Regarding the Dignity of Dogs

—Failures of Perception in Viral Videos



Claire Henry




Dogs are captive creatures of our domestic sphere and our video recording devices, making them accessible and popular subjects for short videos uploaded, viewed, and shared on social media and other websites. These dog videos provide insight into the human-canine relationship, its underpinning affects (from pleasure and amusement to frustration and humiliation), and the ethical issues of canine confinement in our households and in certain modes of representation online. These typically amateur home videos capture some of the reasons we have relationships with dogs at all, and it is not always a pretty reflection. Dogs teach humans a lot (or have the potential to) and bring their human companions a lot of joy, but it is also clear that many human companions misunderstand canine behaviours and exploit their dogs for their own amusement. This article connects the reasons for and problems with dog ‘ownership’ with the viewing pleasures of these videos—viral video reflects, reinforces, and shares these reasons between dog-loving viewers, in some positive ways but also in many problematic ways. While some videos offer experiential insight into canine sensations, affects, and experiences, many of these videos display a remarkable ignorance or indifference toward canine behaviour, compromising dogs’ dignity and owner/filmmaker/viewer responsibility toward the subjects for a laugh. In this article, I explore the screen and animal ethics of viral dog videos, drawing particularly on Jason Middleton’s discussion of the ethics of spectatorship in reaction and reunion videos and Lori Gruen’s arguments about how captivity can undermine animal dignity through visual and physical control. Dog videos are ethically significant to the extent that they illustrate and solidify the social role of dogs in human lives. The consumption of these videos for amusement and entertainment (despite the suffering or compromised dignity of the subjects) suggests there is a ‘failure of perception’ at work that perpetuates the ignorance and indignities we show toward our closest non-human companions.


Through the analysis of a few popular dog videos, this article explores how our practices of engaging with this form of media (making, watching, and sharing videos) mediates, reflects, and shapes the way we engage with dogs as a companion species. These viral videos are typically made and enjoyed by ‘dog people’, that is, people who live with dogs, love dogs, and consume (and sometimes create) representations of dogs that they share with other humans (specifically other ‘dog people’). ‘Dog people’ describe themselves as such for their affinity or bond with this species over others, preferring dogs as a companion species and taking pleasure in their company. The internet extends the ways in which people can perform the identity of a ‘dog person’ and indulge in its pleasures, from uploading and/or sharing dog videos to the sharing of news stories and popular science about dogs—therefore, having your own companion dog is not a prerequisite to being a ‘dog person’. ‘Produsers’ of dog videos curate and promote certain types of images of dogs, reflecting, projecting, and shaping the interspecies relationship through processes of uploading, compiling, consuming, sharing, and commenting.1 The term or category ‘dog people’ captures not only interspecies but also intraspecies affinity, for people self-describe this way to create or name commonality (or even a kind of membership) with other people who like dogs. I outline this term because both facets are represented in viral videos, and interestingly, can be in tension with each other—as these online global human connections flourish through sharing and remix, is any of the affinity or empathy with actual dogs lost? Or is it possible that the common attraction expressed in these representations can deepen human-canine affinity and understanding? The consequences of the widespread consumption of these videos is difficult to measure without empirical research as to how it affects attitudes toward and treatment of dogs, which would be an ambitious but fascinating research project. However, within the scope of this article, I employ spectatorship and new media theory along with animal studies and my knowledge as a dog behaviourist to assert the importance of ethical care, moral perception, dogs’ dignity, and education about dog behaviour, arguing that video technology should be harnessed to promote—rather than compromise—these aspects of the human-canine relationship.


Video makes possible (at least in mediated form) human capacity to experience the affects, sensations, joys and challenges that dogs have, for example, in running and playing on the beach with other dogs or eating peanut butter. It has the potential to be an empathic window into their world and to intensify the pleasures we seek in companionship with dogs. A definition of ‘companion’ is a person who shares the experiences of another, and dogs are one of humans’ most popular and enduring companion species. If empathy (reflecting the term ‘companion’) is about understanding and sharing the feelings of another, in many viral videos it is about sharing the embodied experiences of a dog, which is pleasurably familiar and unfamiliar. These videos create an embodied empathy with dogs that we cannot—or do not try to—experience with many other species. Illustrating this is the 2014 release of the GoPro cameras’ dog harness, called Fetch, which includes a chest mount (for dog point-of-view shots) and a back mount (for over-the-head shots). As pitched in GoPro’s introductory promotional video, ‘Fetch is a fun way to capture the world from your dog’s point of view and join the adventure with your favourite furry friend’. There are various subgenres of dog videos, but it is not surprising that GoPro videos are emerging as a popular one across animal videos for the new angles and insights they can open up into animal umwelten.2


Catmantoo, Happy Dogs & Cat in Australia (2014). Screenshot.

