My Lab puppy, Thurber, makes me laugh out loud every day. The writing life requires you to sit still for long periods of time, but those days are long gone. As I write this column — attempt to write it, that is — my seven-and-a-half-month-old buddy keeps dropping his ball at my feet, hoping to get me to play with him. Which makes me laugh out loud. He usually doesn’t give up until I take him outside for a good run — or we go to the park, so he can greet strangers with enthusiastic joy.
I knew getting a dog would change my daily routine, but I had no idea how much he would change and brighten up my life. I didn’t realize until after he arrived five and one-half months ago, but I used to go for days without laughing — certainly without laughing out loud. Now Thurber’s antics make me laugh so hard and so often, I can only imagine how much public civility would be improved if everyone in our country could experience the daily joy he brings me.
Civility is “the foundational virtue of citizenship,” developmental psychologist Marilyn Price-Mitchell wrote a decade ago in Psychology Today. It’s behavior “that recognizes the humanity of others, allowing us to live peacefully together in neighborhoods and communities.” She explained that the psychological elements of civility include awareness, respect, self-control and empathy — the very characteristics a professional dog trainer is helping me develop in Thurber.
Empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of another — is certainly a skill we Americans are losing in our increasingly isolated, angry, social-media-driven world. But pets like my best buddy Thurber can help bring us together and help us restore our argumentative nation to a civil, well-functioning republic.
Child development specialist Denise Daniels explains in The Washington Post that “emotional intelligence,” or EQ, is a measure of empathy. She points to the findings of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, which researches EQ and teaches people how to improve it, and notes that a high EQ score is the best indicator of a child’s success — as well as an adult’s.
Which brings us back to the value of pets.Daniels writes that a variety of research in the U.S. and U.K. has shown a correlation between attachment to a pet and higher empathy scores. I know my buddy Thurber has certainly improved my empathy and EQ score. I didn’t realize that my emotions for the little guy would run so deep, or that I would work so hard and do so many things to give him the happiest, healthiest life he can experience. Plus, everywhere we go — and he loves few things more than jumping into the backseat of my truck — he makes total strangers smile, laugh and converse with me.
His simple presence can bring human strangers together. He not only makes us forget the petty human world — for a little while, at least — but he reminds us that a simple but magnificent creature like him can turn the most hardened souls back into an empathic, laughing, happy children. As I work hard to train Thurber to be a great dog who exhibits compassion, self-discipline, courtesy and empathy, he is training me right back to improve all of those same skills.
I can no longer imagine what my world would be like without my lovable Labrador enriching it for me — and everyone else who meets him every day.
Tom Purcell is an author and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email him at Tom@TomPurcell.com.