Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
It’s True! Dogs Really Do Feel Gratitude
It’s a concept debated by philosophers – can dogs uphold the greatest of all virtues?
Whether driven by their circumstances or our desires, whether they want to or not, animals love people – and the reverse is true. For Peter Wohlleben, finding proof that animals feel gratitude is as simple as looking at a dog with a chequered past that he welcomed into his family’s life. Our cocker spaniel, Barry, didn’t come to us until he was nine years old. Actually, after the death of our Münsterländer, Maxi, we wanted to draw the dog chapter of our lives to a close. Or so we thought. Despite the fact that my wife, Miriam, was absolutely opposed to a new family member, our daughter set out to convince us otherwise. She didn’t get much resistance from me, because I couldn’t really imagine life without a dog.
When my daughter accompanied me to an autumn market, both of us knew what was going to happen. The Euskirchen animal shelter was going to have a parade of its guests, hoping to find homes for them that day.
My daughter and I were hugely disappointed when the only animals on display were rabbits, because we had plenty of those at home. After waiting around the market all day, making multiple tours of the stalls, here we were, confronted with the fact that there were no dogs. Right at the very end there was an announcement that a future occupant was going to be shown by one of its former owners, before being delivered to the shelter: Barry. Our hearts beat faster. The dog was apparently extremely
good- natured, a model passenger in the car and he was neutered. Perfect! We leapt up from the bench and stepped forward. A short test-walk, a handshake to seal the agreement for three days’ probation and we took off right away with the dog in the car.
The three-day trial was important, because Miriam didn’t suspect anything yet. She came back late that night after an engagement. She was taking her coat off when my daughter asked: “Do you notice anything different?”
My wife looked around and shook her head. “Then take a look down at your feet,” I prompted.
And in that instant, it happened. Barry looked up at her, wagging his tail, and my wife took him into her heart right then and there, for the rest of his life. And the dog was grateful – grateful that his long and arduous journey had finally ended. His owner, an old lady suffering from dementia, had had to give him up. He’d gone through two different families, and now he had found his ‘forever home’ with us.
It’s true that for the rest of his life he worried that there might be yet another handover, but other than that
Barry was always happy and friendly. He was grateful. It was as simple as that – or was it?
After all, how are you supposed to measure gratitude or – almost as difficult – to define it? If you check on the Web, you’ll find a lot of discussion, but nothing definitive. Some animal lovers think of gratitude as their due, a response that many owners expect from their animals in return for the care they give them. I wouldn’t even bother to search for this kind of gratitude in animals, for it would merely be an expression of subservience, smacking of servility.
Essentially, and this is in reference to people, what emerges from most definitions is that gratitude is a positive emotion arising from an enjoyable experience caused by someone, or something, else. In order to be grateful, you need to be able to recognise that someone (or life) has done you a good turn.
The Roman polit ician and philosopher Cicero considered gratitude to be the greatest of all virtues, and he thought dogs were capable of feeling it. But now it gets tricky. How can I know whether an animal recognises who or what has caused its enjoyable experience? In contrast to the joy itself (which is easy to recognise in a dog), there’s also the question of whether the dog gives any thought to the cause of its joy.
It’s relatively simple to answer this question. There’s food, for starters. The dog is happy about its meal and knows exactly who filled its bowl. In fact, dogs often encourage their owner to repeat the process. But is this really gratitude? You could just as easily call it begging.
Doesn’t true gratitude include a mindset, a way of looking at life? An ability to celebrate small pleasures, without constantly craving more? Seen from this perspective, gratitude is when joy and contentment about circumstances that are not of your own making coincide. Unfortunately, this kind of gratitude cannot yet be proven in animals – we can do no more than speculate about their inner outlook on life.
In Barry’s case, at least, my family and I are certain that he was both happy and content to have found his final home with us, even if we don’t have any scientific proof.
If you have a story you’d like to share about an animal’s gratitude, we’d like to hear about it. For details on how to contact us, go to page 8.