People can have an amazing capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, as the expression goes. The word for this ability is “empathy,” which is identifying with or even experiencing the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes of another person.
Empathy is naturally much easier for us to feel for people we really care about — and it can be very difficult to have the same feelings for strangers, although we often rise to the occasion in times of disaster.
Though, as usual, our dogs are way ahead of us when it comes to being empathetic, because it’s kind of what they do best.
Empathy is an emotional reaction, but it comes from a place of instinct, or at least it should. You can’t fool yourself into having empathy. You either feel it or you don’t. Since we’re humans, it’s very easy for us to think our way out of it — “I’ve never experienced what she’s going through, so I could never possibly feel the same way.”
Rationalizing is obviously something that dogs don’t do because their minds don’t work that way. As I’ve told you countless times, they communicate with energy, and our energy is largely made up of our feelings. That’s what dogs are in tune with, and it’s why they can so quickly wind up mirroring our moods, both good and bad.
Compare that to people, who can be quick to do exactly the opposite of empathize with others, and that’s called projection — letting the way you’re feeling color your perception of other people. Sometimes it’s a good thing. Most of the time, it’s not.
Optimists, for example, tend to have a positive outlook about everyone. This can be great for keeping them happy, and good moods can be infectious. On the downside, though, it can lead to someone being too gullible because they tend to trust everyone.
On the opposite side of that, people who are naturally paranoid or cynical can have a hard time learning to trust, because they assume that everyone else is just like them, and they can have a lot of difficulty seeing past their perceptions — or even seeing that they’re the ones making negative assumptions.
Projecting is something we tend to do to our dogs, attributing human needs and emotions to their actions, but dogs don’t do it the other way around. To change up the old saying, it’s a case of what they see is what you get — timid people have timid dogs, and calm people have calm dogs. Meanwhile, empathetic people just have dogs.
Empathy is measured by something called an EQ (emotional intelligence), and the good news is that, unlike an IQ, your EQ can be developed and improved. Now, studies have shown that having a dog in the household is the best way to improve a child’s EQ and teach them to have empathy. This was the entire idea behind Yale University’s Mutt-i-Grees Curriculum, which uses children’s natural affinity for dogs to promote responsibility, self-confidence, and resiliency, thereby building social and emotional skills — but it’s not just kids who can learn these skills from dogs.
Remember that the next time your dog seems to be acting a little strange, then look at yourself through her eyes, and put yourself in her paws. She’s already done that for you, and is the best way you can learn how to better understand yourself and others.
Stay calm, and relate!