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Why is Empathic Practice Important?

Empathy grounds pet professionals in reality and feeling, combined with scientific objectivity, that can lead to good decision making. Photo © Can Stock Photo Inc
Empathy grounds pet professionals in reality and feeling, combined with scientific objectivity, that can lead to good decision making. Photo © Can Stock Photo Inc

While historically empathy has perhaps been seen as a fluffy, feel good emotion with little relevance to science, or science based practice, our lack of empathy has, arguably, led us into the dangerous territory we entered in decades gone by. Those beliefs include the view that animals are non-sentient, unfeeling and non emotional; all ideas prompted through the historical views of Descartes, Malebranche & La Mettrie (Brown, 1995) then, Kant’s later view that animals possessed sensation but no reasoning.

In much the same way as Watson’s original behaviorism led to children in an orphanage to being treated with no eye contact, cuddles and play with horrifying results (de Waal 2010) these historical views led us (historically) to use less than ethical and compassionate training methods.

With these views now consigned to the historical scrap heap, we must surely ask the vital question: how can we utilize our innate empathic awareness within our training to encourage our students to work empathically with their animals too?

During my research, I discovered something called the ‘fluency effect.’ The fluency effect (Reber et al., 2004, Novemsky et al., 2007 & Oppenheimer, 2010) identifies that how we perceive information, as difficult or easy to understand, will directly impact on whether we judge that information as important or not important. Furthermore, this is correlated to the way we then behave.

This is not only interesting in terms of how we empathize with other species ourselves. It is also worth considering when we think about how our students might learn from us.

What this ‘effect’ tells us is, if we perceive something as easy to understand, we are more likely to incorporate that idea into our thinking. The reverse is also true, i.e. difficult to understand = likely to be ignored.

In my last blog, I attempted to define exactly what empathy is. This is important, we need to be clear exactly what we mean by empathy, how we can incorporate it into our training and behavioral and how to utilize it in practice if, in accordance with the fluency effect, we are going to attend to it as relevant. If we wish to inspire care and concern for animals from our human students too, it is then equally important we are able to clarify for our students what we mean by empathy and how we can utilize it in practice.

As I said last time, empathy is a slippery topic. So just how does it impact on our work with animals?

I recently discovered a fantastic book entitled Kindred Spirits, written by veterinary surgeon, Dr. Allen Schoen. Dr. Schoen reflects upon his experiences with science and empathy. In this excerpt he sums up our paradoxical problem seamlessly;

“Once, during my senior year, I was on night duty in the animal intensive care unit. There a lonely yellow Labrador, recuperating from surgery for a fractured femur; lay whining and squirming around in his sterile stainless steel cage, a pathetic ball of quivering fur and flesh licking the crusted blood around his surgical site, whimpering as students and residents walked by, ignoring his calls for help. I couldn’t stand it. The moment the others left I started monitoring his intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Then I opened the cage door and lay down next to him on the floor, petting him, stroking him, talking to him.

Boom! The door opened and the resident on duty stormed in to angrily ask me what I was doing on the floor with this dog. “Petting him,” I said. I asked if he had any painkillers.

The resident snorted. ‘How do you know the dog is in pain?’ he asked. ‘You’re anthropomorphising.’

“Isn’t whimpering a sign of pain?” I asked

‘Absolutely not,’ the man retorted and strode away.”

What this story demonstrates to me, is that Dr. Schoen’s overriding intellect was his emotional intelligence; his reflective awareness of this animal’s distress and his strength of character to stand up and say so in the face of criticism of his peers and mentors. Yet, for his supervisors, science had clearly blocked empathic concern and common sense.

Being told he was anthropomorphizing the dog, clearly lonely, frightened and in pain, seems ridiculous today. We now ‘know’ animals feel pain, require pain relief and feel distressed at being left alone and separated from their family. What we need to recognize is that, in that day and age, Dr. Schoen’s mentors ‘knew’ they were right and now we ‘know’ they weren’t.

As Marc Bekoff (2010) observes in The Emotional Lives of Animals, “what we are learning is that hard science is confirming what our intuitions so often tell us; animals express emotions in ways we are naturally able to understand”. I would add, he wisely goes on to caution that while the lay person can recognize feeling in animals, the understanding of complex behaviors obviously requires a level of professional training.

Furthermore, ethics and empathy go hand-in-hand, as Peter Singer alludes;

“Were we incapable of empathy – of putting ourselves in the position of others and seeing that their suffering is like our own – then ethical reasoning would lead nowhere. If emotion without reason is blind, then reason without emotion is impotent.”

As trainers, behavior consultants, carers, vets, nurses or whatever our role in animal care, empathy is crucial to ensure we engage ourselves reflexively with what it might be like to be the ‘other.’   Empathy grounds us in reality and feeling, combined with scientific objectivity, that can lead us to good decision making; neither can be mutually exclusive.

Antonio Damsio, professor of neuroscience and author of The Feeling of What Happens points out that the absence of emotion can actually hinder thought. He suggests that emotions can point us in the right direction where we can then use scientific understanding to remedy a situation with ‘knowledge’ and objectivity.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, further emphasises the importance of emotion:

“The connections between the amydala (and related limbic structures) and the neocortex are the hub of the battles or cooperative treaties structure between head and heart/thought and feeling. This circuitry explains why emotion is so crucial to effective thought both in making wise decisions and in simply allowing us to think clearly”.

Emotion/compassion/empathy and science can never be mutually exclusive. We need to find ways of utilising empathy and science as an integrated whole. The big question is how do we engage empathically with another being without practising pure anthropomorphism? More about that next time!


Bekoff, M. 2008. The Emotional Life of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow and Empathy and Why They Matter. New World Library.

Brown, L.R. 1995. Ecopsychology and the Environmental Revolution: An Environmental Forward in Ecopsychology Eds. Roszak, T., Gomes, M.E. & Kanner, A.D. New York, Sierra Club Books.

Damasio, A. 2000. The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion & The Making of Consciousness. London. Vintage Books.

de Waal, F. 2010. The Age of Empathy. Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York, Random House.

Goleman, D. 1996. Emotional Intelligence: Why it can Matter More Than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Novemsky, N., Dhar, R., Schwarz, N. & Simonson, I. 2007. Preference fluency in choice. Journal of Marketing Research. 44(3), 347-356.

Oppenheimer, D. 2010. Review: The Secret Life of Fluency. Dept. of Psychology, Princeton University. Accessed at;

Reber, R, Schwarz, N. & Winkielman, P. 2004. Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Personality and social psychology review. 8(4), 364-382.

Schoen, A. 2002. Kindred Spirits. Souvenir Press Ltd.

Singer, P. 2001. Writings on Ethical Life. The Ecco Press.

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