One popular video that employs GoPro technology and captures the simple pleasures of dogs is trainer Robert Dollwet’s video of twelve graduating dogs and his cat Didga enjoying a day at the beach to the soundtrack of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’. The video has been viewed over 12 million times on YouTube to date and circulated widely on social media and other websites. There is an infectiousness to the happiness of the dogs in this video, which is fostered by particular strategies in its construction. The aspects of this video that I am interested in are the evocation of affect (and its relationship to empathy), as well as the formal features used to create connections (between viewer and dog, between viewers, and between videos of the same kind). Like reality television, viral video is a useful media form for exploring affective materiality, and I share with Misha Kavka’s study of reality television an interest in ‘the autonomic (i.e., visceral or involuntary), pan-subjective operations of affect, conceived as a stickiness that holds bodies together in a dynamic web of mediated feeling’ (‘Matter’, 461). There is an affective alignment in ‘Happy Dogs & Cat in Australia’ between the dogs, the trainer/filmmaker (Robert Dollwet), and the viewer. Aside from the dogs themselves and their actions, Dollwet intensifies this through the formal qualities such as the camera angles, repetition, rhythmic editing, and importantly, the catchy and upbeat song. A GoPro camera is used for all shots, and much of the video is shot from dog’s-eye-view. Through these angles, and through the montage of dogs’ faces, the viewer is made to feel part of the pack, for example, when dogs run up to camera to greet you, or you’re swimming alongside them right at water level. While these techniques are quite successful in positioning the viewer as part of the happy pack, other techniques would seem to disrupt this or distance the viewer. For instance, it seems that almost every cheesy transition available in Final Cut Pro has been used in the three minute video, and there is plenty of repetition and backwards and forwards manipulation of the footage to make it work rhythmically with the song. However, this gives the video a home video aesthetic, which may strengthen the viewer’s identification with these dogs (perhaps evoking connections with their own dogs or their own home movies of their dogs) and also strengthens the connection with the filmmaker/trainer. Dog videos of various types arguably reinforce connections, not only the general human-canine bond, but also connections between humans who have canine companions and witness (and sometimes film) their own dogs’ pleasures, frustrations, and funny moments.


While some dog videos highlight the positive aspects (and shared affects) of the human-canine relationship, many of these videos also underscore dogs’ otherness and their use as objects of entertainment or degraded sources of amusement. These videos prompt similar concerns to those raised by Randy Malamud in his study of zoo spectatorship, similarly raising the question of ‘what this incessant sense of entitlement to absolute spectatorial control says about the people who relish the power that accompanies total visual access’ (Reading, 231). Dog videos can be revealing in terms of what humans take from dogs to define ourselves, specifically as human rather than animal, which reflects the demarcating function of animals common in human thought and culture. The human viewing pleasures are based on familiarity (linked to pleasures of recognition, connection, and commonality) and unfamiliarity (linked to pleasures of novelty, discovery, and difference). Familiarity sustains the appeal of these videos for this audience, as does unfamiliarity, but the latter also gives the videos an edge of ambivalence and distancing, breaking down some of the empathy fostered by real world human-canine relationships (while simultaneously reinforcing the link to other ‘dog people’ with a common sense of humour and understanding or observation of dogs). Malamud characterises the relationship between zoo spectator and subject as one of antagonism (ibid.). Like Malamud via Foucault (Reading, 230-31), Lori Gruen also recognises the resemblance between zoos and prisons, arguing that ‘the relationship of watched and watcher under conditions of captivity, whether or not the watcher is the one who confines and controls the watched, is not one of respect’ (‘Dignity’, 242). Gruen’s argument, extended to digital captivity, implicates the spectator as well as the owner/filmmaker in this disrespectful dynamic. In the way that the human dog-owning filmmaker and spectator position themselves and relate to the other species they take as companions and film subjects, there is a clear (and sometimes unsettling) power relationship. Representing and ‘mashing up’ our interpersonal cross-species relationships on video highlights and potentially reinforces the power imbalance, particularly because the power that dogs have in looking at us and shaping our behaviour is mostly mediated out of the relationship in video production and circulation. In our interspecies interactions, dogs return our gaze, pay attention to us, are attuned to us, recognize us, and anticipate us (Horowitz, Inside, 139-73). These wonders of the dog are sometimes acknowledged or played upon in videos, but they can also be diminished or disavowed. For all the powers of visual control that we wield over them, our powers of perception and recognition of dogs are comparatively weak, further digitally degraded rather than digitally enhanced.


