So you have a cause, and you want the general public or other supporters of the cause to join you and fight for it. What do you do? It’s common for animal advocates to use shocking photos to support what they are fighting for (sharing it on social media, feeds, or other outlets), or blame others or their audience for the problems in the world. Using dog advocacy as an example, shocking photos may contain horribly abused dogs, people actively abusing dogs, or even dead dogs.

In a nutshell, if you don’t want to read any further, I hope that:

  • Advocates use fewer dead dogs to sell their point, and use other meaningful stories that gather attention in other ways that do not hurt or turn off a portion of their audience.
  • Realize that there are very compelling, smart, and imaginative ways to go viral, dead dogs is not the only option. If graphic truly what you believe you need to do, try to give people the option to view using warnings rather than force it on them in news feeds.
  • Understand that people who feel this way do not necessarily have their heads in the sand, and care very much for making change happen.

Note: The images in this post will be of happy, alive dogs that have little to no relationship to the words expressed. I just happen to have them on hand…

This week a series of photos is being shared of a dog, in a gas chamber, slowly dying. I will not share this photo, you do not need to see it (or if you do, you can probably find it quite easily), but I will use words so you know what I’m getting at. A progression of photos from when the dog is placed in the chamber, gasping for air, dying, taking his last breath, and then the dead dog lying there with foam exiting his mouth. Some advocates are using this series of photos, others are using the last photo with captions. These photos are incredibly graphic, disturbing, and right there in my social news feed with no choice but for me to view it unless I block these users and groups. It is being used to advocate against gas chambers (although no direct call to action in the photos I’ve been forced to view so far – or at least, I tried to move past too quickly to see it).

This photo made me fully understand what I’ve heard expressed by many other advocates about why they block people who post such images. Imagine for a second a photo of a dead, aborted fetus. Imagine how that feels to someone who has recently miscarried or lost a baby, scrolling past it in their Facebook news feed. Although not the same issue, it is the same tactic being used.

Does shock work?

It might work, or it might not. Some studies show that these shocking images work for an audience who only looks at a story for a second (for example, they only scroll by or look at an image for a second or less). PETA relies on this. So if that’s your audience, one with no time or attention span going through the firehose of a news feed for example, it will probably work. And it sure gets attention, as shock and gore naturally does. But for regular advocates or people who will spend more than a second, it may not make any difference or could backfire entirely.

Even though I have never seen this graphic photo before this week, I am still well aware of this issue, and others like it through much less disgusting photos and stories. I have seen documentaries about kill shelters, I’ve seen the euthanasia rooms in kill shelters I’ve volunteered at and walked past the freezer on a regular basis. I’ve seen documentaries where dogs have been dumped in the gas chamber. About this particular issue, I’ve read articles about Utah shelters saying gas chambers are more humane than other methods of killing and participated in petitions against this. And I’ve driven hundreds of miles to attend California legislation meetings on more than one occasion to help reduce the number of shelter animals killed, joined a local no-kill group, and run several Facebook advocacy pages.

Heck, here’s an article from 2005 on this same issue, making the same argument. The fight isn’t new.

What’s the point? I was aware of the issue without needing to see the shocking photo. Yet what did I think about when viewing this photo? My own dog, Mikey, who I had to put to sleep because he was past the point of no return for the disease that killed him. It reminded me of HIS last breath, that I had to witness, and flooded me with those memories since I first saw that photo. Did I think of the gas chamber? No. Would I have if some other tactic was used? Most definitely, because it has. In other words, the shock was not needed to get this kind of news to me, the follower of all-things-animal-advocacy. And the other thing I thought was how could I avoid thinking about that horrible memory of mine again. Selfish perhaps, but that’s what happened, and I don’t believe I’m atypical.

What is in an education

There are many different kinds of media, and some are more effective than others. Here we are using shock and disgust, plain and simple, in the PETA way. It seems like there is a belief that this is the only thing that works, and if it doesn’t the viewer is obviously against the cause or cold-hearted. I can guarantee that this is not always the case.

Education can take many forms, and I do not believe (in my opinion) that this is the most effective even to reach a wide audience. Sure, it may pass more eye-balls, but will it call people to action? Was there even a call to action? What does call people to action? I believe effective storytelling, positive messaging, no finger-pointing, and a clear “what to do next”. We don’t need cheap shots. Studies support this too, formal and informal.

There are other ways that using negative messaging can backfire. For example, if people hear that “everyone does something”, even when poor behavior is stressed, it gives people “permission” to also do that thing. For example, if we say “many people dump their dogs at the shelter”, people will think it is okay because so many other people are doing this. See this article for more information on negative “social proof”.

Shock vs alluding to shock – effectively educating without showing dead dogs

I agree that “shock” can be used effectively. I have said myself that people should have to visit a shelter before they go buy or breed a dog, and just walk past the freezer. See the location, and hear about what happens to dogs (hear the statistics, see the eyes of the dogs who won’t make it).

The HBO documentary “One Nation Under Dog” recently aired a video clip of alive dogs being placed in a gas chamber, prefaced with a notice it would be disturbing (giving viewers the option to not watch). They did not show the dogs dying, or dead dogs, they only showed the “before” action and discussed the issue. Showing dying or dead dogs was not necessary, the point was made very clearly and effectively without going over the top. I remember that part of the documentary to this day, and it motivates me. Not to mention, I had the opportunity to opt out.

