The Empathy of a Dog

by | Jun 9, 2014

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Dawson (200x200)


I recently asked my wife who demonstrates empathy more consistently: me or our dog, Dawson. Without hesitation she said, “Dawson.”

She gently added, “There are times when you show wonderful empathy. But there are other times when you seem clueless about my feelings or you just jump to counseling me. But Dawson picks up on my feelings flawlessly, and when I’m down, he never fails to comfort me.”

Ouch! It looks like I need to take empathy lessons from my dog.

Dogs Are Wired for Empathy

Once I got past my initial embarrassment, I went online to find out if there’s scientific evidence to support Corlette’s unflattering comparison. Surprisingly, there is.

Dog MRI - Copy (200x200)A recent study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows that canine and human brains process emotionally-loaded sounds in similar ways (Link1).

In another test where a stranger made distressing sounds, most dogs walked to the person to nuzzle and lick him, which is the canine version of “there there, it’s OK” (see Link2, Link3).

Dogs also watch people closely and pick up on subtle physical cues. Particularly sensitive dogs are used for emotional therapy for distressed children, and some dogs can smell chemical changes in the human body and warn people who are about to experience a seizure (Link4).

We don’t understand all of the neurological dynamics that God has built into dogs (and into people) to trigger these types of comforting behaviors. But one thing seems clear: the world would be a better place if more husbands (as well as wives, teens, pastors and bosses) raised their emotional sensitivity at least to the level of our canine friends.

Let’s Grow Together

I’ve already secured twelve months of personal empathy coaching from Dawson (he has no idea how little a box of dog treats costs!). To aid those who want to join me on this journey of personal growth, I’m going to write several blog posts that focus on developing empathy as well as its more active cousin, compassion. Among other things, we’ll be looking at these issues:

  • What is the biblical model, motive, and method for empathy and compassion?
  • What are some of the neurological dynamics that drive empathy and compassion?
  • Can emotionally clueless people really change?
  • What are some practical ways to develop empathy and compassion?
  • How early can you begin teaching empathy to a child? (Hint: the age some people say is “terrible”)
  • How can you teach empathy to children and increase the likelihood that they will grow up to imitate the compassion of Christ?

To prepare you for our coming study, I’ll define two key terms and then give you a few questions to ponder in the coming week. First the definitions:

  • Empathy is generally defined as the ability to discern and vicariously experience the thoughts and feelings of another person, or more simply, to feel what others feel.
  • Compassion, which literally means “to suffer together,” is a deep concern for another person who is suffering, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate that suffering.

Now the Questions:

  1. Marley (199x200)In the movie Marley and Me (based on a true story), Jenny Grogan has a miscarriage. Her husband, John, is grieved by their loss as well, but doesn’t know how to comfort her. When they arrive home from the hospital, Jenny sits silently in their living room, with all her grief bottled up inside. Their dog, Marley, comes over and simply puts his head into her lap. Jenny wraps her arms around his neck and overflows with sobbing and tears. What can John learn from Marley?
  2. Is it biblically valid for humans to learn character qualities from an animal? (see Proverbs 6:6-11; Proverbs 30:24-25)
  3. Why should a Christian invest significant effort in developing empathy and compassion? (see Psalm 103:13; Matthew 14:14; Ephesians 5:1; Romans 12:15; Colossians 3:12; 1 Peter 3:8).
  4. Watch this short clip from Marley and Me with pen and paper in hand, and write down all of the thoughts and emotions John and Jenny seem to experience as they interact with their dog. (A key step in developing empathy is to learn how to read the facial expressions and body language of others and imagine what they are experiencing, thinking, and feeling.)

If the video screen does not appear, click here.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll consider all of these questions and issues, and, by God’s grace, improve our ability to exercise the empathy and compassion that God designed us to show toward other people.

– Ken Sande

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes with as many people as you like.

© 2014 Ken Sande

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