Dog People: Increasing Our Compassion Footprint

The human-dog interconnection is the way forward
By Marc Bekoff, October 2010, Updated March 2020
woman and dog

Our relationships with animals are challenging, complicated, frustrating, awkward, ambiguous, paradoxical and range all over the place. We already know a lot about animals’ lives and what they want, more than we often give ourselves credit for. Indeed, their lives aren’t all that private, hidden or secret. We know that animals experience deep feelings, and care about what happens to them. When people say they’re not sure if dogs have emotions, if they feel joy or grief, I say I’m glad I’m not their dog. When people tell me that they love animals and then harm or kill them, I tell them I’m glad they don’t love me.

The best way to make the world a more compassionate and peaceful place for all animal beings, to increase our compassion footprint, is to “mind” them. “Minding animals” means that we must mind other beings by recognizing that they have active and deep minds and feelings. We must also mind them as their caretakers in a human-dominated world, one in which their interests are continually trumped in deference to ours. We easily mind dogs, and this close relationship is a way forward.

It is also essential for people with varied expertise and interests to talk to one another, to share what we know about our animal kin and to use this knowledge for bettering their—and as a result, our—lives. And what could be a better place to do this than at dog parks?

There are many ways of knowing, and figuring out how science, the humanities and non-academics—including those interested in animal protection, conservation and environmentalism (with concerns ranging from individuals to ecosystems)—can learn from one another is essential. We observe animals, gawk at them in wonder, experiment on them, eat them, wear them, write about them, draw and paint them, move them from here to there as we “redecorate nature,” make decisions for them without their consent, and represent them in many and various ways, yet we often ignore who they are and what they want.


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We also double-cross animals. I can imagine an utterly exhausted polar bear asking, “Where’s the ice?” as she attempts to swim with her offspring from one floe to another as she has in years past, only to discover that the ice is gone due to climate change. Despite global attempts to protect animals from wanton use and abuse, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working; “good welfare” just isn’t good enough. Excuses justifying animal exploitation, such as “Well, it’s okay, I’m doing this in the name of science” or “in the name of this or that,” usually mean “in the name of humans.”We’re a very arrogant and self-centered lot.

Existing laws and regulations allow animals living on earth, in water and in air to be treated in regrettable ways that demean us as a species. Indeed, in the eyes of the law, animals are mere property and thus can be treated like backpacks, couches and bicycles. The animals’ own eyes tell us they don’t like this at all. They do, of course, have a point of view.

Enough is enough. We all need to coexist peacefully and gracefully, and it’s mutually beneficial to make every attempt to do so in the most compassionate ways possible. Compassion for animals will make for more compassion among people, and that is what we need as we journey into the future. I’m reminded of something Albert Schweitzer once wrote: “Until he extends his circle of compassion for all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Of course, animals aren’t living “things,” but let’s not worry about that right now.

Each of us can make a difference. We can make positive changes for all beings by weaving compassion, empathy, respect, dignity, spirituality, peace and love into our lives. We also need to focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t, or what hasn’t worked in the past. I’m an unrelenting dreamer who remains unflaggingly hopeful about what we can do collectively if we put our hearts and heads together and agree to work harmoniously toward shared goals.

We always need to mind animals—as well as earth, water and air—from deep in our hearts. We can always add more compassion to the world. Animals are asking us to treat them better or to leave them alone, and we need to listen to them now. Time isn’t on our side.We’re truly lucky to be able to work together to increase our compassion footprint. Animals and future generations will thank us for our efforts. So let’s get on with it. Never say never. Let dogs lead the way!

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 51: Nov/Dec 2008

Marc Bekoff is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder.