Empathy for My Pet: To See a Dog and Nothing More

by Samantha Craft

I think Scoob is dying. He’s not moving, hardly at all.

Our golden-doodle Scooby is very, very sick. I don’t know if he will make it this time. In early October he was also ill. He had lost fifteen pounds from an internal staph infection in the neck region. He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t get out of his designated chair, and was very despondent.

Today is a little different. The weight is still on him, but he appears boney, as if a part of him, a part I can’t readily see, at least in spirit, has been chiseled away. He can barely stand. He has a fever of 103.8, and black tarry stools keep appearing from the internal bleeding.

I can’t stand it when someone is in pain, especially animals. It tears me up inside, and I can’t focus. It’s not that he’s my dog. He could be anyone’s dog (and, in actuality, he doesn’t belong to anyone, anyhow). It’s that he is experiencing suffering and pain.

And I question what he is feeling, what he thinks is happening as he loses capacity to function — to even raise his little paw to ask, in his darling manner, to be petted. I wonder whether he knows that when we took him to the vet yesterday evening, and he had all those tests, and the emergency shots, that we were trying to help him. I wonder whether he can feel my own worry. No, that’s not exactly correct: I worry that he does in fact feel my concern, and that it makes him sadder. I question whether he understands the concept of mortality and the afterlife. People say dogs, and animals in general, don’t understand, but how can we possibly know? Maybe they are heavenly spirits sent down to save us from isolation, to connect us back to instinctual, unconditional love. Maybe he can see his life force dissipating and slipping into another place.

I feel guilty, too, because I haven’t been the best master. I could have taken him on more walks. It’s just that his size — that of a stocky standard poodle — is hard on me. He’s such a people and dog lover that he pulls and pulls in order to reach out to others. He only wants to share his being and love; he doesn’t mean to hurt my shoulder in the process. He doesn’t know why I haven’t taken him on more walks, of late. And he just stares me down with the big dark and very, very sad brown eyes, as if asking why? Only, I don’t know what the why is now. Is it why the pain? Why the hurt? Why me? Or is he simply, naturally, and effortlessly releasing and letting go, as humans struggle so much to do, and surrendering to the life cycle?

I wonder whether I did something wrong. Months ago, Scooby stood on his hind legs, like a circus bear, and stole his pack of doggy vitamins from the top counter. Though I guess stole isn’t the accurate word; they were his doggy vitamins. And sweet Scoob didn’t know not to eat the entire bottle of liver-flavored treats. He hadn’t known they could hurt him. Why would his human friends leave anything around to hurt him? And I wonder whether this overdose, in some way, might have damaged him internally. And there was the freak snowstorm and the three-day power outage this year, when I was so obsessed with saving our freezer food by stuffing as many perishables as I could in the snow that I forgot that Scoob would want some. It was there, right in his domain, all this meat and dairy, all the yummy intense and enticing smells. Had I not felt obligated to share some, to give a few tidbits of our people- food, maybe his stomach, or whatever is bleeding, would be healthy now.

There is an agonizing twist in my stomach — the recognition of potential loss — this black wisp of nothingness that reaches up from the depths of me, beneath the physical layer, from some oblique existence, and nips at the tender parts of my being. In the pain, I am reminded of all the losses before, all the animals that were once here and now gone, all the people who were part of my life and slipped away, whether through life circumstance or through the veil of death. They are all somewhere else now — whether on this plane or on another celestial plane, it doesn’t matter. They are no longer here. And thus I question this here. I question the here and now. The element of time — the element-less-ness of time — how time isn’t an element at all, perpetually reminding us of nonexistence.

Beyond my worry and wonder, and the deep pondering, my brain begins to jump, like those mysterious jumping beans that were so very popular in my youth — splattering about, these synapses of my mind, leaping to one fear to the next, the hypochondriac state settling itself in for a stay. I feel the presence, the familiar presence, of this unwanted visitor. I won’t even give it a gender, a he or a she it does not deserve. It comes every few weeks, giving me reprieve only for a short, short while, lets my brain rest and not focus on death for a wee stretch of time, before it returns to mock me with its ways. And mocking, this entity of fear has done since I could form memories. It’s made me afraid of everything that is unexplainable to the physical form. It’s made me fear my own body, my own presence. I’ve died a thousand deaths, in a thousand different ways. As a child, death took me from the killer bees, from rabies, from the cancer-causing blow dryer, from swallowing a scrap of tinfoil, from the crusted scab on my knee. Death took me later from AIDS, Hepatitis C, colon cancer, uterine cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer. Death even took me from toe fungus and a tiny zit. It is clever, this entity, draping a black mask over my eyes, so everything light becomes dark, and everything nonthreatening becomes a potential end-mark to my breathing.

And in having dear Scooby sick, this death entity has bypassed the doors to my reasoning and entered my premises unannounced and unwelcomed. It laughs, because it tells me I knew of its coming, because I could feel the rupturing of my own eternal woes, the familiar angst of what was to be: the mind bending and turning, the piercing of the present, and the bringing back of every fear.

It laughs because I let it in; I allowed it to sneak through the cracks of my illogical reasoning. Oh, to have a simple mind, that only sees the sick dog, that only feels the potential loss, and not the intense wonderings and aches of a seemingly limitless field of pain.

And now I worry for myself, my own health — this transference of my dog’s pain into mine. And I question my innocence and being. Have I a right to exist when my focus is continually led back to my own self, my own sufferings? How I pull the leash that is wrapped around another back to me, pulling the attention in my direction. Am I not a failure for taking the pain and making it mine? Am I not a failure for yet again making the experience about me? And if it is not to be about me, to not come from my own eyes that see, and from my own mind that reasons —  if I am to make this experience about that which is outside of self — then how? How do I take the first step, when my mind has been prewired and programmed to function as an anomaly? Can’t I just be this so called normal for once, and see in front of me, this separateness of life? To see a dog and nothing more?

About the Author: Samantha Craft is a woman with Asperger’s who holds a master’s degree in Education, and who is working on a second master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. She is the mother of three children; her middle child was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was five years old. This piece first appeared on her blog, Everyday Asperger’s, and is reprinted here by permission.

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4 thoughts on “Empathy for My Pet: To See a Dog and Nothing More

  1. Ben S says:

    There’s not much I can write that will not sound horribly saccharine to me. I remember worrying about how dogs felt when I was very small. My otherwise wonderful Roman Catholic grandma told me pets didn’t have souls, and did not go to heaven. This produced a fit in my little Asperger’s brain at how unfair that would be, and that I still loved my grandma, but she was terribly mistaken in this.
    I no longer care about heaven, but I still care how animals feel, since I’m positive that they do, even though they’re not human. (and it’s my empathy people are suspect of…)
    Take care or yourself and Scooby, as well as you can.

    p.s. I had a succession of gerbils and hamsters in the 70’s, all called Scooby I, or II. Occasionally Shaggy or Velma.a

  2. anonymous says:

    I’m sorry, but I hope you aren’t implying that a non-autistic person cannot have empathy for animals or even understand that they think. That is a slap in the face of many pet owners, many of whom have grieved the loss of a pet. Yes there are people who don’t think animals have feelings, that isn’t a trait that characterises neurotypicality. Most pet owners I know are definitely in tune with their pets’ feelings. You know I read this and could empathise with everything, having lost a dog myself, until you suggested that it is “normal” to see a dog and nothing more. No, that is not normal, that is cold hearted and not the way most people see the non-human members of their family.

  3. sam says:

    Thank you for posting my story. To the above person, if you visit my blog, you will get a better idea of my journey. Of course it is not “normal” to see a dog and nothing more. That is what I wanted at the time, because the pain was so very great. My NT youngest son and NT husband took the passing of our dog with great grief. To see a dog and nothing more, meant to see him and not worry about me in the process. I felt bad worrying about me. I wanted the focus to be on him and without the great degree of pain. Hope that makes sense. Just because I have Aspergers doesn’t mean I don’t understand NT. I was considered “normal” for 40 years.

  4. Earl Smith says:

    Samantha, I’m so sorry.
    I have a dog and I realize how deeply the bond between dog and human is and how profound the loss therein.

    I’m not sure it matters whether Scooby knows of mortal threat or the fragility of life. I do know that Scooby loves. I think dogs love more deeply and more purely than humans. I believe Scooby knows that you love him and have always looked out for him and protected him.

    Whatif’s are hurtful. We can always review what could have been, what if things were different. There is no help there. You have given Scooby a wonderful life. We’re all here temporarily, even Scooby.

    Rejoice in his life. Enjoy your time together. Don’t feed regrets.

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