Deep Lessons in Compassion, Devotion, Respect,
Spirituality, and Love from our Loving Companions
By Dr. Marc Bekoff
We often hear that the companion animal beings with whom we share our lives have unqualified trust in us - that they believe we will always have their best interests in mind, that they love us unconditionally and would do anything for us. And, indeed, they often do - taking care of us and causing themselves harm in selflessly doing so. From time-to-time I think it's a good idea to revisit, if only briefly, some common beliefs we have about relationships between ourselves and other animals. I've been asked on many occasions about trust among animals, so I wrote this short essay to get some of my thoughts on the table for discussion.
What does it mean to say our companions trust us? The notion of "trust" is difficult to discuss because it's very broad and also has many different sides. Trust is related to intention - what a person (or other animal) intends to do, and whether their actions are in the best interest of another being. It's possible to have the best of intentions and to do something that harms another being. This doesn't mean that the individual who erred shouldn't ever be trusted again.
Now, what about the trust that our companion animals have in us? Their wide eyes that pierce our souls tell us clearly that they just know we'll always do the best we can for them. I find it easiest to think about dog trust in terms of what they expect from us, their innate, ancestral, and deep faith in us, their unwavering belief that we will take our responsibilities to them as seriously as we assume responsibility for other humans. Basically, they expect that we always will have their best interests in mind, that we will care for them and be concerned with maximizing their well-being. So, we feed and exercise our companions regularly, we scratch them behind their ears that vary in size and shape, rub their bellies and watch them succumb to our touch - melting like hot butter as our fingers massage them into deep relaxation. We also hug them, love them, and welcome them into our homes as family members (which pleases them immensely because they're such social beings), and we take them to a veterinarian when they need medical care. They feel better because of our devotion to them. We're our companions trusted guardians, not their owners. We don't own our companions like we own such property as our bicycles and backpacks. Recently the Boulder (Colorado) City council in my home town overwhelmingly agreed that dogs are not owned commodities (www.bouldernews.com/news/local/12lpets.html).
Having said this, on occasion we may also intentionally expose our companions to painful situations, such as allowing them to receive vaccinations or to undergo surgery, when we believe that it's in their best interests. We haven't betrayed our trust by causing them intentional pain. My ever-trusting companion dog, Jethro, recently needed acupuncture for bad arthritis in his left elbow, and he clearly didn't like it the first two times he was stuck with the needles. But afterwards he settled in and went through the treatments with no hesitancy, even dragging me into the veterinarian's office!
The pain to which I exposed Jethro was caused intentionally by me and the veterinarian. But we did not betray his trust in us. However, if we beat our companion or otherwise abuse them, leave them in a hot car, starve them, neglect their need for love, or allow them to be abused in horrible experiments, we have betrayed them, we have let them down. But, regardless, in most instances they'll still trust us in the future. It's just who they are - who they have become via the evolutionary process of domestication.
Dogs are so attached to humans that many people have seen dogs being abused in experiments and in other situations, only to look up at the human and wag their tails as if to say "this hurts me, but you must mean well - how could you possibly mean otherwise?" Their "dog-talk" says it all. It breaks my heart to know that some people can be so evil. And I know that many others agree that betraying the trust that our companions have in is simply unacceptable behavior that must never be tolerated. Dogs and other animals tell us they trust us by their actions their willingness to allow us to do just about anything to them. Remember this when you interact with our animal companions. They trust us unconditionally, and it's a malicious double-cross to betray their deep feelings of trust in our having their best interests in mind. Remember also that in most cases they'll joyfully prance back for more of what we dish out, always expecting that we really do have their best interests in mind. They're that trusting and confident.
It's indisputable that we severely psychologically and physically harm our companions when we let them down, when we neglect them or dominate them selfishly with no interest in the deep hurt for which we're responsible. When we betray our companion's innocence and trust our actions are ethically indefensible and we become less than human; it's simply wrong, so let's not do it - ever. Let's work hard to instill a deep-caring ethic in all people and in our children, ambassadors of goodwill (for other animals' and ourselves) in the future. Humane education is critical. In addition to teaching children using books and other second-hand material, we need to provide clear examples of compassion, respect, and love in our own behavior. Children are such keen observers.
The hearts of our companion animals, like our own hearts, are fragile, so we must be gentle with them. You can never be too nice or too generous with your love for our dear and trusting companions, who are so deeply pure of heart. Indeed, by honoring our companion's trust in us we tap into our own spirituality. These wonderful beings make us more human. Let's openly and graciously thank them for who they are - for their unfiltered love - and embrace their lessons in passion, compassion, devotion, respect, spirituality, and love. Surely, we will never have any regrets by doing so, and much pure joy will come our way as we clear the path for deep and rich two-way interdependent relationships based on immutable trust with our companions and all other beings.