I always wanted a dog as a child, though asthma and allergies prevented my family from owning anything furry. We had fish, hermit crabs, and an iguana named Atreyu.
When I was a teenager, I had a friend with a chocolate Labrador retriever named Hershey. Hershey was an energetic puppy. I remember my friend telling Hershey to bring her his toy. Hershey disappeared into the basement only to come walking up the stairs holding a rope toy in his mouth.
What a cool trick, right? I developed a new respect for my friend that day. I had never seen a trained dog in action prior to that moment.
Research has posited that children who grow up in the homes of animals are more empathetic and more oriented towards social values. They score higher on measures of social competence and empathy—two key emotional resources linked to many positive psychological traits.
Empathy is the ability to think about and to describe how another person feels. When people express empathy, it shows their level of self-awareness. It also shows their ability to delay gratification, and their ability to regulate and balance their emotions.
As a therapist, I seek personal growth that will enhance my ability to help my clients. I not only want to help people heal and grow—I want them to transform and thrive. When I found myself struggling to adequately explain the concept of lack of empathy in relationships, I decided to investigate. I knew that my clients were kind, compassionate, and empathetic people, though I was not clear on why they could not apply this skill to their everyday lives with ease. I also wanted to enhance my own emotional skill set and decided that I would test the theory that dogs enhance empathy.
We brought Katja Von Skeeters home in September of 2018. She is my first puppy. My husband and I agreed that I would be her primary caretaker as I am home much of the day growing my counseling practice. He has grown up with animals and was very supportive of my choice. Having a puppy and raising it to be a well-trained dog is a big responsibility that I was ready to take on.
German Shepherds are working dogs and love to be with their owners. Katja spends the day right by side and has since she was a puppy. It is difficult to cook and clean as everything is a game to her. She loves to bite and chase at the broom, gather leftovers from the dishwasher as I load it, and sit right in my path.
Let’s just say I quickly learned how a refresher course in empathy would be beneficial to me after months of having a puppy shadow! I wanted to follow through on the experiment. When I found myself becoming frustrated with her, I chose to remember that she is doing the best she can and needs guidance to navigate the world.
In order to be a good leader, I had to educate myself on the breed. I then created a routine and a schedule for Katja that I followed consistently. I was able to use the practice of self-discipline to implement this schedule. Oftentimes this meant getting up in the middle of the night or going out to play in the snow in the early hours of the morning. It also meant training her to do tasks around the home such as opening and closing the pantry door, playing search and rescue games, and laying down on her bed when it is time for her to relax. Training a puppy also meant being patient with her as she learned how to engage in behaviors that she would be praised for.
Katja turned a year old on July 12, 2019. In the last year, I have re-learned the skill of empathy by reading her cues and learning that good dog ownership means engaging in self-care and ensuring that I make decisions not only for myself but for my family, including our puppy, Katja. This work allows me to better explain the concept of empathy and how, with a bit of training, empathy can be learned and practice for a more fulfilling life.
Rose Skeeters, MA, LPC, PN2, NCC
Rose Skeeters is the creator of Thrive: Mind/Body, LLC, an innovative online counseling and wellness practice aimed at helping adults and teens that have experienced trauma heal their inner pain and transform their lives. She also provides consulting and clinical supervision to like-minded and driven clinicians. Are you interested in learning more tips to grow your online practice? Contact her today at email@example.com.