“You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says, ‘Wow, you’re right! I never would’ve thought of that!’” (Dave Barry)
My explorations of kindness over the past three years have focused mostly on human kindness, and, on rare occasions, the lack thereof. There have been some days recently when human kindness seems to be in short supply worldwide. The daily news is filled with hostility, incivility, finger-pointing, and name-calling. Its magnitude drowns out the kindnesses all around us, for they are often subtle and spoken in soft voices. At times like these, I look to other sources for a kindness “fix.” I look to our four-legged friends.
Having for many years awakened to the gentle but insistent pressure of a cat’s paw prying my eyelid open to propel me out of bed and toward the can-opener, I hold no illusions about the kindness of cats. They are self-absorbed, independent creatures who care for us with the same remote regard a wealthy potentate holds for his minions: “You’re here to serve, and as long as you do that reasonably well and stay out of my way the rest of the time, we’ll get along fine . . . you can stay.”
I won’t deny that there have been times in my life when a cat seemed to recognize my sadness or distress and came to nuzzle me and purr soothingly. Perhaps their intent was truly to comfort, but I am more inclined to believe that they were just ensuring that the food-lady would recover her composure in time for dinner.
Cats are the only pets I’ve ever had (other than an extremely traumatic experience with a beloved turtle at a very young age, but I don’t want to think about that), so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the unconditional love one might get from a dog. I hope to prove myself worthy for that experience someday. Even beyond their unconditional love and dogged devotion, I’ve been reading about scientific findings that dogs are among only a few species in the animal kingdom who are capable of unselfish kindness toward others.
A study by Austrian researchers revealed that dogs demonstrate “prosocial behaviors”—voluntary actions that benefit others but offer no personal reward to them. In their experiments, dogs were trained first to pull a string that would deliver a treat to themselves. They learned this feat quickly and made great use of it. Then the scenario was changed. Pulling the string no longer offered them a treat, but it delivered one to another dog in a separate enclosure. Researchers noted that once the dog realized it was no longer receiving food, but delivering food to another, the dog continued to pull the string . . . and if the other dog happened to be known to him, he would pull the string more frequently, thus delivering more treats to his friends.
I wonder if certain humans would perform so admirably under the same conditions. While it’s obvious that we can extend unselfish kindness, it’s not always obvious that we do.
Only a few other animals have been shown to be capable of similar prosocial behaviors. These include primates, rats, and crows.
Cats? Cats would have a helluva time playing with the string.
“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this.” (Terry Pratchett)