I’m sitting on a bench in my backyard, soaking up sunlight on a Sunday morning. At my feet is my dog, McGee, his black fur absorbing even more rays. I love McGee. The ways I love him or the things about him that I love are innumerable; the why is mysterious. He makes me imagine.
I didn’t grow up with a dog, and it’s possible that stunted my empathy, because I now have a theory that dogs (and I guess I’ll reluctantly admit, cats) invite empathy. It has to do with language, or their lack of it. Dogs don’t “tell” what’s on their mind or how they feel. They show, and we must infer. We have to stop and observe behaviors, and then journey into their fuzzy head. McGee’s feet bounce up and down, left, then right as he stands at the top of the stairs, like one of those show horses prancing in place. His body vibrates. It doesn’t take an empathy wizard to infer that the impending feast (dry kibble) stands as one of the highlights of McGee’s day.
It takes a little closer observation to note that when my wife and I are in different rooms of the house, McGee generally finds his way to the midpoint between our two locations. Nancy is downstairs watching Chef’s Table. I’m in the dining room procrastinating in front of a computer. McGee has done his triangulation and reclines at his post at the top of the stairs. He’s resting, but also alert. He seems to keep one eye on each of us. At those moments we infer his deep sense of responsibility. He must keep tabs on his herd.
At other times, though, our empathy is mostly imagination. It’s a mind (or heart) playing with the mystery of what might run through another creature’s mind. My wife has a Master’s degree in that field. Perhaps this is because she grew up with ducks, rabbits, dogs, cats, chickens, and an imaginary friend or two. She takes what she observes in McGee, his loyalty, and his urgent barking when something needs to happen immediately (He barks to inform us when Boo, our elderly dog, needs to be let out. He barks at 5:00 p.m. when he desperately needs his next meal. He barks when we put his leash on him, as though we might, without his reminders, forget that our next step is to leave the house). She also observes McGee’s boundless self-esteem, which grows daily despite some evidence that his body was designed by a committee charged with using up assorted leftover dog parts. Still, he prances through the house or the neighborhood, tail raised, head high. These behaviors and attributes have led her to imagine a full character, who, if that design committee had gifted him with language, might actually speak the words that Nancy utters for him.
When he was hiking with us and accidentally stepped off a log bridge, finding himself neck deep in muddy waters, it seems perfectly believable that after extracting himself, sneezing, and shaking water all over us, our faithful and overly confident dog’s first barked comments might include these slightly delusional words: “Wow! I repeat, wow! Did you guys see how I just saved you from that tsunami? I leaped into the wave. I smashed it back into the large, and nearly overwhelming puddle over there. That was a brave and heroic act, dontcha think? You are very fortunate to have such a brave and heroic leader.”
Logically, I know that McGee has a simpler brain than this. His schema does not include tsunamis or the concept of heroism. Still, I think the character traits are real: the sense of duty, the need to give orders, the inflated and unwarranted sense of grandeur. And, with practice, I am learning to throw my mind, and my voice, into that wordless fuzzy head. It’s empathy training 101, and just one more reason to love my dog.