“There’s often a reason why people and dogs bite. It’s about self-protection. If we respect what we may not know about the suffering of others and look at them compassionately, we open the door that can lead to understanding.”
― Jennifer Skiff, The Divinity of Dogs
This will be my last word on the awards. I am still flabbergasted that something as simple as a dog contest could turn into such a vicious, destructive force. You know I am not prone to criticism of others. But, the Hero Dogs are, for me, a sad metaphor for everything wrong with the internet, corporate America and the non-profits that lose their way, wrap themselves in good intentions, but end up fixated on monetary rewards so much that they lose sight of the compassions they purport to further. I’ll explain.
The American Humane Association (AHA) Hero Dog Awards are nearly over. Dozens of contestants devoted almost five months of their lives and enlisted the support of hundreds of their friends in support of the contest. I am glad it is coming to a close. It was akin to Vietnam for me: Never ending, the casualties mounting, the participants reviled and the administration in charge non-responsive to the people who fought on their behalf.
What finally angered me was not the collective questionable behavior of the “team” that won nor the deceptive marketing scheme devised by the AHA that is meant to convince potential advertisers of the benefits of supporting a weak social media campaign and their Hallmark Channel red carpet awards show . It was the complete lack of regard for the emotional welfare of the people who worked so hard to give them the numbers they needed to manipulate sponsors into continuing to finance the marathon contest that finally got to me.
The awards were effectively “fixed” from day one. Last year’s winner leveraged his celebrity and backed a team with his large following. The hundreds of contestants who participated as individuals were doomed to defeat from day one and the AHA knew it. Dozens of worthy dogs were excluded, not because of the strength of the competition, but questionable motives and morals of the juggernaut leader that had planned well in advance to dominate the awards. His following was not privy to his refusals to level the playing field even when sponsors were threatening to leave. Instead were falsely led them to believe he was being banned from the awards among other fabrications and exaggerations. Much of what he transmitted to his following was carefully spun to make him look like the victim of both the AHA and other trolls and “whiners,” as he called them, who wished him ill. He made mountains out of molehills to rally support, hurting all of us in the process. It worked. He obliterated the integrity of the contest and damaged the intended mission of the awards because he believed he was acting within the rules. And the AHA stood silent. Just two question: If the organization that, in part, built your celebrity would you threaten its viability? If you knew sponsors had threatened to pull out of the event because of your dominance would you still offer to support someone for the coming year’s contest even while you were in the midst of scrutiny and controversy for your behavior?
Most of the voters this year had cast ballots in last year’s event. The AHA, despite touting big numbers for participation, has a laughable presence on social media platforms. This award’s contest is poorly designed and does little to positive grow their membership or aid their branding. Their media package they pump to potential advertisers says they generate millions of visits to the Hero Dog website. In reality only a few thousand came and many were returnees who visited, again and again, to cast votes for the same slate of dogs. Some supporters openly admitted to using as many as seven email accounts to effect the outcome. Why did AHA allow this? Simple: Had they ended the awards within a sensible time frame and bern strict, they would have revealed their sadly low audience reach. If you do the math, it becomes apparent that the million plus votes allegedly cast, when divided by the 90 days of voting and allowing for the people who used several email accounts to cast multiple votes, made for very weak market saturation. And seven of the dogs received 1000+ votes a day that were all from the same boter base. Multiplied over 90 days that is 560,000+ votes that should not impact advertisers. If you follow the finalists on Facebook it is easy to see that the winners of each division, with a couple of exceptions, had no real influence on the internet beyond the support given them by last year’s winner. One such hero dog, today, had 6 likes and no reposts for a request for support if their dog in the final month long round of voting for overall winner. The numbers are a sham and the AHA should be ashamed of such a blatant manipulation of the numbers to con advertisers into paying higher than reasonable ad or sponsorship rates.
The list of transgressions by competitors and their supporters is long and in some cases frightening. A few of them:
Widespread machine voting and fraud…
Death Threats (yes, really) to some competitors…
Reporting of pictures, posts and comments as spam and abusive so they would be removed, robbing competitors of visibility…
Angry lambasting of competitors and the AHA on their Facebook walls and the walls of the AHA and other competitors.
Memes and captioned photos calling unspecified competitors “trolls” or “whiners” which colored all contestants negatively…I repeatedly asked for names of those claimed to be trolling, but was never answered.
The AHA knew by the end of the third week who would win and that none of the 150+ others had a reasonable shot of the ridiculously low prize money. Yet they remained silent and allowed hundreds/thousands of supporters to keep voting in order to boost their association’s dubious page view totals for advertisers. Most of us by this time were already apologizing to our friends for our impositions, unaware that we were actually calling on them to waste their time and enthusiasm on a lost cause. What I suggested was to add 3 Ambassador selections to the final winner’s circle. Those picked would be ones thought by the judges to be examples of what the contest was meant to exemplify. I was told it was $15,000 per tribute video if they did that so it was impractical. That’s awfully short sighted. A dog like Charlie Boy or Tennille could have garnered more positive attention than the other winners combined. Any acknowledgement of one or two others who had worked so hard to promote the AHA might well have dissipated some of the anger and resentment felt by dozens of contestants.
Open attacks on other competitors meant to completely discredit them: One veteran was told to crawl back into his hole with his booze and drugs after he called to question the eligibility of another dog. It was an allusion to his PTSD that did not set well with me. Another, who actually won their category, said that the stress was so bad that she was losing hair and having other somatic issues.
One dog, who won his division, clearly had a padded profile. I reviewed conversation transcripts from the dog’s previous owner, spoke to several professional handlers and am now 100% convinced his entire profile was fabricated. And the chief supporters of the dog and the AHA knew all along that the dog was not what he was presented to be….
That the AHA called this kind of behavior,”spirited competition” angered me, but not nearly as much as their actions after the last week of the competition. I awaited word about the voting outcome, as did the hundreds of people who supported other dogs, and never received an announcement of the category winners. All contestant profiles were simply deleted from the AHA website. I learned of the winners though their Facebook pages cheers of success. Winners had been notified while the losers were treated, not like supporters of the AHA, but just losers. We were not even given a “thank you” email for our three months of service to the AHA. We were left to explain to our friends that we were pretty sure we lost. The three months of service that helped them pre-sell ads to sponsors and to convince celebrity judges to participate were not recognized. The trials and tribulations we all endured they hoped would go unnoticed if they remained mute so they would not have image issues seem by their deep pocketed celebs… We were social and financial chimp change.
We were used. The AHA suffered from what pilots know as “target fixation”. It is when you are so focused on a the end result that you crash into the ground or get shot down because you were blind to everything else around you. They’ve lost considerable grass roots support. But I was told by one staffer they didn’t care. Hero Dogs only represents a small portion of their income.
I have taken a vow to never participate in another vanity contest or one that requires me to exploit my audience or my friends. The results of these kinds of contests, now that people know how to game the tallies, are questionable at best. And they bring out the worst in all of us. And with groups like the AHA caring only about numbers and willing to let competitors wreck havoc on reputations and serenity for the sake of a few dollars, it would make me an accomplice to such behavior.
The combined time and energy expended on the Hero Dog Awards could have generated much more tangible good for much more worthy organizations.
In the end I am grateful for the new connections I made and for being able to share Gander with a broader group of like minds. Gander’s Facebook page, which did not exist before the awards, is now a special sanctuary for dog lovers and a community of supportive friends. Now it is time for us to move forward toward common goals with positive, not destructive, consequences.