“I Wish my Son was a Dog”

These are the words of a Father trying to save the life of his Son, Harrison. It is the title of the story about a controversial advertisement that appeared in the press in 2015 (Harrison’s Fund. 2015). You will need to visit the Harrison’ fund website to read the full story around this advert, CLICK HERE, and make a donation while you’re there.

Harrison’s Fund advertisement, 2015

The text beneath the dog’s image reads
Harrison suffers from a disease called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. It will gradually disable him and eventually kill him. There is no cure, no treatment and very little hope. Harrison’s Fund is dedicated to raising money to fund research into a cure or treatment so that we can buy him and others like him some time. This isn’t Harrison by the way, this is a picture of a dog I found on the internet. Harrison is my eight year old son. I used this image because people in Britain are more likely to donate to save an animal than a child with Duchenne. Sorry if you feel tricked, my son is dying and I’ll do whatever it takes to save him.
Copyright © 2015, Harrison’s Fund. Used with permission.

The harrowing story in this advert speaks for itself. Anyone reading it must share a little of the family’s awful pain. The Harrison’s Fund charity was set in September 2011. Harrison’s Dad, Alex soon realised just how difficult it was for small charities to create an ongoing public awareness and then to raise funds through donations from the public. Smaller charities efforts were simply eclipsed by the presence of the larger charities. An organisation advertising its services as “A leading organisation in the UK that provides high quality market research and consulting services exclusively for charities and non-profits” highlights the problem in an article called “How can small charities fundraise in a world dominated by the big fish?” (nfpSynergy. 2016).

Alex took a more proactive approach with an advert called ‘‘I wish my son had cancer’‘, launched in the press in 2013. To see the advert and the story behind it CLICK HERE, and make a donation while you’re there. This was followed up by the “Wish my Son was a Dog”advert 2 years later.
Now, here we are in 2017. The tremendous amount of activity evident on the Harrison’s Fund website over the last couple of years stands as testament to the ceaseless effort and energy that has gone into finding a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Yet, the gaping hole between the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’ charities remains. The most recent Charities Commission annual report for the Harrison’s Fund charity for 2016 shows an income of £455,5K. The income for Dogs Trust over the same period was £98.4M (Charities Commission, 2017).
 In this article we want to explore recent research that sheds some light on the underlying reasons behind people’s choices in giving.
  • How do people decide which charities to donate their hard-earned cash to?
  • What is the science behind Alex’s intuition to use controversial advertising techniques to raise money for his son, Harrison?
  • Why did Alex believe that a picture of an anonymous dog he found on the internet was a better choice than a picture of his own Son?
We hope to help answer these questions. We also sincerely hope that this information will be useful to Harrison’s Fund, and all small charities, in their approaches to raising money in the future.

What is it that shapes our positive and negative attitudes towards animals – especially companion animals?

This is a question scientists have been trying to answer for decades. Yet, despite all this effort, someone publishes the results of a study (see STUDY 2 below) that seem to provide a simple, yet highly plausible answer (Levin et al., 2017). It is a special kind of empathy called empathic concern, and the researchers of this study believe that it is the key to improving welfare standards, and that they should be applied in government animal welfare policy.
Over the years, much of the research has focused on very young children, which is a very logical place to start. We’ve looked at results from the PDSA’s annual pet wellness reports before HERE where findings showed that just 1 in 3 pet owners are aware of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and their five basic legal obligations for their pets’ welfare (the ‘five freedoms’). Nearly half, 42%, of prospective pet owners consider the internet a legitimate place to buy a pet while 24% would consider a puppy farm puppy. A staggering 23% did no research whatsoever on the animal before going out and buying their pet. Even worse, 68% of children have pets in the household but just 7% are aware of their five basic needs. Only 16% of children have been taught anything about animal welfare at school (PDSA, 2014).
Let’s take a step back from all this for a moment and take a wider view or human attitudes towards animals. Independent of religious affiliation and regardless of whether or not they actually own animals, individuals attitudes towards animals can be divided into 3 broad groups (Blouin, 2013) –
  1. Dominionistic: These people view animals more as objects than as other beings. Animals are there to be used for the benefit of humans as they wish, for example, entertainment, labour, food, protection of property etc.
  2. Humanistic: These people endow high status on animals and see their own pets as surrogate humans. They want to have close attachments and strong emotional bonds with their pets.
  3. Protectionistic: These people view animals in general as non-human individuals with lives and interests of their own that deserve respect. Like humanists, they enjoy pets for their companionship, but they do not view their pets as surrogate humans.
This gives us a baseline from where we can start to broaden these ideas out further.

