them so following up on a story or checking on its veracity is almost impossible. People who want their moment of internet fame or who are building their own commercial presence on social media, submit videos, and it was one of these that made me stop and think about this increasingly weird, hyper-sentimentalised presence that had inserted itself into my Facebook feed.

It was a story about a youngish, physically slight American woman who decided to adopt a heavy set, black, cropped ear, ex-fighting dog because such dogs are almost impossible to rehome in the US.  The dog had behavioural issues - understandably, was closed down and unfriendly and would growl and lunge at her so she decided to adopt another pit bull, a female. The dogs bonded and the male perked up and soon became a goofy, sweet, friendly puffball of a dog. Allegedly. Cue violins and a chorus of ‘aahs’ from the assembled bull breed loving multitudes.

There is no way of telling if any of this story is true. It may have been staged. The woman's way of dealing with the dogs appeared to be to treat them as if they are either her children or her equals. She may be totally in control of them but she would not be the first dog owner to find that one day, one or both of the animals decides it’s top dog and challenges her as pack leader.  Or that something from the dogs’ past triggers aggressive behaviour towards her or, more likely in the case of an ex-fighting dog, towards another dog. 

It happens - and it happens with all sorts of dogs from toys to giants because a dog is, above all else, a predator, a social animal and hierarchical.  A dominant dog will push boundaries with dogs above them in the pack hierarchy.  When a dog humps your leg, that is dominance behaviour.  When a dog growls at you if you sit on the couch with it - that’s either fear or dominance/ aggression and in the dog (as in some humans) the two are closely entwined.

We infantilise dogs for the most part - keeping them dependent on us for food and shelter and status. A lot of dog owners don’t understand their pets as animals – aren’t prepared to cope with the natural behaviours of a dog and as a result a lot of dogs end up being abused, and/ or dumped and killed.

You can rehabilitate a dog that has had a traumatic past and it is a good thing you are doing but you really do need to know what you are doing and you need to realise that an abused dog may never fully lose the shadows of its troubled past. A frightened, stressed dog may snap and bite; a dog with a strong fight or dominance drive may go beyond a single bite; a larger more powerful dog is able to inflict more damage than a smaller dog.

A dog we adopted at 4 years of age had been abused and, while he never offered us any sort of aggression, if cornered or pressured by a stranger, he’d growl and if the growl wasn’t heeded, he’d snap. So we made sure he was never put in that position. Our current dog was a failed working dog and when we first got her she would panic if you put your face near her - to her that was a threat. Even after more than 2 years, although she is completely relaxed with us, if a stranger does that, she will panic, and if a stranger picks up a stick or piece of pipe near her, she will still cower.

I saw a pit bull attack – without provocation – a much larger dog at a fete in Queens Park in London in 2008. The pit bull’s owners were unable to stop their dog, which had latched onto the other dog’s face, until a man in the crowd of horrified on-lookers kicked the pitbull as hard as he could in the midriff. It let go and the injured dog’s owner rushed off to get veterinary aid for her badly injured and heavily bleeding dog.  

Loads of people have had to witness their pets being killed by larger or more aggressive and out of control, badly socialized dogs. And it’s not just pets that get mauled, sometimes it’s kids. It happens.

There’s a lot of debate within and between the pro and anti ‘pitbull’ camps about the strength of a bull breeds’ bite relative to other dogs. There are a lot of untrue or exaggerated stories emanating from each of the camps also. From the pro camp we get the myth that bull terrier breeds such as the Staffie were used as ‘nanny dogs’ – guarding children. Some may well have had such a job within some families but they were certainly not bred for that.

The original Bulldogs, as their name suggests, were bred to bait bulls and bears. Humans’ capacity for mindless cruelty and the cruel exploitation of animals is seemingly limitless and these ugly traditions go back a very long way.  With bull baiting the dogs gripped and held onto the animal’s hind legs and belly. Shorter jaws can exert a stronger bite and a longer lower jaw allows the dog to maintain a vice like grip. This is not a mechanical ‘locking’ of its jaw but an ability to maintain a stronger grip for longer on the prey animal.  It’s why some people who own these breeds like to demonstrate their dog’s grip capacity by getting the animal to grab a stick, then hold it up in the air or swing it around.  And it is not just the jaw strength, it’s the incredibly powerful musculature of the neck, shoulders and forelegs.

