According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of empathy is as follows:
“the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.”
When Paul and I first met Hazel, the feeling we felt was more likely sympathy, which is defined as:
“the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc. : a sympathetic feeling.”
She was a pretty pathetic being, after all. Covered in mange, scared beyond words, extremely sad and confused and not really the best looking dog. Deeper than that feeling of sympathy, however, after discussing whether or not to bring her into foster care, was this feeling of empathy- the recognition that we all have had times when we are not at our best, whether it be emotionally, physically or both. And, identifying with it. And, knowing that we had the ability to make it better: that’s the sharing part. Sympathy generally only gets us so far, as it doesn’t always call us to action. It can bog us down in sorrow, leaving us feeling helpless. Empathy on the other hand, can be a call to action, as it can cause us to feel the need or desire to act in kindness and mercy towards another.
For us at Your Pit Bull and You, empathy for our canine friends is an important piece of what we hope to impart to our followers. Without empathy, and the ability to see things from the point of view of another being, we are likely to only get so far. We think this is a big piece of the advocacy and welfare puzzle. While there are many pieces, the psychological well-being of an animal is just as important as the physical safety of an animal. This piece of the puzzle is often ignored or misunderstood and we think that part of that is due to long-standing myths about dogs and what needs to be done in the name of training in order to make man’s so-called best friend more “biddable” or less dominant or more docile.
The training tips we share, the articles we write, the videos we make are generally geared towards helping people gain a more clear understanding of reward-based training that is rooted in sound science and years of research and work by people such as BF Skinner and Ivan Pavlov, through the Karen Pryor and Ian Dunbar generation and primarily what we have learned from our mentor, Jean Donaldson. But, underneath all of that, or maybe riding along side of it is this idea of empathy. The idea that since we are given the gift of sharing our lives with dogs, it is in all of our best interests to understand and share their worlds. This truly helps us see things from a dog’s point of view and once we are able to do that, a whole new level of understanding opens to us and greater learning takes place.
I want my dogs to be happy. I want them to feel free to be dogs. Does that mean that their aren’t rules? Absolutely not. But, it does mean that my dogs are not forced into situations that make them uncomfortable, they are trained in a manner which is humane, safe and effective and that when consequences are warranted, they are issued. These consequences adhere strictly to the negative punishment quadrant of operant learning and are never scary or painful. Because they don’t have to be. Hazel, as the youngest and newest of the group and the one who has had the greatest benefit of learning this way, has by proxy, also benefited most by my empathy. From the moment she stepped into our home, I understood that there were things that she simply didn’t “know” as she hadn’t been exposed to them. Understanding that she didn’t know made me a better guardian and trainer with her from the very beginning. Rocco and Savannah have a different history. But, that’s okay, because we have largely re-written it.
Welfare is defined as: “the health, happiness, and fortunes of a person or group.” For me, as a trainer, this means that the physical and mental well-being of the dogs that I am entrusted with comes first. Happiness, without these things, may be possible, but, we may never know the full extent of the damage done or the potential missed, unless we put them first. As for fortunes, when I think about this as applied to dogs, I think of it as being related to all of the good things we want our dogs to have: a sense of safety and being valued. Safety exists in many forms beyond having a roof over one’s head, it encompasses things such as feeling free from threat and fear and knowing that one lives in an environment free from abuse. Being valued, as far as dogs are concerned, means acknowledging that our dogs have needs and meeting them. Those needs include, but are not limited to social interaction with humans and other dogs, play, mental stimulation and exercise and proper training. Training is a crucial part of valuing our dogs, as without it, we end up living with a species who has no idea what we expect of them, leaving us little room to empathize with them.
Try a little empathy with your dog. Take a look at the picture of Hazel at the top of this post and ask yourself if you could justify pulling her from a shelter and into a home, only to risk causing her further physical pain or psychological fear via training. Could you do it? I can’t. That’s not welfare to me. That’s not about health, happiness and fortune. That’s about control, which contradicts empathy. You cannot simultaneously share one’s experiences and emotions and try to control them through pain or suppression. Empathy helps you lift up and empower. Asserting control does not, and in fact, it takes it away. We seek to empower our dogs by teaching them to make better choices that allow us to live harmoniously.
Empathy is a good thing. It makes us better humans, it helps us see ourselves in others and opens up possibilities for greater understanding and communication.
Try it the next time you are struggling with your dog. Try to see a situation from his point of view. You may just be surprised at not only what you see, but what you feel, as well. And, while you are at it, be gentle on yourself, too. We are all learning as we go.