Compassion for our Animal Friends
Preached 12/8/2019 at SouthWest UU in N. Royalton OH
By Rev. Meg Mathieson
When I was a kid, my parents let me get a cat. I mean, it was the family’s cat, but they let me think it was my cat. I was a studious little thing, and read just about every book on cat upkeep that I could find. One of the most important resources for me was a little book called The Silent Miaow. The Silent Miaow is an adorable, if a little outdated book from the 1950s that claims to have been found on a publisher’s doorstep and “translated from the feline” to include first-person information on the care and keeping of humans, from the point of view of a housecat. I’ll read you a little, now:
(P. 15, 89, 91-2)
How can we help ourselves but love the creatures that we share a home with? As Unitarian Universalists, we all agree on basic tenets of morality that are reflected in our seven principles, and could easily be summed up as: don’t be a jerk.
Our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of all people can be a little difficult to extend to all people, if you know what I mean. Some people do not, at first glance, seem to possess much dignity at all, for instance. The idea behind the First Principle Project is to amend the Unitarian Universalist first principle, to instead officially be, “the inherent worth and dignity of all beings.” There are wonderful as well as troubling considerations around the possibility of adopting this new language, we would have to think about how it refers to our diet, which is a very difficult one for some of us! But there are other changes that the First Principle Project is hoping to usher in as well.
At its core, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all beings is about environmentalism and all that entails. It is about what some view as a divine mandate that humans have a responsibility toward caring for the living beings of our world. Or at the very least, we have a responsibility to not hurt them. A responsibility toward compassion.
Whether that responsibility is bestowed upon us by a deity is not really the point: it exists. Ask Greta Thunberg.
If you are familiar with Louise Hay or Doreen Virtue, Hay House Publishing, they are some of the popular new age thinkers right now, and Hay House has published a wonderful book by a veterinarian which gets into ways that you can apply the ideas of Chinese medicine and energetic holistic health to your pet.
This doctor of veterinary science is absolutely not endorsing throwing western medicine out with the bath water, but instead, he encourages us to trust the parts of our hearts that feel a deeper, perhaps energetic connection with our pets. Yes, Dr. Thomas says in his book “Whole Pet Healing,” your dog or cat or even canary or lizard does know when you are coming home. You are not imagining things. Why not embrace this for what it is?
After that encouragement, I read a book titled “Dogs that know when their owners are coming home” and it’s a solidly scientific - in fact quite a dry read! - a study of exactly that, though not just dogs, but pets in general and how they seem to know, against all odds, that their human is on their way home. There are chapters on guinea pigs, reptiles and horses that know when their favorite human is on their way home. It’s warm and wonderful, fascinating and validating. I’d love to know if anyone here has or has had a pet that seems to just “know” things, when someone is on their way home, when it’s time to go to the vet, when they are going to get a walk.
We are constantly learning that animals are smarter than we expected.
At this point, I think it’s reasonable to begin to simply expect animals to be much smarter than we expect. When I was in school, I was taught that dolphins are smart, but whales are big dummies of the sea. Did anyone else learn that? Well, now they are finding that is very, very wrong!
My wife Nicky is here today and she has been an animal behaviorist for over 20 years. She mostly does dog training, but like me, she is a big book-collecting nerd. Our house is half-full of books on religion and half-full of books on animal psychology and behavior. For those of us who enjoy having our suspicion validated that our fuzzy friends are actually much more perceptive than folks regularly give them credit for, Nicky has some good news.
When you think about it, it’s an absolute miracle that we are able to communicate with the animals that we choose to bring into our homes. Here is this creature that doesn’t speak the language, but whom we sometimes expect to read our minds. If I were to approach you and say, “Khun cha sakpa deo nee! Deo nee!" Why aren’t you doing it?
Why didn’t you move and give me your seat. Does that mean that you are willfully disobedient? Or simply not understanding ?
Training a pet, whether it’s a dog, cat, or flea circus, is about communication across species.
Have you ever heard anyone say - he’s too stubborn, can’t be trained. Or Dogs have owners, cat’s have staff! Cats can’t be trained!
We used to think that cats couldn’t be taught to do things like dogs do. Not true!
Its really pretty simple. You can motivate by using the carrot or the stick. It’s a choice. The compassionate choice is to use the carrot. And it turns out that the compassionate choice is also the most effective choice.
And while it is true, some animals are more difficult to teach than others The biggest stumbling block in teaching household pets is the human part of the equation.
