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Thumbs and Empathy

By Bob McMillan

I spotted it driving down a rural road in Tennessee just before dawn one morning on my way to work. At the edge of my headlights, strolling nonchalantly down a driveway, was a coyote, unperturbed by my passing car. My first thought was, “You lucky dog. You go where you want to go, do what you want to do when you want to do it. You’re free, the master of your own domain.”

I was a little sleep-addled, obviously, because my three dogs were back home doing exactly what they wanted to do, too — sleeping in a pile on my warm bed. And, of course, a coyote is no dog. Thousands of years ago, dogs parted ways with wolves and coyotes and cast their lot with humans. Now, they don’t even have to herd or hunt to earn a place in our homes. They just have to be reasonably companionable, learn a few silly rules, be selective about where they go to the bathroom, not eat too many expensive shoes and wait for that food bowl to refill itself. The coyote is at the mercy of the rain and snow, farmers’ rifles, speeding vehicles and is crawling with fleas. Who made the better bargain?

It’s a dog’s life. It’s said that dogs have spent thousands of years shaping that life, learning with each generation how to adapt, shrewdly read humans and behave however they need  to keep the gravy train rolling. They’re the success story of the animal kingdom. While many species dwindle, the world’s dog population is exploding. Americans alone are expected to spend $58.5 billion on their dogs this year. We’re crazy about our dogs, so much so that some writers are calling the dog evolution’s most successful parasite.

Is that fair? Thinking about those three dogs I have at home, how for a few tail wags and cuddles,  they get to loll on the bed or couch all day while I work to keep them in kibble, I have to admit the word parasite has crossed my mind a time or two. But, my thoughts are stuck on puppies these days, too. I’m hoping to bring home an Irish wolfhound puppy this fall and my computer’s stuffed with files and videos on how to raise one. Most of that data boils down to this: How do I prepare a giant puppy to cope in the modern human world? Because dogs don’t write books for other dogs with titles like, “Look Your Cutest and Own Your Own Home.” From their parents and litter mates they simply learn how to be dogs. They learn bite inhibition and play styles, they pick up the secret language of dogs — postures and glances. They’ll pick up a few other tips from dogs along the way — some bad —  but if a puppy wants to navigate our world, she learns it all from us. Those who fail are often sent on a potentially one-way trip to the shelter. Dogs as a species may have proven themselves masters of niche evolution, but they don’t get through the day individually without a lot of help from us. Every dog you bring into your home is a fresh start with a clean slate. Evolutionary forces may have left us excellent clay, but it takes the human touch to shape it.

When dogs hooked their wagons to humankind, they gave up freedom for their daily bowl of kibble and a corner of the couch. Before they ever enter our home, we decide if they’re the right size and color and if they shed too much. We decide when they go outside to do their business. We pick when and what they eat. We decide whether they’ll breed and who’ll be their mate. And then we sell their children. They’re subjected to medical procedures without consent and in many cases, we decide when they’ll leave this world. It may be a dog’s life, but it’d be easy to say that for many dogs, it’s a desperate life spent in captivity.

True, many dogs are well-kept and even pampered, but many still spend a lifetime chained to a tree or stuck in a tiny kennel. Among those who understand that dogs are social animals and let them live indoors with their human families, too many still make dogs fearful and suspicious by trusting TV reality shows for dog training advice. Or, they turn to trainers with outdated ideas about how to teach dogs the rules. They use training tools like shock or prong collars that train with pain… and dog behavior consultants stay overbooked with clients who have traumatized and aggressive dogs they want “fixed.” And, of course, there is no easy fix. The owner’s approach is inherently broken, too.

For all the talk about freeloaders living the life of Riley, the truth is that life in the human world of traffic and blaring televisions, ringing telephones, fireworks and strangers who knock at the door is alien and stressful for today’s dog. We chose to bring them in. We’re the clever ones with opposable thumbs and an advanced capacity for empathy — the ability to understand another’s condition by feeling what they feel. Why do we so often turn it off when it comes to dogs? It turns out that in research labs, dogs have shown a remarkable capacity for empathy, too. They study us intently, trying to read and please us. Most of us like our dogs. Don’t we owe it to them to listen and respect the results of thousands of years of evolution —a creature uniquely equipped to be our best friend. Isn’t it time to move past the antiquated thinking that dogs are unthinking, unfeeling creatures who must be forced to obey us and get down to the partnership that nature has given us? Partners don’t coerce, they communicate and cooperate. Our dogs are ready. Are we?


Bob McMillan is a newspaper editor living with his family, hounds and cats in the foothills of Middle Tennessee.

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