STUDY 1 (Hawkins and Williams, 2017)

A study of 1,200 7 to 12 year-old Scottish children looked at the types of relationships they had with their pets. The researchers were specifically looking for 5 attributes of these relationships, namely –
  1. Caring for their pets: e.g. cuddling, stroking, playing and spending time with pets.
  2. Friendships with their pets: e.g. telling secrets to, crying with when sad, and talking to pets, seeing their pets as ‘best friend’.
  3. Compassion towards their pets: e.g. feeling upset and wanting to help when an animal is hurt or upset.
  4. Nature of attachment to their pets: In all mammals and other animals too, forming a strong emotional attachment to a caregiver, usually a parent, is an imperative for the survival of the young. This social attachment is a pre-programmed behavioural trait and it has been discussed in another article HERE. Human children and other social animals can also readily form secondary attachments to other humans and animals, especially pets. The strength and nature of the children’s attachments to their pets was measured using verbal report, from expressions such as loving them, the enjoyment of them, missing them and their  equality of status in the family.
  5. Attitudes towards animals in general: This is a measure of positive and negative attitudes towards the welfare of all animals.
What the researchers found
The majority of the children scored high in all 5 of the above attributes. In general, the girls scored higher than the boys. Dogs achieved the highest scores, followed by cats, then by other species of pets. The most interesting and important aspect of this study were the results of the analysis of the large amount of data collected. There were significant relationships between the 5 attributes measured.
Significance of this research
High scores in caring behaviour, friendship behaviour and compassion for their pets strongly predicted that the children would also form strong attachments to their pets. Furthermore, strong attachments to their pets predicted that the children would also have positive attitudes towards the wellbeing of all animals in general. These findings are summarised in the figure below. The size of the arrows represent the strength of the associations between the 5 attributes.

Previous studies supporting these findings include –

  • Positive and compassionate attitudes towards animals in adults was influenced by their earliest childhood memories of positive relationships with animals as children (Philip et al., 2015).
  •  Children’s knowledge of and attitudes towards animals suggests that children do not automatically have positive attitudes towards them. (Kellert, 1985). In this study, younger children were generally less interested in and concerned for animal welfare. Furthermore, studying animals at school and trips to the zoo did not improve children’s knowledge of, or positive attitudes towards animal welfare. In contrast, children who hunted, birdwatched or belonged to clubs associated with animals had greater knowledge of and more positive attitudes towards animal welfare. These results suggest that children need to be proactively encouraged to come into direct contact with a variety of animals from a very young age. They can then be given the opportunities to care for, make friendships with and feel compassion towards the animals in their care.

STUDY 2 (Levin et al., 2017)