Dogs vs. Peanut Butter’—a Buzzfeed video posted by Mark Celestino and also available on YouTube (with over 2.3 million views at time of writing)—is illustrative of these issues, as it is an ambivalent text operating on tensions between familiarity and unfamiliarity, and between empathy and distancing from the Other/‘freak’/animal. This series of dogs of various breeds eating peanut butter has been shot by the same filmmaker, but it points to the structure of the compilation, which is a very popular format for these videos that highlights commonality or species typicality for certain behaviours. As Jason Middleton points out, ‘YouTube’s format, in which the suggestions bar provides numerous videos similar to the one being watched, promotes this mode of viewing’ of watching multiple iterations of essentially the same gag in succession (‘Awkward’, 122). While YouTube as a platform fosters this, it is also a mode viewers are familiar with from television programs such as America’s (or Australia’s) Funniest Home Videos and Candid Camera. Middleton highlights how the simplistic structure of the comedy in pranks or scare videos on YouTube and their television progenitors


depends upon a basic principle identified by Noël Carroll in ‘Notes on the Sight Gag’: a differential in perception between viewer and character, in which the viewer can perceive the situation as the character perceives it but also has a broader understanding of the situation that is not available to the character. (121)


We can see this type of differential and humour at work in a number of dog videos—in ‘Dogs vs. Peanut Butter’, the canine subjects appear to simply be enjoying the moment and have no idea how ridiculous they look. Formal qualities of the video exaggerate the effect, in particular, slow motion to emphasize each dog savouring the treat and awkwardly struggling to get the sticky food off the roof of their mouth or their face. In the comments for this video on YouTube, viewers remark on the length of the dogs’ tongues and how their tongues move back into their mouth quickly (as if it is a slow motion animal movement study), and others ask why viewing it is so enjoyable (whether they personally enjoy it or not). The word ‘majestic’ is used several times within viewers’ comments, a quality of the video that is accentuated by slow motion and the music (‘Versailles’). The stylistic majesty contrasts with the dramatically undignified eating, creating humour based on incongruity. Noël Carroll places the sight gag within the incongruity conception of humour (‘Notes’, 39), defining it as ‘a form of visual humor in which amusement is generated by the play of alternative interpretations projected by the image or image series’ (26). The sight gag is an applicable framework for many of these videos, such as the popular ‘Ultimate Dog Tease’ and other talking dog videos.


‘Dogs vs. Peanut Butter’ reminds me of Elizabeth Grosz’s definition of a freak, who ‘is not an object of simple admiration or pity, but is a being who is considered simultaneously and compulsively fascinating and repulsive’ (‘Intolerable’, 56). Viewers are fascinated and entertained by the spectacle of this peanut-butter-eating dog freak show. The video is quite affectionate in its mockery, like gentle teasing between siblings or other human relatives. However, just as humans can be a little cruel to their siblings, they can often unwittingly cross empathic and ethical lines with their dogs in the name of a joke or entertainment, particularly when a camera is around. The indignities are driven further than a simple sight gag in some of these other very popular videos and subgenres of dog videos that circulate on the internet, which share ethical issues raised by some viral videos featuring human subjects. In contrast to cat videos, dog video scenarios are typically set up and the dogs perform on command or at least behave predictably (O’Meara, ‘Do Cats Know’). Popular dog subgenres and compilations have included talking dogs, ‘guilty looks’, dogs howling at sirens, dogs who don’t like to have a bath, and dogs with intense greetings for their owners (a sign of separation anxiety).3 Dogs are often provoked and captured in states of frustration, anxiety, or resistance (evident in their body language and vocalisations). For example, an owner-filmmaker will set their dog up to feel threatened in order to get a snarl out of them, or laugh at the display of obsessive compulsive behaviours such as tail chasing, spinning, or air licking. Much more than dogs eating peanut butter, I find many of these compilations unsettling or disturbing. As a qualified dog trainer and behaviourist, I see anxious and stressed behaviours in the dogs and callousness in the laughing filmmakers where other viewers may see cute quirks and laugh along with the spectacle. There are ethical implications to enjoying these videos which often seem to call for a suspension of ethical care in order to maximize viewing pleasure. In the following section, I explore how the reception of these videos as amusements relies upon suspension of ethical care and a failure of perception.


