Empathy: The Starting Point for Teaching and Learning

by Denise Theobald

One of the hardest things to convey to students when they are working with dogs and the people who care for them is the concept of empathy. Empathy, in essence, is the connection and ability to feel on some level what your client is experiencing.  In the work we do, it can be difficult on many levels to feel empathy toward both the dog and pet parent.

When working with dogs, we have to determine exactly what they are feeling at any given time, which is a huge challenge for any human. Being empathetic towards the human client, though, is even more challenging because, being human ourselves, we have a tendency to judge.

We tend to judge the client who brings in a dog with untrimmed nails that has resulted in lameness for the dog. We tend to judge the client who has a fearful dog because of poor and aversive training techniques. We tend to judge the client with a dog who is overweight and unconditioned, not groomed, with poor oral hygiene, who is fed poor-quality commercial kibble, and so on.

Judgment is hard not to spew around in the pet profession.  It is all around us.  I have personally been scolded in the past for the way I trained my dog, for what I used to feed my dog, and even for how I touched my dog.

The key to remember is that we all have to go through our learning process.  How can we judge someone who does not know when we have also been in that same position in the past? The most important part of our job as therapists and trainers is to educate and empower pet parents, whether it’s through one-on-one instruction, pet parent classes, or entire programs. Pet parents bring their dogs to us and other professionals because they are looking for help for their dogs and for themselves.  They are not looking for judgment; they are looking for empathy. 

My advice for all the professionals who judge their clients, even if unintentional, is to look within yourself and remember that there was probably a time when you were the one being judged for the same things.  It is through our ability to listen, understand, and guide with compassion that we can do the most good for our human clients and the dogs whom they love deeply.