The Rescuer, entirely selfless?

It is surprisingly common to hear pet owners describe stories of rescue. It may be the cat living on the streets that took 6 months of coaxing to overcome a fear of man; an orphaned dog saved from welfare death row; or the puppy fearful and timid at purchase, where a history of abuse is assumed.  These narratives, accurate or not, add an emotional depth and sense of meaning to our relationship with animals..


.In the media, and society more broadly, abuse of animals and children often seems a greater evil than crimes directed at adults. Symbolic of innocence, their victimhood is more emotional charged. Unable to defend their own interests, they are the members of the community that demand protection.

I would hope the true frequency of abuse of animals is, in reality, lower than that we hear pet owners report. While fear of a broom may seem good evidence of an abuse, a timid personality may not.   Just as there are well recognised personality types in man, some predisposed to anxiety, such types are now being characterised in dogs.  Owners sometimes acknowledge that although their dog’s behaviour looks as if it has been abused, they know this not to be the case.  Your dog’s fearfulness may be more genetically predetermined than response to abuse in puppyhood.

As social creatures, it’s a natural tendency for humans to anthropomorphise animals, reaching in to imagine their world.  Most owners and vets find this an intuitive process, yet vets are trained to be sceptical of such assumptions. There is a long tradition of animal behavioural science that  denies animals an inner realm, that views them as very sophisticated robots, incapable of even feeling pain. These days, only hard-core vivisectionists persist at arguing against animal consciousness.

There are, however, major limitations to the accuracy with which we can know what’s going on inside your dog’s head.   A mute pet can act as a blank canvass on which an owner can draw. We are naturally tempted to attribute feelings and histories that may reaffirm our beliefs and satisfy our needs.KtriangleInto this context, it is interesting to introduce the idea of the Karpman triangle.  Used by psychologists for interpreting behaviour in relationships, the triangle ascribes roles of victim, abuser, and rescuer. Participation in such dynamics satisfy deep psychological needs, and while traditionally the players are human, the ease with which owners can project the role of victim on to their pet, and imagine an unknown abuser in the past, makes this role-play tempting for a pet owner.

Irrespective of whether abuse is real or imagined, the owner’s role as rescuer is accurate or miscast, or the act is selfless or serving a personal need, as long as the human-animal bond is rewarding, who cares?

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