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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Articles from Victoria Stilwell
- 2021 Dog Behavior Conference Announced
- Why I’m Not a Purely Positive Dog Trainer
- Becoming a Dog Trainer
- Social Bullying
- Does Your Dog Respect You?