What Loving My Dogs Taught Me About Empathy

Growing up in a dysfunctional family, everything I know about unconditional love came from animals -- and they're still teaching me.

Last Updated on May 13, 2015 by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA

I have a lot of animals in my life. The last time I counted, there were four rescued dogs, one purebred German Shepherd, two quarter horse geldings, and six donkeys. The donkeys are crucial because they are fat, hairy therapy machines. I learned long ago that most donkeys are curious about us and like nothing more than to sit with a human in a pasture and be petted. They love us even though throughout the centuries we have seen them as nothing more than beasts of burden. Actually, they have the ability to lesson our emotional burdens as well. I could include the wildlife I see daily, such as the resident red fox, the hawk family, or the eagles up the street.

Growing up in a gravely dysfunctional household where coldness was the prevailing sentiment, I turned to animals for unconditional love. Even a mound full of Texas fire ants became friends. I brought them Popsicle sticks not only for ant bridges but for the sweetness left on the sticks. They never attacked me, but they did swarm up my mean older brother’s legs when he tried to drown them all to upset me. I am nearly 50 now and animals have never let me down, even as I let a few of them down because of my own shortcomings.

I learned how to care about another living being by nurturing animals. We had no one capable of that in my family of origin, certainly not my birth mother. We were a family of takers and most often what was taken from me was any sense of safety, followed by any space to freely show my own needs. My mother was unmothered herself. A young girl can get lost easily without a sense of security, love and guidance from a healthy mother, and it’s often the case that she becomes an unfit mother herself. Many heroic women do overcome their own tragic childhoods and reverse that unwanted inheritance with their own children. My birth mother, sadly, was unable to do so. She was unmothered before I was. We had a generational piece missing, and that lack of maternal love wreaked havoc across the decades.

When I became an adult, I started rescuing dogs from neglectful and sometimes even criminal situations. Like many children with a dysfunctional mother, I overachieved in many areas, trying without success to get her attention. After awhile, the plight of so many dogs in dire need took up more and more of my time and I thought less often about her. I realized that each time I saved a dog, I was rescuing that neglected little girl inside of myself. I must have needed a lot of saving, because I would end up helping more than 400 dogs go on to a better life.

What upset me the most about the condition I found these dogs in was the randomness of it. They could just have easily landed in my home where their needs would be always met and they would be guaranteed a great life; or they could have come from a puppy mill where they would spend their lives in forced breeding and going crazy cooped up in small cages. They had no choice in who loves them or who mistreats them. They also had no voice to say it wasn’t right. I didn’t either when I was a child.

I have a loud voice now, and I use it to help animals. You do not want to abuse an animal in front of me, because all of the rage I felt as a child comes out quickly and I don’t even attempt to rein it in.

As I recently nursed my lovely Border Collie named Echo through a harsh surgery, I wondered again why my own mother closed herself off so thoroughly from being able to nurture. She can’t do it for herself, and she didn’t provide it for her children. Echo didn’t respond well to the morphine given to her during her operation. She whined, unless I had my hand on her. My hand gave her comfort, so I left it there for hours, until she stopped whimpering and was able to sleep.

Doing this small act of kindness for my dog came so easily to me, in spite of my childhood. I don’t know how I could have ignored her pain and walked away. My birth mother did her best to cover up her own traumas and then she neglected her children’s pain. She became so emotionally stunted that she couldn’t offer any semblance of nurture.

I imagine you must be deeply hurt down to your soul’s soul to allow yourself to become cold, and to permit yourself not to care about your offspring or anyone, really, but your own wounding. The only way back from that amount of pain caused by humans is to love a better class of human, one whose love heals you instead of takes from you. I found those kind people (after a 30-year search) and my life as an adult is abundant with love –- from both people and animals, but the animals were the first to offer me love. I am glad that I accepted.

Today I ensure that my own animal companions have everything they need for a quality life — quality by their standards and not mine, because it is important to recognize that they have needs. It’s the least I can do for these living ambassadors of love, who showed me my softer side. They demonstrated for me that it is OK to love freely and to give of yourself to those who love you back.

If an animal has helped you heal from an emotional wound, I would love to hear about your experiences. If you haven’t been healed by an animal yet, never fear: There is still time.

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