You may have seen a recent article in the New York Times that made the rounds among animal people. The piece, by James Gorman, reports on a study that helps prove what animal lovers have always known: Dogs have empathy. All of us at Best Friends, and most likely everyone who’s reading this blog, know that dogs’ empathic abilities don’t need to be proven. If it was a scientific secret, then it’s one of the worst-kept secrets in the world. It’s like proving that breathing is important.
Obvious as this may be, it’s important that animals’ ability to think, feel and act on their thoughts and feelings is scientifically demonstrated. Much of the suffering inflicted on dogs and cats, and also on animals in the farm, fur, laboratory, zoo and circus industries, is still justified by the ideas advanced by the sneery 17th century French philosopher and animal experimenter René Descartes. He was the “I think, therefore I am” guy. His claim that animals could neither think nor feel and were merely machines established philosophical grounds for the legally sanctioned mistreatment of animals that continues to this day.
We need more studies like this, demonstrating the depth of feeling and intelligence that we know our non-human animal friends possess. After all, one of the founding principles of Best Friends is the understanding that the lives of animals have intrinsic value, quite apart from any utility, comfort or companionship that they might offer to people.
OK, enough philosophy. The gist of the study described in Gorman’s article (titled “Lassie Got Help, Would Your Dog?”) was this: People were placed inside a small room behind a magnetically latched glass door and appeared to be trapped. They were instructed to call to their dogs for help, with varying levels of distress. The dogs were placed outside the room with access to the door, which they could easily open to “save” their person.
About half of the dogs immediately came to the rescue, no matter how urgently their person called for help, proving perhaps that they cared about their person’s predicament. And when the person did a very good job of crying and sounding distressed, those dogs came to the rescue even faster, proving that they picked up on their person’s expressed emotions.
The other half of the dogs did not come to the rescue. And among those who didn’t, many showed signs of high anxiety. If their person was really crying, those dogs’ anxiety got even worse. Perhaps knowing that their person was in danger and being either unsure how to help or somehow unable or unwilling caused them tremendous anxiety.
And, alas, a few dogs didn’t help and didn’t seem troubled. We’ve all had a friend like that! (Though in all fairness, of course, we don’t know what was going on inside each dog’s head. They may have simply been too smart to believe their person was in genuine distress, for all we know.)
As stated above, none of that was a surprise, but it did raise a much more relevant question for me. What about people’s level of empathy? Here we are, with more than 4,100 dogs and cats in extreme distress every single day — losing their lives in shelters. Which kind of friend are we going to be? The one who’s disinterested or doesn’t quite believe it’s happening? The one who feels tremendous anxiety about the situation, but doesn’t do much to help? Or the one who comes to the rescue?
We know that dogs have empathy. Let’s show that we do, too.
Let’s spread the word and help turn people’s concern into action. We are a nation of animal lovers, and I know that the public is the solution to the tragedy of the killing in shelters. Let’s engage more people in the practical solutions of no-kill policies and programs, which can transform any community where shelter animals are needlessly dying into a no-kill community.