Posts Tagged ‘dogs’

Can empathy be taught? I asked myself this question when I read about a new program instituted in certain suburban high schools to combat bullying and harassment among young people, both of which are apparently on the rise. Instead of merely being shunned by the mean girls or humiliated by the bad boys – bad enough when you’re in puberty – you can have your mind messed with, your reputation utterly ruined and your family stalked and also humiliated via text, Twitter and on any number of social networking sites.  There have been reactions that have made the news (high school shooters and MySpace suicides) and many more that haven’t.

We accept that some people are more empathetic than others, that women are generally (although not always) more empathetic than men, that the whole concept of relating to one’s fellow person simply comes more easily to some than to others. Michelle Obama is scoring high points for being so genuinely interested in the people she meets. Her husband’s empathy quotient is harder to read even by those who support his agenda but he is connecting on some level. Dogs are supposed to be highly empathetic creatures although they are also into their version of self-preservation. I adore my dog but I’m not sure she cares whether I’m having a bad day if she wants to be fed right at that moment.

When I first heard Bill Clinton exclaim: “I feel your pain” I was a little taken aback. What pain was he able to feel, I wondered. The shock of a young man diagnosed with a fast-acting terminal disease? The anxiety of a family on a downward economic slide? The fear of woman on the run for her life in the middle of the latest ethnic warfare? What kind of pain were we talking about here?

I sense what Clinton was saying: I can empathize. Whether and how this affected his style of governance is something I’ll set aside for now. But he somehow engaged in the task of putting himself in someone else’s shoes of trying to sense how they might feel.

Of course he couldn’t have literally known what it might be like to fully experience living someone else’s life unless he were living it. We can’t know what its like to be living in Gaza or in a refugee camp in Darfur or even as a high-schooler with a lisp or a limp or an odd way of relating to people unless we’re in the moment. Even then, people react differently depending on their emotional makeup. We’re all unique that way, which makes this whole business of relating somehow trickier.  I can’t tell you how many people said after my husband was killed on 9/11, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Some of my angrier friends who had lost loved ones used to retort, “No, you can’t.” I’d only say, “You don’t have to.”

The fact is: you don’t have to imagine the specifics of a horrible or difficult situation or the origins of the anger, fear another person is experiencing because, frankly, what purpose would it serve? Instead, you might recognize the sorts of feelings and impulses a person in such a situation might have; somewhere along the line, we’ve all had similar feelings. You base or adjust your actions and words to take those feelings into consideration, so that you do no harm. There’s compassion involved and also a willful putting aside of your own interests and desires, even if you can never truly understand what it might be like to feel like an outcast or feel threatened or feel terror. Then there’s the whole idea that you might be able to modify your behavior in a more sympathetic manner. It seems like a lot of work, more like empathy isn’t “just” a feeling but also a way of thinking. Which means, yeah, it could be taught and we’re all probably due for a refresher course.

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Beset by bills, dismayed over depressed savings and tense ahead of tax time, I turned my attention to the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual display of dogs. Some of it has to do with the fact that I love dogs; I’m fascinated by the ritual involved in judging best of breed and best in show and by not only the dogs but their owners, trainers and handlers.

There are any number of contests and competitions about dogs, ranging from the most professional to the really ridiculous.  At the top of the heap stands (sits? stays?) the Westminster show, two days of mind-boggling logistics , cramped quarters, endless grooming and very specialized judging at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This invitation-only competition has, thanks to savvy marketing, become quite the event and it’s where anyone involved in breeding dogs wants to show. The dogs are grouped according to the primary function for which they were originally bred (i.e. sporting group, working group). They are then judged within their breed as to how they conform to an ideal set of standards involving general appearance, movement, temperament, and specific physical traits. The best in show is presumably the dog that most closely matches the ideal.

Obviously much of this is subjective, albeit the judgments are made by people with keen eyes and years of training. In past competitions, popular sentiment (the roar of the crowd) hasn’t always conformed with the judges’ decision. But recently, audience hearts and judges’ minds were both won by scrappy little contenders, who were considered, well, underdogs going in. Last year, Uno, became the first beagle ever to win Best in Show, making doggy history and turning out to be just so doggone adorable. Uno made the rounds, appearing not just at high-falutin’ locales like the White House but also at children’s and veterans’ hospitals and at various schools; he even rode in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This year, more dog history: Stump, the Sussex Spaniel, came out of retirement to become the oldest winning dog ever. At ten years old and even allowing for new calculations based on longer-living dogs, he’s well into middle age. Talk about inspirational!

Westminster winners of the past have been enviably gorgeous animals, elegant and almost inaccessible, the purebred we ogled while our lovable mutt napped next to us on the couch. Uno and Stump, also purebreds, nevertheless seem like regular dogs, an image reinforced by images of Uno happily wagging his tail and braying and reports that Stump likes to hang out in bed with his best friend JR.  It’s nice that in these troubled times, where anger over perks and bonuses and ill-gotten gains have ignited an unpleasant kind of class warfare, at least some of our top dogs have come down off their pedestals to hang with the rest of us.

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The Joy of Looking

It’s hard to believe that there’s anything left to say about the joy of owning a dog. There are literally thousands of articles, dozens of books, and countless Internet sites on which owners wax rhapsodic about their canine friends. I do it myself with a piece called “Sit/Stay” elsewhere on the site. Between the slightly precious and precocious best-seller “Marley and Me” (now available in a children’s version) and a set of heart-tugging essays in the August issue of “O” Magazine, we should have completely exhausted the subject. Dogs=unconditional love=antidote to loneliness=happiness=improved quality of life for dog and owner. Or: Americans= self-indulgent=multi-billion dollar pet-care business=preference for pets over people=indifference to world suffering. Okay, we get it. And yet, my inner cynic keeps getting seduced by the sight of my silly little dog romping through her life and mine. Stupid, I say to myself, to feel so strongly about something that will live maybe fifteen years, something that is not human. And yet…and yet…watching her run free in the spacious backyard of the tiny house I rented for a month, watching her explore and test herself and yes, learn, watching her fall deeply asleep every night, exhausted after a day spent as near to her owner as she needs to be yet as far as she wants to be – it’s making me happier, healthier, calmer, nicer around humans as well as animals. So here’s my equation: Indulging your dog with spa days or customized outfits, especially when it busts your budget=foolish. Enjoying moments with one creature who gets the concept of happiness and knowing you’ve contributed to that=priceless.

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The Human Animal

Last week my dog and I were off the mark. She had an ear infection and a sore paw; my hip was bothering me. I was crabby all week, predicting everything from shots to surgery to life in a wheel chair down the line. She was slightly annoyed, which meant she’d scratch her ear or shake her head; however the rest of the time, she seemed happy and content. Which got me thinking: we study animal behavior to understand how and why other species behave as they do, an academic area known as ethology. We also look at such behavior to compare and contrast it with human behavior; studies have shown that basic biological influences are at work throughout all species. And my own non-scientific study of my dog Molly’s behavior has left me convinced that, despite all those obedience classes, she is disposed to being both willful and manipulative, possibly a consequence of her being so good-looking. In that respect, she is an awful lot like people I know and others I read about on the gossip pages. On the other hand, she doesn’t appear to hold a grudge, obsess about things she can’t control, seek retribution, plot revenge or choose to harm others and then justify her actions. Perhaps we humans have evolved but sometimes I wonder if somewhere along the road, we missed a turn.

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