Jason Middleton’s chapter on reaction videos in Documentary’s Awkward Turn (‘Awkward’, 109-139) is useful for thinking through some of these implications. Although he doesn’t discuss animal videos, his examples of reaction and reunion videos highlight some of the spectatorship issues, ethical issues, and reasons why certain videos go viral. He notes that reaction videos are united by ‘investment in the display of affective or emotional authenticity’ (112) and suggests that the generation raised on reality TV programming seek jolts of spontaneity and authenticity in their viewing. Even more than the reaction videos Middleton discusses, the ‘natural’, spontaneous, and never-fully-understood behaviour of animals compiled in animal videos serve these moments up in quick succession to such viewers. Operating on a similar principle to reality television, dog videos often rely upon what Misha Kavka terms ‘constructed unmediation’, or a sense of reality created by production and post-production techniques that create immediacy or ‘affective proximity’ (‘Love’, 94-95; Reality, 7). The use of domestic settings, home video aesthetics, the structure of compilations and, in some cases, music, contribute to this sense of reality and immediacy and highlight particular affects such as happiness or joy, fear, frustration, surprise, or excitement. Middleton argues that, ‘Reaction videos privilege the affective experience of spectatorship at the expense of “recognition and responsibility” toward the subjects of the videos themselves’ (‘Awkward’, 134), and I would suggest that the same is often true of dog videos. For example, even in the Dollwet ‘Happy’ video, the rhythmic manipulation of the dogs’ actions serve affective ends but mask the dogs’ key communicative tool of body language, which disables recognition and responsibility.


At the same time as dog videos heighten their reality effect through ‘constructed unmediation’, they also arguably diminish it and encourage viewers to disengage or remain distant from the reality of dogs’ experiences in conditions of captivity and ‘companionship’. As with responses to the Scary Maze videos that Middleton discusses, there is a lack of ethical care that indicates ‘a type of “derealization” of the videos’ content’ (114). This is aided by the fact that dog owners—including (and even especially) those who make and view these films—seem unaware of the symptoms of psychological and physical issues for dogs; in particular, the anxious, fearful, and compulsive behaviors that have become increasingly common in pet dogs because of the way humans breed and treat them. I have, for example, been shocked to see owners place their dogs in situations that will make them reactive and then turn a video camera on them and laugh and reinforce fearful or aggressive behaviours. Here owners unethically film and upload clips of their dogs in states of anxiety, aggression, fear, or other types of distress for the amusement of themselves and other equally unaware humans who find common but abnormal dog behaviours entertaining.


Associated with this derealization, or what Geoffrey Hartman calls an ‘un-reality effect’ or ‘ghosting of reality’, is the potential for developing inappropriate psychic defenses (‘Memory.Com’, 4). This ‘un-reality effect’ creates a mode of perception that may have implications for viewers’ capacity for empathy and understanding of others (Middleton, ‘Awkward’, 118). Middleton writes, ‘The reactions of users who find popular Internet videos … like The Scary Maze Game funny affirm an ironic and distanced relation toward images of suffering … Many other phenomena in Internet culture consist of peoples’ pain and suffering transformed into humor and entertainment’ (119). He applies Bill Nichols’ term, the ‘ethic of irresponsibility’, to these videos (‘Awkward’, 120-121), and this notion of the filmmaker being complicit with the agency of suffering and the viewer also being implicated fits well with some of the more ethically concerning dog videos. Middleton writes that the derealization of ethically troubling subject matter ‘disallows a sense of personal implication and “recognition of the other” that might undermine the intended responses of laughter or pleasurable shock’ (130). The analogous derealization in dog videos presents a threat to dogs’ dignity because it perpetuates ignorance about canine perceptions and behaviours and prevents a sense of implication for the dog people making, viewing, and sharing the videos. Middleton continues, ‘On the other hand, videos expressly designed to promote an alignment of response between reaction video subject and spectator might seem to allow for “recognition of the other,” and enable a more ethical viewing position’ (ibid.). I do not want to overstate the value of the ‘Happy Dogs & Cat in Australia’ video, but there is an alignment of response between the subjects, filmmaker/trainer, and spectator that is arguably more positive than many other viral dog videos. It is not only more positive in the sense that they are aligned to a positive affect (happiness), but the facilitation of affective alignment itself encourages embodied empathy and insight into the canine umwelt. With all bodies (on both sides of the screen) sharing an experience of happiness in or through the video, the human filmmaker and spectators share a somatic understanding or engagement with the evocation and expression of affect in dogs. With an understanding that affect is interpersonal (Kavka, Reality, xi)4 and dignity is relational (Gruen, ‘Dignity’, 234), we can see how enhancing human regard or feeling for dogs’ desires, dignity, and happiness can be a positive outcome for real dogs in terms of recognition and respect. It would be interesting to see examples of videos where there is an affective alignment between subject, filmmaker and spectator around negative affects such as fear and anxiety, and to know what impact it would have for the recognition, understanding, and welfare of real dogs. Instead, no matter what affect the dog is feeling and expressing through their ‘funny’ behaviour, the filmmaker and spectator typically look on with amusement, refusing affective alignment, derealizing the content and suspending ethical care.


