Sympathy vs Empathy in Dog Rehabilitation

People often suggest you can reinforce a dogs anxious behaviour by showing sympathy, but is that true? And if you aren’t being sympathetic, does that mean you don’t care? There is a big difference between sympathy and empathy when it comes to dog rehabilitation. I’ll talk about the differences and how to use them both effectively.

What is sympathy?

In psychology, sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow. Unlike empathy, it separates us from the emotion and keeps us distant from the individual that is experiencing an emotion. Sympathy allows us to feel sorry for another person without feeling the emotion ourselves. It is caring, but at a distance, and is most often felt when the person experiencing the emotion is not someone we know well, for example a work colleague, client or stranger on social media.

When we were feeling sympathetic we are able to form judgements about situations and we often go into problem solving mode. We remain strong and understanding. And by remaining distant we are able to be far more objective.

Do dogs need our empathy?

Feeling empathy is a way of showing compassion and understanding. You will feel the emotion with the dog rather than just recognise it. It is supportive, rather than problem solving. Empathy connects us as it allows an individual a safe space to feel emotion, and supports them while they fix themselves and recover.

a man sits outside with a beagle type dog in his lap
Empathy is just being there!

If we pay attention and recognise the emotion and the message our dogs are trying to tell us, they will feel listened to and this is empowering. Empathy strengthens our bond and helps them to trust us to advocate for us. This is especially important when we are working with rescue dogs.

When a dog loses his home and family he needs a safe space to recover, being empathetic allows your dog to work through their fear whilst still feeling supported.

A sympathetic owner will try to fix the dogs problem. This might include taking a nervous dog out of a hiding place, or dragging them to another dog when they are pulling away. When you are scared, the last thing you need is an over confident stranger exposing you to your fear! Incidentally, this is a common cause of behaviour problems later on.

How does sympathy help?

Sympathy becomes useful when you are both out of the situation and have enough distance (emotional and physical) to figure out an appropriate solution to a problem. I often switch from empathy when I am working directly with a dog, to sympathy after the situation has passed.

A man lies beside his brown dog with his atm over the dog
Dogs are naturally empathetic

Dogs are naturally empathetic

Dogs freely mirror our emotions and offer support. We think they are good listeners because they don’t speak. But actually, it’s because they pay attention and don’t judge. For this reason, they are a great support to people with special and emotional needs.

Are you struggling with your dogs behaviour?

Private Dog Behaviour Consultations are currently available in the Dundee area and beyond, or via zoom. If you are looking for help solving your dogs behaviour and training problems, then please get in touch!


I have more than 15 years experience solving all kinds of canine behaviour problems, at home and in rescue. A bad experience with a old fashioned dog trainer inspired me to learn more about dog behaviour, and it is because of him, that I wall never use harsh methods when training and rehabilitating dogs.

I work privately with clients in Dundee and the surrounding area with dogs of all ages, breeds and issues including anxiety, aggression and hyperactivity.

In 2009 I was proud to publish a book about dog behaviour and training. How to be the Perfect Pack Leader (by Caroline Jenkins) remains popular today and a follow up is expected very shortly.

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