Online forums ‘super spreader’ of puppy advice misinformation

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Research has shown over half of UK dog parents use Facebook as the most common source of health information. Online community groups are a great way for new dog parents to connect with one another and gain reassurance that their experience of first-time ownership is ‘normal’. However, they can also have some very serious consequences.

Lorna Winter, a Director of the UK Dog Behaviour and Training Charter and co-founder and head of training at Zigzag, weighs in…

Too many cooks spoil the broth

Having a platform which brings together a wide variety of parents can be a great source for support and encouragement, but there will ultimately be differing opinions, and this can be potentially harmful, especially in regards to training advice. Much scientific research is being conducted to help dog specialists explain certain behaviours.

using these online groups will inevitably lead to confusion, as users simply don’t know who to believe and what advice to trust

However, the value of this research is often undermined by the scale of these community groups where inexperienced dog owners are sharing advice purely based on their own experiences – many of which are outdated, have been proven to be ineffective in the long term, or be potentially harmful to dogs physically or emotionally.

Despite this, it does not prevent owners from turning to these community groups for support as it is a method they are familiar with and even use when seeking advice for themselves. However using these online groups will inevitably lead to confusion, as users simply don’t know who to believe and what advice to trust, leading to more conflict and stress.

Self-diagnosis is the real problem

The underlying issue which is ultimately more harmful than the online groups themselves, is the process of self-diagnosis. When dog parents identify an issue with their dog they will often generalise and self-diagnose the issue – when in fact, this might be totally inaccurate and can lead to them receiving or looking for the wrong advice. It’s important that professional help from a trainer or behaviourist, where they have assessed the dog, is sought before seeking a solution to the problem.

Our own research revealed that over a quarter (27 per cent) of dog owners would consider giving up their puppy if they displayed behaviour that was mistakenly identified as ‘problematic’ – this uncovers a huge knowledge gap amongst dog owners.

 Without a full assessment of the dog, it is impossible to give good or correct advice

For example, while on the face of it ‘my dog pees in the house’ or ‘my dog eats poo’ may seem like a generic toilet training or eating issue, it may actually be something quite complex and there may be several reasons a dog is acting in this way. Without a full assessment of the dog, it is impossible to give good or correct advice – this is the main issue we face with the generic advice that is dished out on social media platforms.

This also becomes a cause for greater concern when the issue is more serious, such as when a dog is growling, biting or being aggressive. These are complex problems that need professional attention.

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Verifying the information you read online

We are all guilty of using Google when we have identified something alarming within ourselves, and it’s no different to what we do with our dogs. But whilst there are some common patterns of behaviours and developmental needs across breed types, making high level assumptions is highly problematic. Every dog and household is different and therefore, each owner will need tailored advice.

When it comes to training and obedience advice,  parents must do their research around modern training methods from trusted sources. We often see outdated training methods being advised online such as the ‘cry it out approach’. This is where first time puppy owners are advised to let puppies cry all night during their first nights at home. The theory is that the quicker they learn to be on their own, the quicker they grow in confidence.

Online information of any kind is likely to do more harm than good

This has since been proven an inefficient way to address this behaviour, and has the opposite effect as puppies learn to suppress these distressing emotions, which can often lead to long-term issues.

If dog parents are looking for help with a perceived behavioural issue, then the rule of thumb is online information of any kind is likely to do more harm than good. Therefore, it is important that they consult a professional to get an initial assessment to identify the root of the issue. While seeking advice from these online platforms can seem reliable and an easy way to get information quickly, it can also result in a breakdown of trust between the dog and the owner.

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Image by Elena Rogulina on Pixabay

It’s the dog parents’ responsibility to do the best they can for their dog, and this includes learning to understand them, communicate with them, and help them if they are struggling.

Generic advice, based on self-diagnosis or generalisations based on breed, damages the relationship as dogs and their owners become frustrated, confused and disengaged. For the dog, this can also result in many other emotions such as sadness and depression.

It’s easy to be influenced by what we see online, but when it comes to our dogs, we have a duty to provide the best care possible – and this is by seeking professional help.

This is a guest essay by Lorna Winter. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk

1 COMMENT

  1. Yes, I agree. I regularly see the disproved “alpha/got to show them who is boss/squirt them with water advice. However I think you are missing out an important point, cost. People do not always have hundreds of pounds to see a behaviourist. I totally understand that the wrong advice creates even more problems but with living costs spiralling a lot of people will struggle to find money to feed their dogs, let alone anything else

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