How is this suspension of ethical care possible, and why does it matter in the case of dog videos? Drawing on Lori Gruen’s reflections on the dignity of animals in captivity, I suggest that the suspension of ethical care is a (moral) failure of perception, and that it matters because dogs’ dignity matters. Gruen explores how ‘captive conditions, particularly zoos and prisons, can undermine dignity through both visual and physical control’ (‘Dignity’, 232), but her ideas can also be applied to the domestic and digital captivity of dogs that I am concerned with in this article. She argues that ‘when animals are forced to be something other than what they are, when they are made to be ridiculous, presented as laughable spectacles, this is disrespectful and their “animal dignity” is being denied’ (235). Many of these videos represent a denial of dogs’ dignity (and sometimes even also of their health and safety) as owner-filmmakers provoke and capture suffering for the purpose of entertainment. I employ Gruen’s discussion of dignity because it is not only suffering caused by physical or emotional manipulation that is of concern (for instance, when a ‘dancing dog’ is held up by wire, or an owner-filmmaker deliberately triggers their dog’s ‘humorous’ reaction of fear, frustration, or confusion), but also the undermining of dignity that frequently occurs in even the more benign of the videos. Rather than being caused by malicious intent, the lack of ethical care and failure to perceive indignities in these videos is typically underpinned by general ignorance about canine behaviour, body language, and needs. Martha Nussbaum argues that upholding animal dignity requires observance of species-specific properties and allowing animals to behave in ways that befit their species (see Gruen, ‘Dignity’, 236). We cannot respect animal dignity if we cannot recognize it, and anthropomorphism often obscures it, particularly with dogs. Many ‘dog people’ make the mistake of treating dogs as humans to demonstrate respect, dignity, and kinship, but as Nussbaum and dog behaviourists would agree, this anthropomorphizing instead undermines the dignity of dogs (and often creates stress, anxiety, and related behaviourial issues in dogs).


Popular dog videos are designed and shared online to entertain and amuse. They do not explicitly aim to reveal the diminished dignity of their animal subjects in the way of the photography examples that Gruen explores, such as Frank Noelker’s photographs of animals in zoos in Captive Beauty (2004), which rely upon the viewer’s response to indignity to generate recognition that dignity has been violated (Gruen, ‘Dignity’, 239-40). Dog videos do not reveal the diminished dignity (and freedom) of dogs to most viewers because of what Gruen calls a ‘failure of perception’ (238). As Gruen notes, ‘Perception is an important moral skill’ (240), and to view images of animal indignity as comical is a failure of perception. As noted above, this failure occurs in part because of our anthropomorphic tendencies (our failure to treat dogs as dogs) and lack of understanding about what animal dignity means (our failure to respect autonomy and species-specific characteristics, behaviours, priorities, and needs). Also, dog owners—like zoo spectators and other people emotionally or financially invested in practices of captivity such as pet-keeping and zoo-keeping—are likely to deny or resist recognising the fact that, as Gruen argues, captivity poses challenges to the dignity of the captive (244). Acceptance of this fact may bring with it moral implication and an ethical rethinking of long-accepted practices of animal captivity, hence the common denial and consequential ‘failure of perception’. Whether or not an animal is concerned with its own dignity, it is important for humans to recognize their dignity and doing so can promote their well-being: ‘being perceptive about dignity-enhancing or dignity-diminishing activities or conditions is a central part of our ethical capacity to treat others as they should be treated’ (ibid.). Against the mode of spectatorship that typically occurs with dog videos (as I have drawn upon Middleton to outline), a shift in perception is necessary to recognize the affront to dignity involved in the shooting and sharing of dog videos.


