In 2013 Nelson & Fijn published an absolutely brilliant paper in Animal Behaviour. It’s called ‘The use of visual media as a tool for investigating animal behaviour‘ and it’s about watching animals on YouTube.
I watch a lot of animals on YouTube so I love this paper. It provides a methodology for using YouTube videos in animal studies, all very simple rules, like not using videos with editing and the like.
Why is this important? How can YouTube contribute to the study of animal behaviour? Well have you seen this video? It was doing the rounds on the internet recently.
The video’s description says that the dog has become protective of the unborn baby, going so far as to defend the baby bump from the soon-to-be-dad. It’s a cute story and makes for good internet memes. I have to be honest that as a behaviour scientist my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.
How does a dog know what pregnancy is, or that it will result in a baby that will be part of the family? How does a dog even know that a baby is a thing to be protected? But as I thought about this I remembered our old cat who became fascinated with my mum’s belly when she was pregnant. According to my mum all her cats have been fascinated by her pregnancies. I’m sure they hear the second heart beat and it must be a fascinating thing for them.
This dog, I thought, is probably just responding to some weird behavioural cue that its owner is giving it. Like the well known story of Clever Hans, the horse who could count by reading its owner’s behaviour. This is actually a well known behavioural phenomenon, and is blamed for things like your dog looking guilty when its done something wrong (Horowitz, 2009).
Oh if only in this age of connectivity, I could somehow ask the owner if she might be aware of any cues . . .
It turns out the protective dog in this video is called Tebow, a 2 year old dog owned by Mekesha and her partner Justin. 3 weeks from her due date, Mekesha found the time to answer some of my questions.
As it turns out, Tebow is fascinated with Mekesha’s belly at the moment, just as I remember my cat being fascinated by my mum’s. Tebow will sit beside Mekesha with his head on her belly, or will lick it if he gets the chance. He’s also devoted to Justin’s young nephew and their younger dog, also in the video.
Something I thought was really interesting is that Mekesha wanted people to know Tebow isn’t an aggressive or mean dog. In fact she’s pretty upset that people think he might be. In the video you can see she’s laughing and she says everyone found it funny. As for whether she might be anxious in some way that Tebow is picking up on . . .
We have found it hilarious ever since, not threatening. I have no anxiety about my belly being touched and I actually don’t mind people doing it, I do know that certain pregnant woman who hate it, I am not that way.
I think that seems pretty certain! Of course, you can always argue that perhaps there’s some subconscious anxiety, that perhaps the anxiety is coming from Justin and not Mekesha – there are a hundred ways to interpret this video. But it’s interesting that most people who view it go with the ‘anthropomorphic’ one. That Tebow is protecting his family, even the ones he might not quite understand.
It might be easy to say “well this is somebody and their pet, of course they’re going to think the best of them”, but for another video doing the rounds this week:
National Geographic photographer describes a leopard seal’s attempts to feed him, graduating from live prey, to hurt prey, to dead prey, to partially eaten prey, as the seal becomes more and more convinced the photographer was incapable of feeding himself.
We should never forget that animals don’t think like we do. They don’t process the world like we do. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the similarities we do have in common. Videos like this get to the very essence of animal behaviour science – why do animals behave in the way the do? YouTube, and the internet, will help us by showing us more and more examples of these strange behaviours. What was once an odd story about something your friend’s dog did, becomes something an animal behaviour scientist might be able to analyse.
Plus I just want to get some funding to sit around on YouTube all day. Ethologists of the world, who’s with me?!