Empathy is a big word, one of those words that teachers love. It is a word made to impress. My teachers taught me that a metaphor for “empathy” is to put yourself into someone else’s shoes—to understand their joy, pain and point of view.
For a while, empathy was just a theory to me, until I became a dog sitter. My house had a big front yard with my father’s woods set in the back. I lived in the countryside, a few miles from the river, and I had a lot of spare rooms where guests could sleep and eat. With all the space and comfort I had, I figured I could host dogs in my home. Why not?
Mia was the second dog I hosted, a gorgeous mixed breed dog. I put her pillows and toys in her room, wrapped in her owner’s t-shirt. When it was time for bed, I couldn’t just walk away and shut the door.
She was in a foreign place, and now, the door was about to lock her in. She was confused and scared, and I saw it in her eyes. So I grabbed a book, and I sat on the floor with her. I read to Mia until she fell asleep.
She was confused and scared, and I saw it in her eyes. So I grabbed a book….I read to Mia until she fell asleep.
Another furry guest was Lilo. The first time Lilo came, he stayed for only a few hours. He sat in the garden—as far from me as the leash allowed—listening for every car that passed by and hoping it was his owners’. The second time he visited, Lilo spent a whole day with me but, still, he paid attention to every car that drove by.
On the third visit, Lilo spent the night. He slept by my bed and, sometimes, even on it—jumping up whenever he wanted. He followed me, but he did not listen to me, not yet, because he didn’t trust me.
To change that, I brought Lilo to the river because I knew he was a swimmer. I helped him whenever he needed me. I knew he finally trusted me when he looked for my hug. He was cold, and he stayed in my arms for 10 minutes, accepting my warm embrace.
He was cold, and he stayed in my arms for 10 minutes, accepting my warm embrace.
Then, there was Lula. Lula was the most difficult guest I ever had. She stayed on two separate occasions with another family’s dog. Lula was 1 year old, while Rambo was 16. Rambo was blind and slow. Lula, on the other hand, was loud, hyperactive and an escape artist. It didn’t matter where I put her, she always found a way out.
When she stayed in, she barked, constantly. She banged on the door, and she bit at the walls. It was a nightmare.
When her family contacted me for the second time, I was reluctant, but I relinquished and let her stay. Within the first two nights, she escaped, scratched her nose on a wooden door and barked incessantly. The owners even brought anxiety pills to give her every day, filled with green tea and chemicals. She wasn’t happy, not even at her own home. I knew Lula needed something, and it wasn’t anxiety pills.
During this time, we also hosted a puppy named Black. It was love at first sight between the two of them. Lula was running in the garden and playing in the water—an outlet for her nerves—and Black played quietly, a peaceful soul.
So I put them in the same room at night. Lula slept the whole night in silence, with her new friend, who calmed her down. For five days, Lula didn’t need her medicine.
Lula slept the whole night in silence, with her new friend, who calmed her down.
To me, dog sitting isn’t just a job. It is my therapy. The dogs’ happiness is my happiness.
No book could have taught me how to show selfless love and how to earn the trust of another living creature. No book could have taught me what my guests have—the true meaning of empathy.
Do you own a dog or pet? What have animals taught you about empathy?
Image via Raisa Zwart Photography