Can dog videos be used to improve our recognition of dogs’ dignity, rather than contributing to its diminishment? In this final section, I briefly explore some video alternatives and antidotes to dog videos as they are currently constructed and consumed, suggesting that video technology does have the potential to improve human awareness of dog behaviour and the well-being of dogs. Firstly, observational video is a useful tool for research into dog cognition and behaviour in such states as play, learning, and fighting, which among other uses, can educate owners on how to read dogs’ body language and recognize warning signs of a bite. For example, when Alexandra Horowitz took her training as an ethologist and her video camera to the dog park, then watched dogs playing in extremely slow-motion playback, she saw and understood behaviours she never had before (Inside, 5). ‘What I was seeing were snapshots of the minds of the dogs’ (ibid.), she explains, which gave her insights into how dogs communicate and interpret other dogs’ and humans’ actions, insights that she shares with dog people in her incisive and entertaining book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know. The dissemination of this video-based research is valuable in educating dog people and improving our abilities in the understanding, care, and companionship of dogs.


Secondly, surveillance video can be a great educational or diagnostic tool for understanding dog behaviour and psychological issues, as demonstrated in the UK Channel 4 TV series Dogs: Their Secret Lives. Presented by vet Mark Evans and vet nurse and canine behaviourist Tamsin Durston, each episode features a case study of a dog with a behavioural issue and shows how the experts address it. Video surveillance is key to the diagnosis and tracking progress, as the presenters use multiple hidden cameras around the house to observe the dog’s behaviour when left alone, and also sometimes use a camera mounted on a dog harness to capture the dog’s actions and vantage. The presenters and owners review the footage of the dog together, and then the presenters guide the owners through the steps required to manage the behavioural issue and relieve both the dog’s suffering and their own. What is so interesting about this use of video is that we not only view the surveillance footage of the dogs within the documentary, we also view the human owners watching back the footage and experiencing it as an upsetting revelation about the reality of their dogs’ lives and experiences in the home. It highlights the common human ignorance about who our dogs are, what their needs are, and how they respond to their conditions of confinement. In order to alleviate suffering, human companions need an insight into (or to be confronted with) how dogs behave when suffering from separation anxiety, boredom, and stress. This use of surveillance acts as testimony to a dog’s experience that is not performed for human eyes. Viewing this footage can encourage the diegetic and non-diegetic human viewers to reflect on (and hopefully improve) the quality of life of the dogs in their domestic captivity.


Violent practices such as surveillance and containment frame our relationship with other animals (Wadiwel, War, 56). However, while surveillance can be seen as another form of visual control that has been used as a weapon in ‘the war against animals’ to bolster human domination, within an already existing system of canine domestication and their conditions of oppression within human households, it has positive potential as a tool to improve their welfare.5 While I am cognizant of concerns about humanity’s ever-increasing surveillance of non-human animals, I believe that surveillance video can play a beneficial role for the human-canine relationship at this point in its evolution (or devolution, as many dog videos suggest). It may be even more powerful and beneficial when we turn video cameras on ourselves, as illustrated in the example of tracking owners’ progress in Dogs: Their Secret Lives, and potentially for monitoring children playing with dogs to hopefully reduce the incidence of dog bites and subsequent killing (or further confinement or restrictions) of dogs who have been threatened, hurt or harassed by children. Although video may increase human knowledge and power over companion dogs (and is therefore a risky tool in human hands), ‘dog people’ should at least endeavour to use it as a tool for self-reflection, improved welfare, and raising awareness of how the conditions of confinement we keep our dogs in are detrimental to their mental health and impinge upon their dignity.