I used to volunteer at a kill shelter, where on average only half of the dogs “made it”. I never saw a dead dog. I didn’t need to (and if I had, I probably couldn’t have returned to volunteer). But I didn’t need to in order to motivate me to do more – I knew about what was going on, being that close meant I didn’t need to actually see it.

I would call this taking the viewer to the “edge” of shock, or alluding to shock – giving them a visual without disgusting them, and educating them further with words. OK, I’m sure there is a much better term. Regardless, I find this to be highly effective in my own education and I reckon it would work for others. And it helps your audience avoid shocking photo burn out, or blocking you from their feed.

And one more thing: Don’t blame your helpers or advocates for the dead dogs

Every day, my Facebook feed is full of messages and pictures (usually with captions) blaming the general population for animals at shelters, being killed, and so on. This tone carries on into adoption profiles and more.

Tend and befriend your audience, don’t point your finger at ’em

Are they to blame? In many cases, yes. Should we blame them? I don’t believe so. Because it usually won’t help get a dog out of the shelter. Plus, most of the people seeing that photo are probably other advocates! Even speaking against this campaign tactic, and explaining why (the opinions above), I’ve been blamed for not being a “REAL” animal advocate. Yes, there is a lot of fragmentation in animal advocacy indeed, and blaming is way too common.

And it also causes burn out, and causes the blamers to be blocked.

There are many cases where you do need to point the finger, as there is no other way to phrase it (for example, when you are trying to change the system and you are shining the light on a particular injustice). But pointing the finger at your potential adopters, or people you want to help you, will probably do more harm than good. The point here is to just tread carefully and think about any negative messaging before pressing Send.

Note: Yes, I know this blog post in itself is pointing a finger in a different way. I believe this is a case of wanting to change/improve the system :)

Know your audience

Your audience is divided into (at least) two groups: those involved in animal advocacy, and the general pet-owning public (the rest, not interested in animals, will probably ignore your posts). The general animal-loving public often does not know much about shelter animals or our cause, and many of them will be interested in finding a breeder of whatever breed they grew up with but may consider a shelter or rescue dog.

Know that these people will often entertain adoption only if it is easy, and they will get what they want. Throw any negativity onto this, and they will probably run away. They do not care much about how many dogs die, how they die, they do not care much about abuse or mistreated animals, they don’t care about how the dog was “dumped” at a shelter. They only care about whether they can adopt a dog who looks cute and/or is or looks like a certain breed and/or won’t chew their shoes. And that’s OK. If they save a life while they’re at it, great, but it’s probably not why they will choose that dog in the first place. This is nearly every person I’ve worked with… and many of them end up buying a dog from a breeder anyway.

So don’t try to change that, don’t try to change their mind, just try to get them to know how great dogs are in your shelter or rescue and consider adopting a dog by whatever means works!

Showing them adorable homeless dogs, outside of a shelter environment, is what attracts their attention. Not guilt trips, not being shamed into going to a shelter to adopt, not being treated like the bad guy. Not dead dogs lying in a heap. That turns them off, and they may end up at a breeder where they don’t need to hear the lecture and can avoid the scary shelter. And then that potential home is lost (and even more if he or she tells a friend about their experience).

If someone is talking about breeding, explaining the shelter situation can be helpful. Start with the positive – show them the great dogs in need of homes, and explain how they don’t all make it. Need to go further? Yes, this might be a picture of the freezer door with some statistics. But we don’t need to open the body bag or show the gasping dog on his last breath to get the point across.

Where to go from here

  • Focus on a positive message, and actions – what to do, or where to go to do something. The message of course might be about something sad or negative, but spin it to something useful (this sad thing happened, but you can do something about it!) Statistics have shown that positive messages have more impact.
  • Don’t blame the people you want help from for the dead dogs. For example, don’t focus on the sad story about the dog, how people dump animals in shelters. This won’t help your cute pup get adopted, and it won’t help get someone to sign your petition! Focus on what your audience can do or how great this animal is and there are so many others. In other words, what needs to be done and why to help make this world a better place.
  • Focus on your audience: are they mostly advocates, who already know the issues? Or are they casual pet owners? Remember that pet owners are mostly not interested in the shock of the issue, and probably wont take action – they just want to know how to find a great pet.
  • If some shock is needed, or helpful, don’t take it further than absolutely necessary. Show a visual that “makes it real” and then let your words tell the story. Like I mentioned earlier – show the the freezer door instead of opening up the body bag inside. Remember that showing gruesome photos may alienate some of your audience, and cause them not to listen to your future messages.
  • Humanize the situation, make it personal, and tell a story. You’ll have more than a second of attention, so you don’t have to use a dead dog to get a reaction.
  • For adoption write-ups, focus on the animal and not blaming the previous owner. Here is a great resource on writing an adoption profile.
  • Join me on Facebook for news and updates: California Animal Advocates, and Helping SF Bay Area Animals

PS: And if you disgree with gas chambers as an unnecessarily cruel way of needlessly killing shelter animals and would like to take action, here are some links to get you started:

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • Sharonholsapple

    Great article, Jen. I really like the positive point of view.

  • Shock turns me off. It makes me hide, unfollow, blog, unsubscribe, send to spam – I’ve even threatened to report a woman to local officials for cyber bullying, because she kept sending me horrible images via email in an effort to inspire me to do more.

    I made a point of never doing that on my blog, because IT DOESN’T WORK! I turn the channel, I leave the room, I do not donate to their cause. I do, however, work with reputable rescue groups who do respect that these images give some of us nightmares. That awful woman who emailed me gave me nightmares for a week.

    There is another way. Social media is such an effective tool if used correctly.