Please read the following entirely fictional news story and reflect on how you feel…
“London 24/7 News Brief, July 10th, 2016: Camden. Following an alarming increase in the number of assaults on residents in several North London boroughs, the Metropolitan police are to increase police presence across affected areas. Over the last 2 weeks, 15 attacks have been reported. During this period, the victim of the most serious attack was [SEE VICTIM OPTIONS 1 to 4 BELOW]. No arrests have been made so far.”
This study set out to explore the cognitive mechanisms that trigger how people experience emotional distress when they learn about an incident of suffering in humans and animals.
2 potential mechanisms were put forward –
  1. Current need, as in the help the victim of an incident of physical abuse might need. The point here is that a feeling of distress empathy in an observer would not be triggered if it was clear that the victim was perfectly capable of resolving their situation themselves. For example, the victim was a strong male adult.
  2. Vulnerability, as in the relative helplessness of the abuse victim because of their very young age. The point here is that, although small children and puppies are perceived as vulnerable by most people, they would not trigger a feeling of distress empathy in an observer unless they were perceived as being at risk.
The researchers set out to test the following hypothesis –
When reading about a violent act, young rather than adult victims, regardless of species, will elicit greater empathy.
To do this, they recruited the help of 240 undergraduate sociology students of both genders and 4 ethnicities, Asian, Black, Caucasian and Latino. The students were split into 4 groups and each group was asked to read a variant of the fictitious story similar to the story presented above. The 4 stories were identical except that each had a different victim, namely –
  1. A 30 year-old human adult, who was “beaten with a baseball bat”, according to a witness. The person’s injuries included a broken leg and multiple lacerations..
  2. A 6 year-old adult dog, who was “beaten with a baseball bat”, according to a witness. The dog’s injuries included a broken leg and multiple lacerations.
  3. A 1 year-old human child, who was “beaten with a baseball bat”, according to a witness. The child’s injuries included a broken leg and multiple lacerations.
  4. A 7-month-old puppy, who was “beaten with a baseball bat”, according to a witness. The puppy’s injuries included a broken leg and multiple lacerations.
Note that the stories did not identify the gender of any of the victims.
After reading the articles, all the students filled in a questionnaire about how they felt about the story. The design of the questionnaire used well-established psychological research methods for descriptively capturing people’s subjective feelings.
What the researchers found
The students who read the story involving the human adult were the least distressed by it. Those that read the story involving the human child were the most distressed. The puppy, followed by the adult dog, scored levels of distress in the readers just below those induced by the human child story. In other words, more distress was caused by the puppy and the dog story than by the human story, except when the human victim was a young child.
2 reasons were put forward for these results – 
  1. The human child scored higher than all the adult victims because of the “perceived similarity” phenomenon. This is where people have the most concern for those that are most similar to themselves. Perceived similarity includes species similarity, hence the students in this study had more concern for the child than for either of the dogs.
  2. The child and the puppy probably scored higher than the adult human and dog because of their perceived vulnerability on account of their youth.
The point here is that perceived similarity on its own was not enough to invoke feelings of empathy, it needed perceived vulnerability as well. Furthermore, the higher score for the adult dog compared to that of the adult human must mean that it was perceived by the students as having many of the same qualities as the puppy and the child, namely unable to protect itself.


Significance of this research
Current campaigns tend to focus on exposure to violence and trauma, for example, see the language used on the following websites –

This research suggests that, given the high empathy scores found in this study, reframing the language used in such campaigns around the concepts of perceived similarity and shared vulnerability may actually work better in preventing violence against humans and animals.

It also goes a long way to explain why Alex’s adverts to raise money to help his Son, Harrison, hit such a raw nerve.


© copyright Robert Falconer-Taylor, 2017
This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You may not copy this article in whole or in part onto another web page or document without permission of the author. Email enquiries to robertft@emotions-r-us.com.


Images used in this article

  1. I Wish my Son was a Dog. Copyright ©, 2015, Harrison’s Fund. Used with permission.
  2. Predicators of children’s strong attachments to pets. Copyright © COAPE, 2017.



Blouin, D.D., 2013. Are dogs children, companions, or just animals? Understanding variations in people’s orientations toward animals. Anthrozoös, 26(2), pp.279-294.

Charities Commission. 2017. Registered charities in England and Wales, Search.  http://beta.charitycommission.gov.uk/charity-search. (Accessed 14 November, 2017)

Harrison’s Fund. 2015. I Wish my Son was a Dog. https://harrisonsfund.com/news-article.php/I-Wish-my-Son-was-a-Dog-8/. (Accessed 3rd November, 2017).

Hawkins, R.D. and Williams, J.M., 2017. Childhood attachment to pets: associations between pet attachment, attitudes to animals, compassion, and humane behaviour. International journal of environmental research and public health, 14(5), p.490.

Kellert, S.R., 1985. Attitudes toward animals: Age-related development among children. In Advances in Animal Welfare Science 1984 (pp. 43-60). Springer Netherlands.

Levin, J., Arluke, A. and Irvine, L., 2017. Are People More Disturbed by Dog or Human Suffering? Society & Animals, 25(1), pp.1-16.

nfpSynergy. 2016. How can small charities fundraise in a world dominated by the big fish? https://nfpsynergy.net/blog/small-charity-fundraising-big-fish. (Accessed 13th November, 2017).

PDSA, 2014. Animal Wellbeing Report (PAW). http://bit.ly/2kc0xCm. Accessed 30/09/2017.

Philip H., Marshall, Molly E,. Ireland, Audrey A., Dalton. 2015. Earliest Memories of Pets Predict Adult Attitudes: Phenomenological, Structural, and Textual Analyses. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin. 2015, Vol. 1, No. 1, 28-51.