Equine Therapy: Building Empathy
According to Daniel Goleman, author of “Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead With Emotional Intelligence,” empathy is the single most important tool in social interaction – especially leadership. Yet, for all it’s 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.
Here is an excerpt from their website:
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
- Children perceive their pets as special friends, important family members, and providers of social interactions, affection, and emotional support
- 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
- Animals can facilitate social interaction between children: When an animal is present, children are more likely to interact with a disabled child
- Children who had increased empathy scores because of their relationship with their pets also showed greater empathy toward people
- Ten-year-old children who had established strong bonds with their dog had significantly higher self-esteem, as well as greater empathy
- 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
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.
- 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:
- Learning the cognitive skill of taking another being’s perspective, or role
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.
- 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.
- Having one’s own emotional needs satisfied so that one can respond to another’s.
- 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.
The evidence is clear: Children exposed to empathy training score higher on measures of empathy and sociability than children without the skill training.
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.
Empathy is something that we can learn at any age, and for many, something that is greatly assisted through the help of a horse.
1 Herbert, T. A. & Yammarino, F. J. (1990). Empathy training for hospital staff nurses. Group and Organization Studies, 15, 279-295.
2 Batson, C., Chang, J., Orr, R., & Rowland, J. (2002). Empathy, attitudes and action: Can feeling for a member of a stigmatized group motivate one to help the group. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1656-1666.
3 Jones, B.F. (1990). The new definition of learning: The first steps to school reform. Restructuring to promote learning in America’s schools: A guide- book. Elmhurst, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.
4 Cotton, K. (2004). Developing empathy in children and youth. School Improvement Research Series. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved February 11, 2004 from http://www.nwrel.org/scpd/sirs/77/cu13.html
5 Parker, G.R. (1989). Correlates of resilience in children who have experienced multiple life stressors. Dissertations Abstracts International, 50(4-B), 1653-1654.
6 Bonnano, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience, American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.
7 Cecconello, A. M. & Keller, S. H. (2000). Social competence and empathy: Study about resilience with children in poverty. Estudos de Psicologia, 5, 71-93.
8 Warden, D. & MacKinnon, S. (2003). Prosocial children, bullies and victims: An investigation of their sociometric status, empathy and social problem-solving strategies. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 21, 367-385.
9 Kellet, J. B., Humphrey, R. H., & Sleeth, R. G. (2002). Empathy and complex test performance: Two sides to leadership. Leadership Quarterly, 13, 523-544.
10 McIees, E.E. (1995). The effects of empathy skills training: Group interventions with adults with mild mental retardation and their direct case staff. Dissertation Abstracts International, 55 (8-B), 3573; Kaukiainen, A., Bjoerkqvist, K., Lagerspetz, K., Oesterman, K., Salmivalli, C., Rothber, S., & Ahlbom, A. (1999). Aggressive Behavior, 25, 81-89.
11 Honda, A. & Nihei, Y. (2003). Empathy, spatial and verbal abilities characterize one who can best describe a route. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 96, 861-866.
12 Mayer, J. D. & Salovery, P. (1993). The intelligence of emotional intelligence. Intelligence, 17, 433-442.
13 Borba, M. (2001). Building moral intelligence: The seven essential virtues that teach kids to do the right thing. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.
14 Eisenberg, N. (2003). Prosocial behavior, empathy, and sympathy. In M. H. Bornstein & L. Davidson (Eds.), Well-being: Positive development across the life course. Crosscurrents in contemporary psychology (253-265). Mahway, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
15 Kidd, A. H. & Kidd, R. M. (1985). Psychological Reports, 57, 15-31.
16 Poresky, R. H. (1990). The young children’s empathy measure: Reliability, validity and effects of companion animal bonding. Psychological Reports, 66, 931-936.
17 Triebenbacher, S. L. (1998). Pets as transitional objects: Their role in children’s emotional development. Psychological Reports, 82, 191-200.
