Equine Therapy: Building Empathy, by Claire Dorotik

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (http://www.amazon.com/Primal-Leadership-Learning-Emotional-Intelligence/dp/1591391849/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1341540487&sr=1-1&keywords=primal+leadership), empathy is the single most important tool in social interaction, especially leadership. Yet, for all its importance, empathy is often lacking in everyday life, and as Goleman points out, often overlooked.

For this reason, a few organizations have sprung up that focus solely on teaching and building empathy. One such organization is the Humane Society. This organization has developed what they call the Empathy Connection: Creating Caring Communities through the Human-Animal Relationship. (http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/abuse/empathy-connection.pdf).

Here is an excerpt from their website:

Why Animals?

Research demonstrates very tangible benefits to children who form bonds with animals:

  • Children who form a bond with their companion animal score higher on measures of social competence and empathy.16
  • Children perceive their pets as special friends, important family members, and providers of social interactions, affection, and emotional support.17
  • Children who had a pet during their childhood were more empathetic, more prone to enter a helping profession, and were more oriented toward social values than those without a pet.18
  • Animals can facilitate social interaction between children: When an animal is present, children are more likely to interact with a disabled child.19
  • Children who had increased empathy scores because of their relationship with their pets also showed greater empathy toward people.20
  • Ten-year-old children who had established strong bonds with their dogs had significantly higher self-esteem, as well as greater empathy.21
  • When a dog was present in the classroom of first graders, they showed higher social integration and less aggression compared to children in a classroom without an animal.22

Some Warning Signs:

Parents should get involved if they see — or hear about — their child behaving inappropriately with an animal. What is inappropriate behavior? Below are some warning signs for parents.

The child:

  • Handles animals roughly.
  • Deliberately tries to frighten animals.
  • Intentionally tries to injure animals.
  • Treats animals like “objects” or “toys” rather than living creatures.
  • Shows no interest or awareness of animals’ interests or needs.
  • Exhibits other aggressive,or impulsive,tendencies.
  • Does not respond to parental or other adult intervention regarding their treatment of animals.

Tips to Build Empathy

Like any other skill — riding a bike, learning to write, or playing the piano — empathy can be developed. We are born with the potential to be empathetic. Experts on empathy agree that encouraging the expression of empathy requires four things:

1. Learning the cognitive skill of taking another being’s perspective, or role.23

For example, Frank is six years old. When his two-year-old sister was cranky after awakening from her nap, and the usual things did not cheer her up, he understood why she remained unhappy. Frank, his mother and father were drinking pink lemonade. Since they had run out of pink lemonade, Frank’s mother offered his sister yellow lemonade, which she refused. Frank realized she wanted the pink lemonade, like everybody else, and he offered his sister his pink lemonade. She accepted it with a smile. Frank was able to put himself in his sister’s place. Doing that enabled him to solve the problem of his sister’s crankiness.

2. Being exposed to interactions and social experiences in which empathy is demonstrated.

Children who see their parents, teachers, older siblings, and classmates being kind, and acting kindly toward them, are more likely to act that way themselves.24

3. Having one’s own emotional needs satisfied so that one can respond to another’s.25

4. Learning particular and practical skills.

Specialists also agree that children will not necessarily change their behavior simply because they were exposed to information or talked about an issue with their parents. Children need to learn specific, concrete skills in order to change their behavior — whether that change is becoming less aggressive or making better interpersonal choices.26

The evidence is clear: Children exposed to empathy training score higher on measures of empathy and sociability than children without the skill training.27

So while Goleman notes the importance of empathy, the Humane Society employs the use of animals, both dogs and horses, to teach it directly to children. However, empathy is something that we can learn at any age, and for many, something that is greatly assisted through the help of a horse.


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Claire Dorotik LMFT

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