"Everyone Wants a Lost Dog Found," Bridging the Empathy Gap
How Bailey a missing dog and Henry Beston can improve nonhuman and human lives.
Posted May 9, 2018
Dogs can serve as a "gateway" species to bridge the empathy gap to include other nonhumans in the arena of compassion and to bring humans together
Many people agree that we need a new social contract for our relationships with all nonhuman animals. There always will be mysteries about other animals, and recognizing that we don’t know all there is to know should keep us on our toes. But let me stress that we know enough right now—and we have for a long period of time—to do more for dogs and other animals in an increasingly human-dominated world. I know this seems like a big ask, but I do feel that if we always try to do more, everyone will benefit, dogs, other nonhumans, and humans.
One thing this means is making sure our big picture view always includes nonhuman animals (animals), so that we extend our respect and compassion throughout the animal kingdom. I’m always amazed by how dogs help us bridge the empathy gap to do this (please also see "Valuing Dogs More Than War Victims: Bridging the Empathy Gap").
While I was writing Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, I discovered an essay by Andy Newman in the New York Times called “World (or at least Brooklyn) Stops for Lost Dog.” Bailey, a two-and-a-half-year-old goldendoodle, went missing in Brooklyn. Her human, Orna Le Pape, was understandably distraught, and numerous strangers got involved looking for Bailey. Why would people interrupt their busy lives to do this? One of Le Pape’s friends weighed in: “At a time like this, when there’s so much turmoil going on around the election, here’s this story that everyone can latch on to and be on the same side. Everyone wants a lost dog found.”
As William Shakespeare wrote, “All’s well that ends well,” and of course, Bailey’s story has a happy ending. Bailey was eventually found, eight pounds lighter, starving, and dehydrated. Yet Bailey perfectly exemplifies how dogs can help us bridge the empathy gap and come together. They can function as a "gateway" species, a phrase that was brought up during an interview I did with a podcast called "Our Hen House" (see also "Hens and puppy mills – an analogy").
Bailey catalyzed cooperation during a time when cooperation was severely strained by our political divisions. His story reminds me about how a dog named Pepper’s dognapping from a Pennsylvania farm in 1965 lead to the passage of the federal Animal Welfare Act in 1966. With a little help from our canine friends, we can easily wrap other animals into the folds of respect and compassion, so they, too, know we’re doing all we can for them.
Our work on behalf of dogs (and other animals) never stops. Abuse must be countered head on. Dogs need all the voices they can get. They are totally dependent on our goodwill and rely on us to work selflessly and tirelessly on their behalf. If we don’t, it’s a dirty double-cross. It’s indisputable that we cause severe psychological and physical harm to our companions when we let them down, when we neglect them or dominate them selfishly, taking no responsibility for the deep hurt we’ve created. The hearts of our companion animals, like our own hearts, are fragile, so we must be mindfully gentle with them. We can never be too nice or too generous with our love for our dear and trusting companions, who are so deeply pure of heart.
When we betray our companion’s trust and take advantage of their innocence, our actions are ethically indefensible. These actions make us less than human and are simply wrong. Much unadulterated joy will come our way as we clear the path for profound and rich two-way interdependent relationships based on immutable trust with our companions and all other beings.
Simply put, we must care for dogs’ fears and stress as they try to live in a human-dominated and over-busy world. Dogs need to feel safe, and attachment is all about trust. They truly comprise a class of vulnerable and highly sentient beings. Of course, many people are lucky to have animals like dogs in their lives, and many dogs are lucky to have us. But we need to keep in mind that around 75 percent of dogs in the world are on their own, just trying to make it through a day.
Trying to make it through another day is an issue as well, I’m afraid, for many dogs who live in ostensibly far better circumstances (for more discussion on how stressed many dogs are please see "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us"). For example, a comprehensive report from the RSPCA titled "How in tune are we with the needs of our canine companions?" reveals some very interesting and useful data about how we relate to dogs. It can be downloaded here, and I summarize some of it in an essay called "How In Tune Are We With the Needs of Our Canine Companions?" The RSPCA report concludes: "In general, our findings suggest that many of the dog owners surveyed have a good understanding of what dogs need, behaviourally and socially, to be happy and healthy...However, the knowledge held by the owners did not always appear to translate into behaviour, which means that while many owners had a level of understanding which suggests their dogs should be happy and healthy, their behaviour towards their dogs may fail to ensure this." (In The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age Jessica Pierce and I write about the "knowledge translation gap" that refers to the clear fact that we don't use what we know on behalf of a vast number of other animals.)
The state and future of canine companions: Let's not train the dogness out of dogs
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth. (Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928)
This 90-year old quotation from Henry Beston is one of my all-time favorites. It needs to be read in full and I always wish it could made into a poster that would go viral globally. It could form the basis for an entire course in animal-human relationships. I go to it constantly because it says so much about who other animals are and about our relationships with them. First, we do indeed view others through our own senses, and as we have clearly seen, dogs don’t sense the world how we do. So our views are, indeed, distorted. We also patronize them for not being like us, for what we perceive as their incompleteness, as if we are complete. This misrepresentation allows some people to place dogs and other animals below us on some mythical evolutionary scale. They’re referred to as “lower” beings, a move that results in rampant mistreatment and egregious abuse. As Beston asserts, “And therein we err,” for we should not be the template against which we measure other animals. I also like how he views other animals as “other nations,” since this asks us to view them as the beings they are, not as what we want them to be. And surely, dogs and other animals are caught up in the “travail of the earth,” captive to whatever we want them to do and whoever we want them to be. As we’ve seen, this makes for a good deal of stress in their lives as they try to adapt to a human-dominated world.
One aspect of the world in which dogs are captive is our busyness. I often wonder what the future is going to be like as people get even busier and more stressed. How will dogs fit into our lives in a more demanding world? How will we prioritize dogs, those companions with whom we choose to share our lives? Many people who work closely with dogs are concerned with just how stressed dogs truly are in all sorts of situations. Dog trainer Kimberly Beck suggests that we need to work toward tolerance in our relationships with dogs. She also wonders whether we love them simply because they love us. This question opens the door to discussions in all sorts of settings, ranging from cocktail parties to ivory towers. The bottom line is that dog-human relationships have to be good for all of the individuals who are involved (for more discussion please see "How to Give Dogs the Best Lives Possible in a Human World" and "Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog").
Of course, we need to be sure dogs learn what is and is not acceptable in the world of humans they inhabit, but we should not train the dog out of them. We can learn a lot about respect, dignity, commitment, and love from sharing our lives with dogs. Dogs can also show us that a violent world is not a natural world.
When we give dogs and other animals the very best lives possible, it can easily spill over into more freedom and justice for all animals, including ourselves. Wouldn’t that be grand? Who could argue that more trust, empathy, compassion, freedom, and justice wouldn’t be the best thing we could do for all animals and for future generations who will inherit our wondrous planet? I surely don’t know anyone who would do so.
I often wonder if dogs, by bridging the empathy gap among humans, could help to heal our wounded world by bringing together people of all ages and all cultures who share an attachment and affection for these wonderful beings. This would be a win-win for all animals, nonhuman and human.
We are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are most fortunate to have us in their lives. In the long run, we’ll all be better for it.
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Beston, Henry. The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1928/2003.
Newman, Andy. "World (or at Least Brooklyn) Stops for Lost Dog" New York Times, November 11, 2016.