Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sympathy, Empathy, Elphie

When we adopted Elphie, all those years ago, she came to us with some serious baggage. She had been horribly abused, and was found wandering the streets with a pack of wild dogs.

When her time at the Humane Society in Tracy had run out, they called local a no-kill rescue. Amanda, who ran the rescue, took Elphie in and posted her on Petfinder for us to find and adopt. Elphie was five months old when we she joined our family.

That was in May of 2005, and we've worked hard to socialize her and make her feel comfortable, safe, and loved. For the most part, she's pretty chill, but specific things just set. Her. Off.

Like fireworks.

We had *six weeks* of fireworks every night before and after the fourth of July. Six weeks. Under the supervision of our vet, we had tranquilizers for her, and on the recommendation of a friend, Thundershirts for both dogs. We put white noise on loud in the bathroom in our bedroom (where she likes to curl up sometimes), and did our best to drown out the noise.

(We are also trying Through a dog's ear for fireworks, on the enthusiastic endorsement of our incredible dog trainer. Results tbd.)

Life has a way of throwing curveballs to keep things interesting, and while the Fireworks Bonanza of 2013 was a MASSIVE pain, that was five months ago. So many developmental milestones have come and gone, and Genevieve is still a cheerful, happy, great, well-behaved kid- but she's not always 100% cooperative.

I was anxious about the fireworks, and I was anxious about Elphie, and Genevieve noticed that Elphie was getting more attention than normal and started to act out. Yelling. Crying. Completely out of Genevieve's character.

Thanks to Positive Discipline: The First Three Years, I had the tools to calmly collect Genevieve into my lap, and really communicate with her. The book focuses on communication, understanding, and educating in a kind way. (They have a HUGE age range in their books. You want to read these books.)

I asked her if she was upset because Elphie was getting more attention than normal. [Yes.] I told her that the loud noises were scaring Elphie.

"When you're scared, do you like it when Mommy snuggles you close?"

"When you're scared, do you like it when Mommy gives you hugs and kisses?"

"Do the snuggles and hugs and kisses make you feel better?"

"Elphie is really scared right now, and I need you to be cooperative and helpful tonight. I need you to help me take care of Elphie."

Once both dogs were suited up in their Thundershirts (Niki isn't a huge fireworks fan, either), and Elphie had been medicated, we were waiting for the meds to kick in. At this point in the process, I give the dogs some peanut butter as a special treat because (a) they really like it and (b) Elphie forgets to freak out while she's eating peanut butter.

I started with a tablespoon of peanut butter for the dogs, and Genevieve on my hot on my heels. The dogs polished it off pretty quickly, and Genevieve spoke up.

She asked for more peanut butter for Elphie. Specifically, signing while she was speaking so that I would understand what she was saying right away, "More, PEEEEASE. HEPP Effie."

My heart nearly burst out of my chest. I was so proud of her. So, I told her. 

"Thank you for being so cooperative and helping take care of Elphie. Let's help her now," I said, and we did.

This kid totally gets it.
Other than being INSANELY proud of Genevieve,  it's important to tell this story for another reason. I was at a book signing for an *incredibly* popular children's author when Genevieve was less than a year old.
I forget the context of the discussion, but the author pointedly and factually told me that children under the age of three simply *aren't developmentally capable* of either sympathy OR empathy. I thanked her for signing Genevieve's books, and left knowing in my gut that she was wrong.

In the bigger picture, it's not about being right or wrong. I think it's recognizing that sympathy and empathy look different on a toddler than they do on an adult. Not to compare children to dogs, but there are also people who believe that dogs don't have souls, or personalities. If you've ever loved a dog (or two, in our case), you know they're just wrong.

I really feel like Genevieve has learned that we all take care of each other because we love each other. Sometimes we "hepp Effie", and sometimes Elphie helps us.


  1. Rich post on so many levels! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Let me just say, you're a great mom, both to your daughter and your dogs.

    I shuddered when I read about *6 weeks* of fireworks. My dog had to suffer through a week or two of them around New Year's and it was bad enough, despite his Thundershirt and medication, though thankfully not as bad as in past years when he hadn't had either.

    And about the question of sympathy under the age of three: My daughter (almost 20 months) has been in daycare for a while now, with 4 other kids under the age of 3, and they ALL express sympathy. When a new kid joins the crowd around the age of 12-15 months, they all try to comfort it when it is sad that mommy/daddy has gone. They kiss and hug or even lie next to them. Awesome.

  3. Well done Genevieve and well done you too. Lovely post.

  4. Thank you! I love these posts you do about parenting; both to your human and animal children :)

  5. I have found the "Through a Dog's Ear" CD helpful. Funny story - I bought one at the Vet when I was there to pick up a medication. I thought "Gee, I'll listen to this on the way home and see what it is like." Part way into track 2, I started to yawn, and yawn, and yawn. I shut it off so I didn't fall asleep. After I got home, my S.O. asked "Did you read the instructions?"
    "Umm.. what instructions? It is a CD, you put it into the CD player, don't really need instructions for that…"
    "No dork, the part that says "Don't play it while driving because it will cause drowsiness. They make a special one for in the car."
    My dog is not a fan of the fireworks either. She also has a thunder shirt. I have found them helpful in combo. Good luck with yours!

  6. Thanks for the book suggestions -- I'm always learning about each of my children and when you described gathering Genevieve into your lap, well, it sounded like just what we need around here to get a fresh perspective on behavior challenges. You really are a good teacher for your daughter...and your readers!

  7. Beautiful. That you for such an informative, loving and helpful post. I agree with you comletely.


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