Trolls, Bullies, & Keyboard Warriors, Oh My!
There will be a slight departure from my typical focus on dog training with this blog post. Instead, I’m going to delve into human behavior. Don’t worry, I’m a psychologist. Though I must admit, I often find human behavior utterly mystifying and incomprehensible. That doesn’t stop me from exploring it further though. And in the end, this all circles back around to dogs; as does pretty much everything in my life.
As many people are aware, several years ago I had a terrible experience where my much-loved young Border Collie killed one of his housemates; a much loved Sheltie. The incident was horrendous on pretty much every level imaginable. Trust me, you really don’t even want to imagine finding one of your dogs in the process of killing another. The images of that moment will never fade. Quest (the sheltie) was injured so severely that he had to be euthanized immediately and I made the heartbreaking decision to euthanize Helo (the border collie) the next day. Everything about that event still haunts me, and it always will.
Photo of Judy & Quest by Barb Cerrito
I am not alone in finding myself in this type of situation and having to make this terrible choice. It happens more regularly than you think, and most people never talk about it. I can certainly understand that. The secondary trauma of being villainized and attacked both online and in real life is serious and horrible. The problem with keeping secrets, though, is that they tend to fester alone in the dark. By talking about these situations people can find support and community. We discover that we are very far from alone. I remember clearly making the decision to go public and thinking that it could only be damaging. I could not imagine anything good coming out of my telling the truth. I was wrong about that.
Almost a year ago, another well-known trainer and friend of mine found herself in a similar situation. A dog she fostered for over a year attempted to kill one of her housemates. My friend euthanized the foster dog that evening and faced the same sort of hateful backlash that I, and so many others, have experienced. The level of anger and fury directed towards her was horrifying.
More recently another professional trainer posted about a dog she had chosen to euthanize. Again, the trolls, bullies, and keyboard warriors came out in force. They called her names, threatened her with explicit physical harm, and attempted to ruin her business. Why? Because they disagreed with her decision. Keep in mind that these are strangers for the most part who don’t even know the specific situation or circumstances. Yet they feel totally justified in attempting to ruin another person’s life.
This nonsense needs to stop! It is not acceptable on any level. You don’t get to decide whether or not someone else made the “right” decision. You, the person sitting behind the keyboard reading about a terrible tragedy, do not have the right to add to the suffering and misery. Your lack of empathy is stunning. Your hubris in thinking that you know more and could do better is clearly evident. And your inability to see the complex factors that go into such a decision highlight your simplistic black and white world view. Basically, you are a sad excuse for a mature human being, in my opinion. I am angry on behalf of myself and for all the loving pet owners who have made euthanasia decisions and then been attacked by trolls, bullies, and keyboard warriors. We don’t deserve that and it is not okay.
Most people who make the decision to euthanize a dog due to dangerous behavior are loving and caring pet owners. I’ve heard their stories and they are heartbreaking. They have spent an enormous amount of time, energy, and money trying to make a terrible situation work. In the end they felt forced to admit there was nothing more to be done to make their much loved dog safe in this world. Nobody wants to make that decision.
To look at a person who is in tremendous pain and to purposely pile more pain on top of that is never ever justified. You do not have the moral high ground here; just the opposite. You show your inferiority and small minded hatefulness when you behave this way. There are a lot of psychological concepts that can explain this totally inappropriate and unacceptable behavior, and those fascinate me. Let me discuss a few here.
One concept is that of ‘deindividuation’; that being anonymous allows us to act in ways we would not if we could be clearly identified. Anonymity releases inhibitions. Sitting behind a screen, possibly behind a fake identity, seems to release the worst in some people. They no longer act as they might in person or even if they could be identified. The group aspect is also an issue. Once a handful of people attack, others, who may not have acted otherwise, feel emboldened to join in. They feel supported by the crowd, even though the crowd is behaving in a socially unacceptable manner.
A couple of related concepts are ‘blaming the victim’ and the ‘just world hypothesis’. As humans we want to assign blame. We want to identify the cause, particularly when something bad happens. So what is more obvious than blaming the owner? It must have been their fault! This actually allows us to feel better, because we can then decide that we would never behave as they did, so that bad thing will never happen to us. Bad things only happen to people who deserve it, right? This is faulty logic but that doesn’t stop people. If you can allow yourself to believe that people always get exactly what they deserve then you are displaying a belief in a just world. The problem though, is that a just world doesn’t seem to exist for us. This minor detail doesn’t seem to stop people from casting blame on those they believe deserve it. People find it hard (or even impossible) to accept that random bad things happen to good people. If you admit that then you open up to the possibility of random bad things happening to you.
I see a lot of ‘unrealistic optimism’ in posts from strangers who are certain they could have avoided or fixed the problem. It’s easy to sit back and imagine that you have the magic solution. That doesn’t mean that you actually do. One of the more common attacks on me centered around the fact that I am a primarily positive reinforcement trainer. If I would have only used some aversive techniques, they stated, none of this would have happened. My dog’s life could have been saved if only I’d been willing to punish him. The keyboard warriors out there were positive that their theoretical punishment could have saved my dog’s life. I see a lot of faulty logic in this line of thinking. It is based on unknowable assumptions and the belief that the person is such an amazing trainer that they would always be successful.
Unknowable assumptions are very common in attacks against people who have euthanized their dogs. Total strangers suddenly think they know everything they need to about your situation, and that they would definitely make better choices. This is partially due to what we call a ‘hindsight bias’. After an event it’s easy to look back and try to make connections that seem logical and reasonable. Those connections are not obvious in real time moving forward though. What an outsider sees in retrospect is not what is actually happening in life. It’s a ‘Monday morning quarterback’ situation. It’s only clear because you know the outcome and you can then cherry pick back through events to make your narrative work. That’s not how real life happens.
I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg with this discussion. There is so much from social and behavioral psychology that explains the totally unacceptable behavior of trolls, bullies, and keyboard warriors. Just because we can explain it doesn’t mean that we can accept it. Just because there are reasons that it occurs; that doesn’t make it okay. People are better than their base urges and have the capacity to control them. We are capable of stepping back, thinking with a clear head, and displaying kindness and empathy rather than spouting hate and judgment.
We have a Facebook group called Losing Lulu that is focused on grief support for those who have euthanized their dogs due to behavioral issues. In addition we are open to animal professionals who want to understand and support others in this situation. We have a rigorous screening process in order to keep it as a safe space. If you want to join, answer the questions we ask you as fully and completely as possible.
Why am I writing about this topic yet again? Because it’s necessary. Trust me, I never wanted to be in the position of being an expert on this topic, but that’s where life took me. I cannot bring back my dogs but I can offer support to others who find themselves in similar situations. I can try to help people understand. I’m doing what I can with what I have. It’s all any of us can do.