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Let’s Talk About Our Dogs’ Feelings

Anthropomorphism, a word that I can’t even pronounce!!

The New Oxford American Dictionary helps us out here:

An-thro-po-mor-phism – the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal or object. 


A Shift in Perspective

You may have noticed recently that there has been a lot more talk about the welfare and “the feelings” of our dogs.  (Thank goodness!)

Black and white short-haired dog, looking pensive.
Now we know that it’s okay to try to understand how they feel and empathize with our dogs. (Photo by Taylor Deas-Melesh on Unsplash)

Years ago, I volunteered at a shelter for a period of three years. I admit that I would sit in my car after leaving on those Fridays and cry!  My heart hurt for each and every one of those sweet creatures. Sometimes I would see a dog relinquished by his or her family. They would be terrified, of course. I would take these dears out, tell them that I loved them and try to add some joy to their shelter time. I noticed that for many, if a car came by, they just couldn’t move but would stand and watch the car arrive with what looked to me like a face full of possibility. Expecting their family to return.  Just a misunderstanding or a short stay. The reactions varied. Some would get visibly excited. Some would bark and jump or grin. Most would watch the car drive by and seem deflated.

I shared this insight with a staff member.  “What?  You are anthropomorphizing. You can’t possibly know what these dogs are feeling. They only live in the moment,” I was told.

Hmmmmm. Since I can’t pronounce the word, I rarely used it myself. Whenever I would get such a response throughout the years I would always feel a tad defensive. Sometimes I would say so. Why wouldn’t I think that it would break my heart to be left – and feel like I could see that these hearts were broken as well?

The Role of Empathy

I lost an incredible terrier five years ago at the age of 15. Bupkis, who’s mom was found on the side of the road in a blizzard, was thoughtful and kind. He was terrified of thunder. I told a ‘dog friend’ that I could understand. “No, you can’t possibly and you shouldn’t feed into that behavior.”  (AHHHH…Fear is an emotion, not a behavior my dear readers, but you all know this, right?)

If you were sad, Bupkis would curl up next to you and give you extra hugs and kisses. My daughter Sammi today at 28, still calls Bupkis her all time best friend in life. He helped raise my children.

Science is always teaching us new and wonderful things if we are listening and open to learning. Today we know that the limbic system, the part of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses, in dogs is (surprisingly for some) very much like our own! So, guess what? Our dogs do indeed feel emotions. They grieve for an owner who has left or past on. They can get depressed over their situation or when they lose a sibling. I witnessed this when my Fitzy’s littermate Stella died at the age of 6. We all grieved together.

So yes, I did always try hard to relate to the 4-legged dears in my life and those I met on this journey of life. It was once frowned upon and called that word. Now we know that it’s okay, even maybe the right thing to do, to try to understand how they feel and empathize with them, our dogs, the dogs who share this world with us.

“The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world.” – Plato


About the Author

Debbie Sheridan is a proud Pet Professional Guild member, sitting on the Advocacy and Inclusivity committees. She is a certified Family Dog Mediator, applied animal behavior consultant, an end of life doula for companion animals and has completed Michael Shikashio’s Aggression in Dogs Master Course. She works primarily with fearful and anxious dogs who need extra understanding. You can find her at her Debbie’s 4 Dogs website or Facebook Page where she promotes kindness always for the win.

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