Animals Are So Easily Misunderstood… the Importance of Empathic Understanding

by | Mar 31, 2023 | Animal Behavior, Human-animal bond, Animal welfare

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**WINNER in the 2023 Dog Writers Association of America writing competition in the special award category, The Manette Begin-Loudon Memorial Award. **


Jake shortly after his foot injury

Last week Jake was trying his acrobatics to climb up on to the top of a large set of wire crates that our cats sleep in overnight (the cat “apartment”). He smelled a couple pieces of cat food there and was trying to get to them. I heard him crash from an adjacent room. His foot was bleeding profusely, and his toenail was bent at more than a 90 degree angle to his foot. The photo above shows the blood on his right rear foot after we had gotten it stopped.

This led to a veterinary visit, the nail being cut off, a thoroughly wrapped foot, and a cone to prevent his licking at the wound. He was also given gabapentin for pain. Several aspects of this situation and his recovery process prompted me to write this blogpost. First I want to mention some key concepts to which I’ll refer.

Observation and Interpretation

In a prior blogpost ( ) I went into some detail about the differences between observations and interpretations of animal behavior. In short, observations refer to what we actually see, hear, smell – descriptions of what information we gather through our senses. These tend to be the most objective pieces of information that we can consider. Interpretations tend to be less objective because they attempt to answer the question, “why?” Why is the animal behaving in a certain way? Since we can never know for certain what an animal is thinking or feeling or experiencing internally, interpretations are less objective and can more easily be incorrect. Interpretations are similar to hypotheses, and they rely on a thorough understanding of context (everything surrounding the behavior, including history, environment, people/places/things accompanying the behavior, etc.). Once we have an interpretation, or two or three, of a behavior we have observed, we need to observe and gather more contextual information to help us feel a little more certain of our conclusions. Even so, a healthy dose of caution is called for – we should not presume to understand our animals.

Another risk of interpretations is that humans tend to project their own reactions onto the animals, and because we are a completely different species, our experiences are not the same as theirs. (We do this with each other, too, and with our children, and even though we are the same species, we don’t always get the interpretations right!). It is useful to disentangle observations from interpretations. We first observe and focus on what we are actually seeing, and then we might interpret in context, but with greater caution. Humility is important in this process.

In the wise words of Henry Beston:
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
― Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod

Learning Animal Body Language

Our observations can be honed by learning what is known about any species’ body language. This is covered in my earlier blogpost as well. There is perhaps no more important skill than being able to observe-observe-observe and learn from those who have studied the natural behavior of species in their natural environments. The field of ethology helps us understand the evolutionary history of certain behavior patterns. And when we apply our observation skills and learn about body language, we have another task before us — the continual observation of our animals’ behaviors, sequences, interactions, and patterns. Not only must we understand the species as much as is possible, but we need to learn everything we can about our individual animals. Animals have differences in expression and have the same wide range of personalities, preferences, and responses as we humans do!

During his first time helping during an Animal Assisted Play Therapy® training and first time seeing a parachute, Jake calmly walked around on it for 10 minutes while the wind billowed it around him, all the while chomping on a squeaky toy. He was free to leave at any time, but he chose to stay on it, showing no signs of avoidance or discomfort. This was just one of many observations of his reactions to new situations and items.


If we develop strong observation skills and learn about species, breed, and individual reactions over time, we are in a better place to use the skill of empathy with our animals. Empathy refers to the ability to attend to and understand accurately what another (including our animals) is experiencing or communicating. It requires us to try to see things from their point of view rather than our own. I wrote an article on this topic (

When we fail to use our observation skills, our cautious interpretations, our humility, and our empathy, we can easily misunderstand our animals. This happens all the time. Even well-meaning and highly trained people sometimes miss what animals are saying when some of their own reactions are triggered, such as in situations of fear, anger, grief, or stress. We are never perfectly empathic, but we can improve our abilities by practicing them all the time. The good thing is that doing so is actually fascinating and we do better by our animals. Now it’s time to get back to Jake’s injured foot…

Jake with his bandaged foot.

An Empathic Experience with Jake’s Injured Foot

Six days after he injured his foot, Jake is healing well. His foot still seems sensitive as shown by his gait and reactions when people or other family dogs get close to it. The vet said it would be painful for a while and to give gabapentin as long as he showed signs of pain.

When this injury first happened, if we, his human family members, got near that leg, he turned his head quickly back toward us AS IF to bite. We could have easily misunderstood that, but nothing in his body language other than the quick head turn indicated any aggression. He was merely giving us a self-protective “get away from there” warning. There was no nip or bite. He brushed by my arm once, and despite the warning signals, his mouth was soft. The moment we moved away, he returned to a relaxed posture.

Last night, we had to change his bandage, and I distracted him with some treats while Mark changed it. He was able to consume the treats, although he did show some mild stress signals (mostly with his ear position and by watching both my husband and me carefully). He had tolerated a prior bandage change showing some stress signals, but no warnings. We never scolded or corrected him because we knew those signals were his way of communicating how he was feeling at any given moment.

When I ran out of treats, he wrinkled his nose, at first just once, then more fully, and once again quickly turned his head back toward his foot. He has a wide nose so the wrinkling was easily observed from my position at his head while Mark was applying the new bandage. Some might have thought he was snarling, but there was no mouth movement or tensing of his body – just the wrinkling on top of his nose. There were lots of subtle features to his nose wrinkling, however. When he then wrinkled his nose more fully and rapidly, I suggested we postpone the rest of the bandaging. His deepening wrinkles coupled with the increased frequency suggested an increase in his discomfort (which we believed was due to pain in his foot). We then gave him his pain pill, waited a short while as it got into his system, then wrapped his foot without any trouble, nose wrinkling, or stress signals at all.

As a continuous observer of animals, and especially my own, I was struck again by how many signals Jake gave to communicate his discomfort, all in a short time. It would have been easy for many people to overlook them, or to jump to the (very wrong) conclusion that he was aggressive. Especially with his breed, people often misunderstand the dog’s many attempts at communication and warning, and then bear down with heavy control, which only adds to the vulnerability the dog feels. The dog does not start off being aggressive, but when coerced into feeling helpless, there’s a greater chance that the dog will feel the need to protect him/herself. What Jake was communicating was that the bandaging at that particular moment and in that particular manner was not comfortable for him. We needed to listen to that and revise our plans. It was really that simple. But without those careful observations, considering what this was like for him in that moment, and adapting so he would not feel so much pain, the outcome could have been far less positive for everyone.

In summary, Jake was in pain, and he was tolerating the bandaging until he couldn’t much longer. He wrinkled his nose in warning. We listened, got to the root of the problem, and ended the bandaging a short while later. If we try to see situations from an animal’s point of view, and are careful to interpret our observations from that vantage point, we are likely to live more empathically and harmoniously with our animals.

Jake relaxing after we gave his pain pill and later rewrapped his foot without any signs of discomfort.

Photo credits: Risë VanFleet

Dr. Risë VanFleet meeting Chuilein Jake the first time in June 2022.

Author: Risë VanFleet, PhD, RPT-S, CDBC, CAEBI is the founder and president of the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy® which offers online and in-person workshops for professionals interested in the many aspects of involving animals in AAPT. AAPT is unique in the strong emphasis it places on relationships with animals that are equal to relationships with other humans, and where animals have agency and choice about their involvement. In AAPT, animals must truly enjoy the work they do, not merely tolerate it. This is accomplished through the goodness-of-fit concept, fluency in reading animal body language, and knowing how to respond in ways that are animal-friendly while still honoring the therapeutic process fully. She can be reached at

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