Lessons From My Dogs


Compassion – Sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another or others, accompanied by an urge to help. Deep sympathy.
Empathy – Projection of one’s own emotions onto another in order to understand him better. Ability to share another’s emotions.

I think one cannot feel compassion without the willingness to hear other viewpoints from our own and without the ability to step into another’s shoes. During the holidays often our thoughts turn to compassion, but I find it’s not enough to spread goodwill and well wishes over a few short weeks during the year. I want to dwell there always. Sadly it’s often only from the most painful experiences that we learn true compassion.

Our community was hit by such a tragedy when the terrorists in Mumbai took the lives of a father and daughter. As the outpouring of love for these two continued, I was struck by how beautiful humans can be when working together and loving, while the same species, humans, were also responsible for the attacks. Perhaps the most beautiful part was that Kia, wife and mother of the victims, offered to the attackers not only forgiveness, but love and compassion—a true testimony to her incredibly kind and loving character. Imagine if every spouse who quarreled with his partner, over grievances far less severe than murder, was able to turn the other cheek as Kia did to those who killed her husband and child and offer compassion.

As always I turn my thoughts to the animals, those still and quiet beings who continue to be exploited by man and, with voices heard by very few, are more helpless, more oppressed, and more in need of our compassion than even the poorest humans in developing countries. Gandhi taught that our souls cannot find healing at the expense of others’ suffering. Our compassion must reach not only to our dogs and cats but to the millions of animals alone and scared, living out lives of misery in cages for our luxury of medicines and cosmetics, or the billions of farm animals who are slaughtered every year for our convenience and pleasure. There is a Buddhist Sutra that says, “If we eat the flesh of living creatures we are destroying the seeds of compassion.”

Our compassion for animals becomes a measure of our humanity. Addressing the human assumption that animals have no rights (and therefore no consequences exist for human cruelty toward them), Schopenhauer said, “Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” Like Gandhi, men and women who took vows of ahimsa describe the bliss that comes with it. I think Swami Sivananda says it best, urging us to control our speech and body first—then our thoughts will follow:

Each day, determine to utter no harmful words and to do no physical harm to any being. By controlling ourselves in this way, we lay the groundwork for controlling our thoughts. While in the beginning, keeping our thoughts always on Love for all is a discipline, eventually it becomes second nature. And with that comes the greatest reward of all, for when we feel unconditional love for all creation, we enjoy the Bliss of God in every fiber of our being.

Ahimsa, Sivananda says, is the perfect forgiveness. Of course this takes enormous inner-strength, fearlessness and self-love; why self-love? Because we have true self-love when we realize we are all one, and that to attack another being is to attack ourselves.

Sometimes the hardest place to show compassion is toward those who abuse animals, and yet this is probably where we need it the most. Just as Kia was able to offer her love and compassion to the terrorists who killed her husband and child, so too do I wish to extend my love and compassion to those who inflict suffering on animals. Becoming angry at such people only perpetuates the problem, whereas showing compassion to another’s ignorance or cruelty is the way that we’ll eventually evolve beyond it. And if we practice benefaction with everybody and everything, then one day we realize it has come naturally without our thinking about it. It is us.

I remember a year ago, I had rushed my dog Chance into the emergency vets for what I thought was an impacted gut. As I was carrying her into the vets, I saw a woman standing leaning over the railing, talking on a cell phone and crying. She was telling the person on the other end that she must have her Chihuahua euthanized because the cost to save it was prohibitive. I didn’t know the cost, but I walked up to her and said, “I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry, it’s okay.” She stared at me the tears still running down her cheeks. I walked in with Chance and after I’d disappeared behind the door of a treatment room, word got around what had happened so that when I walked out, others had stepped up and offered to help me pay.

Compassion pops up in the oddest places for surely if Chance had not been so sick, I would not have been inspired to help an even sicker dog. Later I was led to the back where normally I’d be forbidden, and taken to see my beneficiary. Tears filled my eyes as I stood looking down into a brown Chihuahua face. And the joy that flooded me seeing the eyes staring back into mine was to me the greater of the two gifts bestowed.

Because I love “my” dogs so much, I am able to feel compassion for all dogs, for all animals, for all beings (the mice, plants and countless insects, including ladybugs, stinkbugs, spiders, flies, ants, ticks and fleas with whom I share my home) as well as for all of humanity. The Bhagavad Gita says that those who are nonviolent to all creatures are “dearest to God.” The more compassion we have in our hearts for all beings, the closer we feel to the oneness of the universe, to each other, because all beings are manifestations of the divine energy of compassion. Perhaps we are given animals to live with side by side so that we many learn to love equally other beings. Maybe we’ve always loved dogs. But one day we get our own dog. We tame this dog, not in the sense of obedience, but in the way in which The Little Prince tamed the Fox, and this being becomes unique to us in all the world. It is a present wrapped in joy, enthusiasm, love yet also sorrow. But the greater gift is the sense of compassion that comes from extending our love of one to hundreds, to thousands, to the infinite.

And from this one dog we come to love all dogs, all animals, all creation in the universe. For how can we not? As we cannot contemplate harm befalling this dog, so also do we wish for a pain-free, fulfilling existence to all creatures, man included.

Speaking on the death of his dog Gleco, Tom Regan sums this up beautifully:
[I realized] that my emotional attachment to a particular dog was a contingent feature of the world. Of my world. Except for a set of circumstances over which I had no control, I would have loved some other dog (the poor creature at the mercy of the med student). And given some other conditions, over which again I had no control, I would never have even known Gleco at all. I understood, in a flash it seemed, that my powerful feelings for this particular dog, for Gleco, had to include other dogs. Indeed, every other dog. Any stopping point short of every dog was, and had to be, rationally and emotionally arbitrary.

And not just dogs. Wherever in the world there is life that feels, a being whose welfare can be affected by what we do, or fail to do, there love and compassion, justice and protection must find a home. From this point forward, my heart and head were one.

Now as I look across the room, I see curled balls of compassion lying in the winter’s low afternoon light. They’re my companions and my teachers, showing me better than any therapist how to make heart and head one.

Kay Pfaltz is a writer and animal activist. Visit her website at to order copies of Lauren’s Story: An American Dog in Paris, the true story of a sick and abandoned beagle whose zest for life triumphs throughout adversary. Kay donates 100% of profits to animal organizations.