As Honey sleeps at my feet, I ask myself far too many questions:
- is she happy living here?
- does she know how much I love her?
- does she love me back?
- what would make her happier?
- am I giving her a good life?
Luckily she just keeps on sleeping. But I’m making myself nuts.
The Difference Between Average and Good
Empathy separates the average dog person from the special dog person.
The average dog person loves her dog. She picks up a bag of kibble at the supermarket because she likes the ads and doesn’t really know what’s in it. She walks her dog sometimes, takes him to the vet when he’s feeling sick or needs shots, and buys him a soft bed to sleep on. She asks for recommendations for good boarding kennels before going on vacation.
Her training might be limited to making the dog walk through the door after her so he doesn’t become too dominant.
Her dog has a good life. And if we could empty shelters by homing every dog with an average dog person, most people (and dogs) would be very happy.
But the average dog person only occasionally, if at all, asks herself, “How does my dog feel about this?”
That kind of empathy belongs to the dog people who have fallen under the sway of Suzanne Clothier, Patricia McConnell, Ian Dunbar, and Pat Miller.
The special dog person also cares for her dog every day. But she makes many of her choices based on how she thinks her dog sees the world.
She tries to figure out if her dog would enjoy agility, having a canine playmate, or taking a long car trip. She wants to understand what her dog is thinking. She knows more about canine nutrition than human. And she’s always learning more about current research into how dogs experience the world.
A traumatized or challenging dog is very lucky to end up with an empathetic dog person. It may be the first time in his life someone has thought about how he feels and worked to heal his issues.
If only his person didn’t have to guard against too much empathy.
Empathy’s Crazy Cousin
Is it true that you can have too much of a good thing? Even empathy?
Perhaps. If it means you spend more time thinking about whether your dog is happy than in actually making him happy.
In my own life, my mind works faster than my emotions or my body. (If only it worked faster than my mouth, but that’s another post.)
It can take me as long as a week to recognize an emotion I’m feeling. And my body is always subject to inertia.
But once my mind gets going, it doesn’t take long for it to go spiraling down the rabbit hole. If my mind is centered on deciding if Honey is happy, you’d need a dozen terriers to drag it back to the surface.
What if I stopped asking myself about how Honey feels all the time and learned to live beside her with a still mind—trusting that my love for her will help me see what makes her happy and giving it freely? Y’know, by acting more like a dog.
We love dogs for their responsiveness to us.
Although they don’t have minds that allow them to analyze how we’re feeling, they are remarkable at interpreting our body language and replying to us in their own ways.
Dogs stand by us when we’re sick. They stretch themselves to do scary things we think they’d never be capable of. And they shape their own behaviors to fit into our lives.
I think dogs are empathetic on a very basic level.
And I could learn a lot by being more like a dog—responding more and thinking less.
Trust the Love
I need to trust that my love for Honey shows through. And stop questioning myself (and her) all the time.
Maybe if I spent less time thinking, I could be more like Honey. Without the distractions of thinking all the time, I’d have more room to just respond to what Honey needs, the way she does for me.
It’s time to stop asking if Honey loves me. And just love her the best I can.
And that would be as good for Honey as it is for me.
I want to thank one of the most empathetic dog people I know, Kristine Tonks, for inspiring this post when she asked herself what her dog Shiva felt about physical affection. Kristine always gets me thinking, and not in a bad way.
How do you know when your dog is happy?