I have a question for you. Do any of you know another human being that is SURE that they are right. That what they think, and what they believe is a FACT.
Like gravity. I grew up learning that without gravity on earth, that people would just fly off into space. I can still see that image in the encyclopedia of cartoon figures flying off the earth.
It turns out that actually isn’t quite true.
I am asking you to Take your preconceived ideas and put them in a box and leave them outside for a moment.
For instance, when your dog jumps up on you to say hello they are not trying to be dominant. That’s actually a very outdated and incorrect way of looking at things! the updated science simply does not support the dominance-behavior theory when it comes to dogs. It just makes sense to us because that is a human trait. Humans like to be dominant and we project that onto our animals.
Most animals, including humans, respond much better to compassionate communication than to the old dominance model. An ex-military and now a police dog consultant told me that he changed his whole training method from punishment based to using positive reinforcement, not because it’s nice but because it is more efficient. It keeps him out of court, his trained police dogs do not make the mistake of biting the wrong person, and they stop biting when asked to do so.
I think we can agree that being a guide dog is a very important job. that leading a blind person along a busy road and crossing through traffic is really important to do correctly.
It turns out that using positive reinforcement as a method of teaching these dogs works better than punishment. After switching to using positive reinforcement Guide dogs for the blind reports an 80% increase in the passing rate. 80%!
Today more and more animals are being taught using positive reinforcement methods. police dogs, military animals which include dogs, dolphins and cats, zoo and aquarium animals and also dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, and other household pets.
It can be hard for a pet owner to let go of what worked for them in the past. Even today there are still trainers out there that teach using punishment.
In my past, I have used punishment to teach my pets. I have used choke chains, prong collars and yes, once even a shock collar. I followed a popular dog training book that said that I had to be dominant over my puppy, so I tried to hold him on his back and wondered why he struggled so much.
Luckily for me, this dog fought back. So I had to open my mind and seek out other ways to teach. I am so thankful to other positive dog trainers, guide dog trainers, zoo trainers, aquarium trainers and police dog trainers that have spread the message that positive training is by far the most powerful and effective form of training.
At an international animal training conference A famous Sea World trainer said to a room full of dog trainers - you dog trainers, the only reason that you continue to teach dogs using punishment is just because you can. It’s that simple.
You can do it and get away with it. A whale on the other hand can kill you.
He came to this conclusion when he ended up in the hospital with a broken collar bone after being pinned underwater by an angry whale who was reacting to being punished.
So our training methods have evolved!
Dolphins have been trained for years now to go and do tasks for the navy - out in the open ocean, swimming past live fish to come back and receive a dead fish as a reward!
Unfortunately, as you know human beings can be resistant to change. We hold onto information that may be hurtful to others, that might even be downright wrong!
We human beings can be stubborn! We like watching reality tv shows, for instance the dog whisperer, cesar milan. His show has a little bit of truth with a lot of very damaging incorrect information.
The truth is, the compassionate choice is also the most effective choice. Science supports this.
Like gravity, animal training knowledge has come a long way.
Now that we know better, we must do better. Our pets deserve it!
Our pets deserve our deepest gratitude and lovingkindness.
And as we consider all of the blessings that the animals in our lives - those currently living and those currently somewhere in the ether, all of the blessings that they bestow upon us as humans, let’s turn around and bless them. I now offer an animal blessing. And I believe that any animal that you love will feel this blessing, will feel you offering your love and gratitude to them, no matter where they are right now, be it at home asleep or asleep in the ether.
For the blessing of animal companions, we give thanks.
For the beautiful ones, those whose fur is silky and whose tails are long;
whose feathers are brilliant or whose voices are splendid... we give thanks.
For the frantic ones, the runts and the hungry, who run for a food bowl
or a pat as though this is life’s last possible gift, we give thanks.
For the obnoxious ones, the heads that butt against us as we’re trying to sleep;
the bodies that refuse to learn discretion as they make digestive gifts... we give thanks.
For those who bark and purr and growl and mew, for all who squeak or squawk or snarl or hiss, we give thanks.
For the animals unknown to us, those whose niche in life’s web is fragile;
whose lives are insecure; for all who care for them and wish them well, we give thanks.
Blessed are the animals.
Blessed are the creatures who live with us and need our care.
Blessed are the mammals and the reptiles and the birds
who teach us we are not alone.
Blessed are all living things from whom we learn to love.