Dogs deserve better than humans. While humans have very little to recommend them these days, dogs are steadfastly a force for good in this world. It was with this sentiment in mind that I found myself floored when a CNN article (The mysterious science behind lifesaving dogs) cited the conclusion of a study on canine empathy: “[This] may indicate that dogs possess the capacity for a rudimentary form of empathy.”
The CNN article had just described how a dog named Polo saved the life of an eight month old baby girl when a fire raged through the family home. The infant was found with the lifeless body of Polo on top of her, shielding her from the worst of the flames. Rudimentary form of empathy? Really?
In my experience, a dog’s empathy far exceeds that of a human. We only have to consider our inability to provide comfort to those suffering from grief or shock. We inevitably either say nothing, or worse, put a foot firmly in our mouth and say the wrong thing. A dog, on the other hand, puts his head on our knee and gazes soulfully into our eyes and we know he gets it. Comfort given; comfort received.
This type of non-verbal interaction is particularly appreciated by introverts. No one has the energy to engage in conversations when under duress and it’s particularly draining to introverts. Having the comfort of a dog when the SHTF is lifesaving.
Cases in point…
Sammy (pictured above) and Zero (a Boxer-Pitt mix) were the dogs in residence when I returned from the hospital after a major operation with potentially life-threatening repercussions. I could not lie down at first and so, spent a lot of hours sitting on the couch, popping pills and trying to read away the pain with a distracting book. Sammy lay on one side of me and Zero was on the other. They would sometimes work in shifts, making sure one of them was always there to watch over me and to offer comfort.
The trend to preserve human life continues with one of the current dogs in residence, Zackie-O the introverted Plott hound. Zackie-O is a trailing dog for the Search and Rescue Teams of Warren County. She is trained to locate vulnerable people who have wandered off by taking scent from an object they touched and then finding and following that scent through the environment. And she does it well most of the time, so it came as a surprise to me during one training mission when, instead of taking me into the woods where the subject had presumably gone, she forcefully dragged me back to the parking lot. It was doubly surprising because she was looking for my husband, Rich. I assumed she would be highly motivated to find our other pack member.
As it turned out, Rich had inadvertently stepped in bear poo on his way out—an occupational hazard for wilderness Search and Rescue. It is possible that Zackie-O’s thought process was: Sorry, but Rich has been eaten by a bear. I’m taking you back to the parking lot forthwith, because someone has to feed me tonight.
Plotts are bred to hunt bear and I have never seen Zackie-O back down from any animal, no matter how big. She is decidedly unimpressed by larger dogs growling aggressively at her and she appears to have a deep interest in maybe someday getting kicked by a horse. I do think she was protecting me when she took me away from Rich’s trail, and possibly, dinner had nothing to do with it. I’m pretty sure Zackie-O has empathy for me, since she tends to stop what she is doing when I fall and she is in hot in pursuit of her subject; she is kind enough not to drag me on my belly. But for this dog, fully eliminating dinner from the equation is purely conjecture.
The concept of canine empathy crosses cultures, and in some Native American traditions, dogs serve as psychopomps, faithfully guiding the dead to the afterlife. In this tradition, when the soul departs from the body, it travels along the Milky Way and eventually joins the Creator in the twelfth heaven. The bridge along the Milky Way to the twelfth heaven is thought to be guarded by dogs who allow passage only to the souls of the good; those who ever abused a dog are prohibited from crossing.
Soul Search and Soul Scent follow this Native American tradition and portray a canine as the empathetic guide to the afterlife for troubled, earthbound spirits. The psychopomp in these stories is dedicated to protecting and bringing peace to lost souls. Contrary to her mortal canine counterparts, she has very little regard for the living, having endured countless millennia of our little dramas. The psychopomp may flick an ear in disdain when confronted with yet another repetition of human-on-human conflict, but she will not lift a paw to intervene. Cue the bored yawn.
Perhaps this is as it should be, since as I’ve said, dogs deserve better than humans.
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