With the passage of legislation to stop animal cruelty, pitting dogs against each other became popular and a variety of square headed, short-haired dogs were bred as fighting dogs by crossing bull dog types with terriers.

Bull terrier type dogs were and are used as a fighting dog because they are powerfully built, have very powerful musculature, strong jaws, and on average an easily triggered fight response that makes them competitive with other dogs, and a strong kill drive with prey animals.  They may be fiercely loyal to and protective of their owners and other members of their pack but may be a danger to outsiders if not well socialized.

In the USA where there is a large sub culture of dog fighting and the keeping of dogs associated with fighting, there are several distinct bull terrier breeds - the American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, American Bully, and Staffordshire Bull Terrier.  Fighting dogs may be mixes of one or more of these breeds. Importantly for this type of dog, being owned by some very unpleasant, inadequate humans has increased their reputation for fierceness towards other animals and people.   It is not an unfounded reputation and for that we must blame the humans but it is stupid to ignore the reality of the breeds’ physical and behavioural characteristics.

So, in light of all this, I posted a comment on The Dodo story : “given the combined weight and bite power of these dogs I hope she’s as in control of them as she seems to think she is.”

I didn’t think anyone would even notice it let alone take offence but The Dodo is a ‘feel good zone’. You click on the stories to get your daily / hourly fix of warm fuzzies and no-one is supposed to burst the bubble. If you do you are likely to attract a load of angry comments. How crazy the first angry comments are sets the tone and others follow it like hounds on a scent. 
I had committed several grave sins: I had burst the feel good bubble, and I was perceived to be a pit bull critic and a perpetuator of pit bull stereotypes, and as such I made myself a target.  The site is heaving with pit bull and bull breed fans. People who post what are perceived to be negative comments about these types of dogs are a THREAT and are attacked. Invariably – not always, but mostly – the attacks are vulgar, illogical, semi -or incoherent, poorly written, and abusive. 

The complete lack of logic, the incoherence, the weirdness - and the sheer boorishness were bad enough but it was the ageism and sexism which angered me most. It made me reflect on how deeply embedded in our culture the routine denigration of older people is.

The Unhinged Ones will trawl through your social media profile in search of ammunition which, in lieu of intelligent disputation – they hurl at you much as an angry chimpanzee might hurl excreta at visitors to a zoo - except the chimp has good reason to be angry and to throw shit.

I should have deleted the comment as soon as the negative stuff started but the page wouldn't let me and it took me a while to work out how to delete it from my FB feed. in deleting the original comment, I inadvertantly deleted the 2000 or so responses.   

My comment received positive so many lit was the first thread under the story which meant it was the one most people read through. A devil's circle.  

Before I got bored and realised that my clever responses were going straight over the heads of most of the shit-throwers and I was helping pour money into The Dodo’s corporate pockets, I was on a crusade against the forces of reaction and rampant stupidity. On balance I’m glad I fought back because every time the bullies get away with this sort of stuff they are emboldened and they must not be allowed to win.  Logic or mockery are the best weapons as snarling back or being abusive merely plays their game and even if logic/humour don’t get through their thick skulls, loads of other people will be cheered up by it.

A majority of the angry comments came from women although the most threatening and abusive were from men. Clearly still locked in emotional infancy and retaining an obsession with poo, some of the men's insults centred around a presumed age-related incontinence.  But the prize for the most weirdly abusive went to a man who claims to be a dog trainer and photographer. I have retained the FB link to protect other people who share his name.

 ‪Ricky Fontaine‪  "I hope your horses kick you to death you old piece of shit. Eat a bag of dicks you washed up old hag.‬"

It makes you wonder what was he on, apart from an overdose of adrenaline and testosterone. 

If these people are typical of pit bull owners and fans, then other people's concerns - that these sort of dogs are dangerous because they're often a reflection of their owners’ mindsets - are well founded.

If people want to break down prejudices against the bull breeds they love, it might be an idea to stop behaving like human versions of the stereotypical pit bull. 

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