Sunday, December 23, 2012

Empathy: Canine edition

Best friends at play: Dustin (JRT/Havanese) and Tigger (Lab/Hound)

I'm a dog lover. And a relatively recent convert to the club, as I didn't grow up with animals. My husband did and we were given a pup as a wedding present. (I know, I know, we didn't register for a dog!) The long and the short of it is we've had dogs for nearly 25 years.  Our current canine companions are Tigger and Dustin. Tigger is my middle-aged gal, a certified visiting therapy dog and the most human-centric, responsive canine I've ever known. (We refer to her as 'good dog')

Dustin is a recent addition to our home. He's high strung and needy, but sweet. A stray found on the streets in Texas, his is estimated to be somewhere between two and three years old now and no one knows how long he had to fend for himself. He clearly had a family at some point because all he wants to be is a lap dog. But he's not so much a fan of other dogs in the world (with the exception of Tigger). Yeah, Dustin has issues. We call him "other dog."

 (An aside--if you need a belly-quaking, snorting laugh, read about Simple Dog and Helper Dog from Hyperbole and a Half. That's where our naming convention came from. Definite beverage alert material.)

Dustin is also a long haired pup, which means he needs combing or he turns into a matted mess. Tigger is a short haired dog who gets bathed, but doesn't need to be combed.

Dustin isn't a huge fan of being combed, which is why I don't do it very frequently, but he's going to the groomer this week and if I don't get some of the knots out, she'll just shave them out.

This morning, I pulled out the spray conditioner and the mat-cutter comb while Dustin was busy hoovering the floor for dropped food. Tigger saw me with the comb in my hand and proceeded to shiver uncontrollably, tuck her tail beneath her legs, and roll over at my feet.

This is NOT normal behavior for Tigger. But she *hates* when I comb Dustin. Her nervous display was a clear sign of just how empathic our companion dogs can be. It really amazed me on a number of levels.
  • I never comb Tigger, so she has no personal association with the comb and conditioner
  • I don't comb Dustin very often--maybe once every month or so or less
  • Tigger had to make the leap between the mat-cutter and Dustin being combed
  • Then she had to make the emotional connection that Dustin sometimes yelps if I tug something painful, which bothers Tigger
  • Therefore, me holding the comb meant her friend might be hurt
Just think about the emotional intelligence that requires. 

I'm reading Merle's Door, by Ted Kerasote and finding Ted's insights into dog intelligence and behavior utterly fascinating. Some will accuse him of overly anthropomorphizing his relationship with his dog, but having lived with canines for nearly 3 decades, I am firmly in his camp.

These animals are amazingly adept at reading human emotions and responding with empathy. I know my life would be a poorer one without my companion dogs.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this, Lisa! No surprise to me about Tigger's empathetic reaction. Anyone who says that animals in general -- and especially dogs -- are not sentient beings is in for an argument to the contrary from yours truly.