Tag Archives: pets

Never Judge An Article By Its Headline

I am occasionally reminded that “news” outlets these days are more in the business of drawing viewers than of actually reporting accurate news.  This is especially dangerous in the area of science — journalists are not often trained scientists and it sometimes occurs that a journalist, in reading an article and trying to pull an eye-catching headline out of it, draws an incomplete or erroneous conclusion from the research and then publishes a “news” article about that conclusion.  Thousands of people read the erroneous headline, never look at the source publication, and pick up, however subliminally, the mistaken message.

Today in my Facebook feed I found these two competing headlines:

Your Baby and Your Dog Light Up Similar Parts of the Brain

Neurobiological basis of human-pet relationship: Mothers’ brains respond differently to images of their child and their dog

Image Source: Dee @ www.morguefile.com

Image Source: Dee @ www.morguefile.com

The first headline says that our brains react similarly when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that the same mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.  The second headline states that our brains react differently when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that different mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.

I was somewhat appalled to find that both articles refer to the exact same study, which actually supports both conclusions.  Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital examined the brains of 16 women (14 actually completed the entire study) via MRI while they viewed photographs of their children and their dog, as well as photographs of unfamiliar children and dogs, then compared the women’s reactions to each.  The abstract ends with the following sentence: “Although there are similarities in the perceived emotional experience and brain function associated with the mother-child and mother-dog bond, there are also key differences that may reflect variance in the evolutionary course and function of these relationships.”

So, based on this extremely small (only 14 subjects!) and preliminary study (the official press release indicates that the researchers themselves suggest further research with a larger sample), one can conclude that, well, we use the same bits of our brain to evaluate our relationships with both our pets and our children, but these bits respond differently to pets than they do to children.  Both of our headlines could be true.  Who knows?  This tiny study is only “contribut[ing] to answering this complex question“.

The lesson here?  Always read the source material, and never assume that any single “news” headline is telling you the entire story.  (In defense of both journalists in this instance, the accompanying articles were both much more neutral in tone than the headlines, and both provided reference to either the official press release or the original article.)

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Shelter Stories

The man is clearly very sad to be leaving his dog at the shelter.  He is also clearly deaf.  His hearing friend and companion is comforting him with hand signs and hugs as he says goodbye to the little female long-haired Chihuahua, whose big, frightened eyes never leave his face.

His companion is filling out paperwork, explaining to the shelter personnel that they are moving, somewhere the dog is not welcome.  The dog is terrified, trying to hide behind the legs of both men, enclosed in an eerie circle of caged, staring shelter cats and their flat, yellow-eyed welcome.  The leash encloses legs like a hungry snake.

The deaf man catches the dog’s attention, leans down, and carefully makes a very clear signal several times with his hands.  The dog stares at him uncomprehendingly, but with every line of her body desperate to know what he wants.  Signal.  Signal.  Signal.  The dog vibrates with urgency.  What does he want??!?

She can’t obey him.  She doesn’t understand him.  He stops signaling — her desperation to understand him has at least stopped her getting underfoot.

His companion finishes the paperwork.  They lift the dog and hand her to a shelter worker, who gives her a sympathetic squeeze as she trembles.  The men start for the door, then the deaf man abruptly turns and gesticulates, mixed gesture-and-speech.  “She doesn’t….”

The shelter worker tries, but her look mirrors the dog’s.  “I’m sorry?”

Paper, a pen, a practiced search.  In big, careful letters, he writes: SHE DOESNT LIKE BISKTS on a post-it note.  He draws a little cartoon bone beneath: she does not like dog biscuits.  The shelter worker nods solemnly, points at the bone and shakes her head.  No biscuits.

Shelter Stories III

“He’s a Boxer, chocolate, with white spots, about this big, and wearing a red harness,” the man says, gesturing with his hands.  “Haven’t seen him since Wednesday.”

The shelter worker sympathizes, but there are no dogs fitting that description here.  “Where did he get lost?” she asks, starting to fill out a “lost dog” report.

“Well, every day I keep him out on a chain, and when I get home in the evening I let him off, and he just has the run of the neighborhood, you know?  He always comes back.  Everybody knows him.  So anyway, on Wednesday I get home, and I let him off, and off he goes as usual, right?  Except this time he didn’t come back.  And he didn’t come back Thursday, and he didn’t come back Friday.  I just don’t know what could have happened.”

“How old is he?” asks the worker.

“About a year.”

Shelter Stories I

Cairn terrier in shelter cageNearly thirteen years have passed since you were a puppy, and now you are old, mostly blind, and mostly deaf, doddery and pleasant, ready to lie about the house providing doggie ambiance, and retire in a sunbeam.

Today, Mom and Dad put you in the car, and they took you to a strange room full of nervous animals.  Your tail wagged for everyone, even the cats, and the strange humans in the room.  Then someone walked you away from Mom and Dad, picked you up, and put you in a small metal box with a wire front.

Mom and Dad didn’t come back for you.

Since you are old, you will likely not be adopted.  Who wants to adopt an old, blind, deaf dog?  Should you be allowed to compete for scarce adoptive homes against all the young dogs who are also looking for homes?  Would being adopted even be good for you — suddenly moving, after thirteen years, to a new, scary place you can neither properly see or hear?  What is the humane choice for you?*

And what do we say to Mom and Dad, who just dropped you off at the shelter when you got old?  If we make them feel bad about this decision, they will not even bother to bring their next old, blind dog to the shelter for humane euthanasia — they will just open their front door and let the dog walk out, and he or she will become someone else’s problem.  Maybe that dog will make it to a shelter.  Maybe they’ll meet up with a bigger dog, or some angry kids, or the underside of a truck.  Is it better for you that we can at least give you a quiet exit, and treats before you go?

This story repeats itself every day.  I saw it happen yesterday, but it happened again today at a shelter in your town, and it will happen again tomorrow.  The only way to stop this story happening is to work to create people who don’t think it’s appropriate behavior to drop a family member off at the shelter so someone else has to deal with its aging and death.  The first step in that process is spreading the word that this is even happening.


*Note: Here’s a shelter which offers humane euthanasia for older or sick pets as a free service.  I feel this is a good service shelters should not be ashamed to offer, and which people who do not have the $75-100 or so it can cost to euthanize a pet should not be ashamed of using.  I vastly prefer this option to the “let’s let it suffer until it dies on its own” approach.

On Pets vs. Parenthood