Since at least Oct. 29, 2020, an online advertisement included a somewhat odd picture of a downed tree, with the words: "[Pics] Ex-cop dog barks at tree, dad cuts it down." Other versions referred to the dog as "ex-police." A variation said: "Investigators Rush Towards A Tree That A Former Police Dog Kept Barking At."
Readers who clicked the advertisement were led to a 40-page story from WorldLifestyle.com with the headline: "Ex-Police Dog Keeps Barking At Tree, Dad Finds A Lot More Than Wood Inside." The story ended with a fake skeleton being found in the tree.
The advertisement and the story were both misleading.
The picture in the advertisement that appeared to show something resembling human limbs in a tree depicted nothing more than shipworms. Some Reddit users traced the photograph to a Chinese language website (warning: adult content).
Encyclopedia Brittanica published a page about shipworms, describing them as "any of the approximately 65 species of marine bivalve mollusks of the family Teredidae (Teredinidae)." They are said to be "common in most oceans and seas and are important because of the destruction they cause in wooden ship hulls, wharves, and other submerged wooden structures."
As for the "ex-cop dog barks at tree" story, it appeared to be fabricated. The story was full of stock photographs from Shutterstock, as well as pictures we found on other websites, such as r/geocaching on Reddit. We were unable to find a true story about a retired police dog named Kyle barking at a tree. We also did not locate any news stories about a Smith family that owned an ex-police dog named Kyle.
Google searches revealed that the subreddit r/SavedYouAClick had posted about the misleading story at least two times, back when the headline read a bit differently: "Ex-Police Dog Keeps Barking At Tree, Then Investigators Rush Towards It."
The purpose of the story lasting 40 pages was a strategy known as advertising "arbitrage." The goal of "arbitrage" was to make more money from advertising displayed on the 40 pages than it cost to run the misleading shipworms ad to lure readers in the first place. The business and technology blog Margins referred to “arbitrage” as “the mythical free lunch that economics tells us does not exist.”
Stories that focus on interesting facts or happenings about specific trees are nothing new to the land of rumors and hoaxes. In 2019, we looked at a claim about the "oldest tree on earth." We also published a story in 2017 with what appeared to be the stump of an absolutely enormous tree.
Note: On Dec. 17, our team blocked the misleading "Ex-cop dog barks at tree" advertisement from appearing in the future on Snopes.com. If any readers spot variations of the advertisement being displayed on this website, please contact us.