Embracing Empathy

My rabbit sprayed urine in my face this morning.

Now what on earth does this have to do with dog training you may ask?  Hear me out.  So after cleaning my face, swallowing my frustration that while I was reaching in to feed my rabbits their beloved pellet breakfast, Smokey decided to spray me in the face, I decided to do some research.  My first question was “why” and my second question was “why then?”  Turns out that male rabbits can develop a tendency to spray urine to mark territory or if they feel threatened.   That somewhat answered my “why” question and the more I thought about it I realized my ritual of moving around food bowls and refilling water in the morning could absolutely lead Smokey to feel threatened OR territorial.

So where am I going with this?  I’d like to talk about empathy for a moment as it relates to our pets, namely our dogs.  Showing empathy is identifying with another’s feelings or emotionally putting yourself in the place of another.  Once I started thinking about why my rabbit Smokey might be spraying me (regardless of whether it was territorial or fear based) I started having empathy for him and I was not as frustrated.

One of the most fulfilling components of my job working with dogs and owners is helping them answer some of the possible “whys” of the dog’s behavior they might be frustrated about.  The owner can then put themselves in the dog’s shoes and try to look at the reality from the dog’s perspective.  I think empathy is a must in any good relationship and this point was driven home to me recently with a young client I was working with.  She could not empathize with the fear her young dog was experiencing and the behaviors that were associated with that fear.  In her words, the dog should just “get over it.”  Wow.  If someone were to put me in a room with a snake and deal with my fear by telling me to just “get over it” I would probably have some choice words for them!  I wonder how many times our dogs have some choice words they would like to say to us when we refuse to empathize with where they are coming from.

If you Google “empathy towards dogs” what you come up with is a long list of articles and essays on whether or not dogs are empathetic towards humans.  There is great research being done on this topic, but what surprised me was the lack of articles on what I was actually looking for which was writings on “human” empathy towards dogs.  It is an important element, not to be overlooked in the relationship between dog and owner.  It is sometimes easiest to walk into a shelter and feel empathic for the dog without a home, but when we turn our thoughts onto that unwanted behavior that our OWN dog displays at home, are we
able to afford them the same empathy?  I hope it is something we all strive to do, but it involves us sometimes having to put our own feelings of frustration or aggravation aside and trying to see things from the dog’s perspective.  At the end of the day this will lend itself to a greater understanding and better relationship with the wonderful canine companions we share our lives with.

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Positively Expert: Cathy Bruce, CPDT

Cathy Bruce is a VSPDT and a CPDT and the owner of Canine Country Academy, LLC in Lawrenceville, GA. After a successful career as a Broadway singer/actress, she decided to pursue her love of dogs. As a dog trainer, she strives to educate owners on how to better communicate with their dogs using only positive methods.


6 thoughts on “Embracing Empathy

  1. Paula Nowak

    This is so important to remember on a daily basis when coming in contact with people and other species. It seems to be the most challenging when the behavior is frustrating/irritating. (Like rabbit pee!). Thanks for a good reminder.

  2. Elizabeth Rago

    Great post and so true! I adopted a puppy from a rescue organization when he was 3 months old. Everyone thought I was crazy b/c I have a 3 yo and 5 yo, but I wanted to incorporate everyone in the training and understanding of a puppy to our home. I knew there would be frustrating moments, but by being calm and patient with the puppy and myself, the experience has been wonderful. There is always a reason behind a dogs behavior and by slowing down life and being patient, a dog can really respond in a positive way to training!

    The kids can give him basic commands and I can tell he is going to be a polite and gentle adult dog. I have to give Victoria props for her book, "It's Me or the Dog", and read it within a week of adopting our puppy. We are still learning, but as you said above, we have to put our frustrations aside and see things from the dogs perspective.

  3. stephanie

    Thank you for posting about this. It is hard dealing with certain behaviors and easy as humans to be reactive to them if we find them distasteful, instead of trying to get to the root of the problem.

  4. Robert

    Very noteworthy subject. Most modern trainers are empathic towards dogs and other animal species and do their best to help owners become more empathic. As a dog trainer, the most interesting issue in the blog post is the seeming inability of the "young client" to see things from her dog's point of view. How does a trainer reach such a client so that she can truly help her with her dog's issues? What about when clients have a low motivation to project empathy and just want the behavior symptoms to go away? One of the greatest challenges for dog trainers is to learn how to work with such difficult clients in a caring, respectful, non-confrontational, and yes, empathic manner. It's at the top of my list of learning priorities. To make progress with such clients instead of scratching the relationship and letting them call another trainer (that uses mostly aversive methods) is truly a victory.

  5. Dionella

    I think this article is very informative, despite it's short length. We should all put ourselves in our dog's footsteps and see how they see the world from their perspective. One great example is my dog, Dolly. She would always whine and bark at me when she was outside when it was raining. It frustrated me to see her get wet all the time from running around frantically to get my attention. I then started realizing that she was AFRAID of the thunder and lightning outside, and so I started showing empathy to her and realized it wasn't her fault she hated the thunder that sounded over her head. I've started to let her come in when it's raining outside, even though she has her own shelter outside.
    Showing empathy is a great way to create a great bond with our dogs and tighten our relationship with them.

  6. Amanda

    Thank you so much! This was a great change of perspective. We are in the process of training our 10 month old rescue dog and it can be very frustrating! I will try and keep HIM in mind from now on when he isn't doing things as we would like him. Is there a reason he is acting like he is, refusing do to something because he's afraid, ect. Thanks again!

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