Video can be a powerful positive tool for the human-canine relationship in terms of empathic projection into the canine umwelt, affirmation of positive shared affects and experiences, and a tool for insight into behavioural, health, and training issues. Further, the online sharing of videos can help ‘dog people’ connect with each other and open up dialogues about issues related to behaviour, breeds, and breeding. However, while dog videos may be a great source of amusement and sometimes a positive reflection on the human-canine relationship and bond, they also reveal its troubling aspects. In many popular dog videos, viewing pleasure is maximized by suspending ethical care and compromising dogs’ dignity. Amusement and entertainment in this form of media frequently relies upon debasement or the undermining of dignity, and whether or not the dog and the human companion filmmaker realise this, it should concern us ethically and make us pause before viewing, laughing, and sharing dog videos. Whether or not dogs know their dignity is being compromised by the videos of them we shoot and share is not the point—what is really at stake is whether we want to compromise or improve respectful relationships with individual dogs and dogs as a species. If dignity is best understood as a relational concept (Gruen, ‘Dignity’, 232), ‘dog people’ need to shoot, share, and watch critically, as video dogs shape the dynamic and nature of the human-canine relationship and have the potential to enhance or diminish the dignity of both species.


To improve the wellbeing of dogs, we need to approach these videos (whether making, viewing, or sharing them) with ethical spectatorship. As Gruen highlights, we need to improve our ethical skills in perception for the sake of animal dignity. Our cultural practices—and in particular, our failures of perception—can undermine the dignity of the dog. Within a context where dogs’ freedoms are already constrained by human domination and tools of human control and surveillance (from leashes to microchips), the least that ‘dog people’ can do is to acknowledge and desist in the use of video (and subsequent online sharing) as another tool for undermining dogs’ dignity in the context of captivity. Humans can engage viral video as a powerful weapon to either challenge or intensify cultural violence against animals, and ‘dog people’ would do well to redirect this form of media toward human companions’ awareness and education regarding the experiences and needs of dogs in order to support dogs’ dignity and improve their welfare.




1. The term ‘produser’—a hybrid of ‘producer’ and ‘user’—highlights the collaborative creation and curation of dog videos within online enthusiast communities of ‘dog people’. Axel Bruns outlines the concept of ‘produsage’ in Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage.. #back


2. Alexandra Horowitz provides a useful introduction to the concept of umwelt—subjective or ‘self-world’—and why it is important to gain an insight into the canine umwelt in her book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know (20-26). However, she notes the limitations of video technology in accessing the canine umwelt: ‘by suiting up animals with critter-cams we are mostly getting an idea of their vantage on the world, not their entire umwelt’ (245). #back


3. Radha O’Meara notes that in cat videos, the subjects are typically unaware of their observers, but in dog videos, the subjects often perform self-consciousness, such as seemingly acting out guilt or shame (‘Do Cats Know’). This is a popular subgenre of dog videos, but viewers’ (and the owner-videographers’) interpretation belies behavioural research that demonstrates ‘the so-called guilty look is a response to owner scolding; it is not expressed more often when actually guilty’ (Horowitz, ‘Disambiguating’, 451). The video compilations of ‘guilty looks’ perpetuate an anthropomorphism that, as Horowitz notes, affects owners’ interactions with and expectations of their dog, as well as training practices (448). This further highlights the ethical significance of perception in the human-canine relationship discussed in this article. #back


4. Kavka adds another dimension to the understanding of affect as ‘the zone of potential emotions’ (Reality, x), arguing that affect ‘can be said to serve as a cusp between the individual and the collective psyche, that shared pool of feeling whose production and recognition glues individuals into a particular social body’ (xi). #back


5. The potential for surveillance video to improve animal welfare has also demonstrated by the investigations into live baiting in Australia’s greyhound racing industry carried out by Animals Australia and Animal Liberation Queensland. Shocking secret footage of live baiting with rabbits, piglets, and possums in greyhound training was provided to the RSPCA and also included in the ABC Four Corners’ report, ‘Making a Killing’, by Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Sam Clark. The graphic exposé prompted further media coverage and significant public debate in February 2015, and the sport’s statutory regulators suspended numerous trainers, owners, and trial track operators. #back




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Malamud, Randy. Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.


Middleton, Jason. ‘Awkward Extremes: Reaction Videos and the “Reactive Gaze”’, in Documentary's Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 109-39.


O’Meara, Radha. ‘Do Cats Know They Rule YouTube? Surveillance and the Pleasures of Cat Videos’. M/C Journal 17, 2 (April 2014).


Wadiwel, Dinesh. The War against Animals. Leiden: Brill, 2015.




Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy

ISSN 2200-8616


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