18 Vizek-Vidovic, V., Arambasic, L., Kerestes, G., Kuterovac-Jagodic, G., & Vlahovic-Stetic, V. (2001). Pet ownership in childhood and socio- emotional characteristics, work values and professional choices in early adulthood. Anthrozoos, 14, 224-231.
19 Innes, F. K. (2000). The influence of an animal on normally developing children’s ideas about helping children with disabilities. Dissertation Abstracts International, 60 (11-A), 3897.
20 Ascione, F. R. & Weber, C. B. (1996). Children’s attitudes about the humane treatment of animals and empathy: One-year follow up of a school-based intervention. Anthrozoos, 9, 188-195.
21 Bierer, R. E. (2001). The relationship between pet bonding, self esteem, and empathy in preadolescents. Dissertation Abstracts International, 61 (11-B), 6183.
22 Hergovich, A., Monshi, B., Semmler, G., & Zieglmayer, V. (2002). The effects of the presence of a dog in the classroom. Anthrozoos, 15, 37-50.
23 Desmond, F. F. (2002). Associations between human-animal relation- ship quality, dispositional empathy, and prosocial behavior. Dissertation Abstracts International, 63 (1-B), 510.
24 McGrath, M. P., Zook, J. M., & Weber-Roehl, L. (2003). Socializing prosocial behavior in children: The roles of parents and peers. In S. P. Shohov (Eds.), Advances in psychology research (53-59). Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers.
25 Strayer, J. & Eisenberg, N. (1987). Empathy viewed in context. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.), Empathy and its development (389-398). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
26 Nation, M., Crusto, C., Wandersman, A., Kumpfer, K. L., Seybolt, D., Morrisey-Kane, E., & Davino, K. (2003). What works in prevention: Principles of effective prevention programs. American Psychologist, 58, 449- 456.
27 Kalliopuska, M. & Tiitinen, U. (1991). Influence of two developmental programmes on the empathy and prosocialibility of preschool children. Perceptual & Motor Skills, 72, 323-328; Manger, T., Eikeland, O., & Asbjornsen, A. (2001). Effects of social-cognitive training on students’ empathy. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 60, 82-88; Sanz de Acedo Lizarraga, M. L., Ugarte, M. D., Cardelle-Elawar, M., Iriarte, M. D., & Sanz de Acedo Baqueadano, M. T. (2003). Enhancement of self-regulation, assertiveness, and empathy. Learning and Instruction, 13, 423-439.
28 Christophersen, E.R. (1990). Beyond discipline: Parenting that lasts a life- time. Kansas City, MO: Westport Publishers.
29 Eisenberg, N., Lennon, R., & Roth, K. (1983). Prosocial development: A longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology, 19, 846-855; Kohn, A. (1991). Caring kids: The role of the schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 72, 496- 506; McDevitt, T. M., Lennon, R., & Kopriva, R. J. (1991). Adolescents’ perceptions of mothers’ and fathers’ prosocial actions and empathic responses. Youth and Society, 22, 387-409.
30 Demond, F. F. (2002). Associations between human-animal relation- ship quality, dispositional empathy, and prosocial behavior. Dissertation Abstracts International. 63 (1-B), 510; Henderson, K. (1998). Moral rea- soning, empathy, and behavior of students with and without emotional and behavioral disorders and learning disabilities: Impact of a structured program of experiential learning activities involving animals and nature. Dissertation Abstracts International, 58 (11-A), 4233; Manger, T., Eikeland, O., & Asbjornsen, A. (2001). Effects of social-cognitive training on students’ empathy. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 60, 82-88.
31 Pecukonis, E. V. (1990). A cognitive affective empathy training pro- gram as a function of ego development in aggressive adolescent females. Adolescence, 25, 59-76.
32 Brehm, S. S., Fletcher, B. L,. & West, V. (1981). Effects of empathy instructions on first-graders’ liking of other people. Child Study Journal, 11, 1-15.
33 Gallo, D. (1989). Educating for empathy, reason and imagination. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 23, 98-115.
34 Aronson, E. (2002). Building empathy, compassion, and achievement in the jigsaw classroom. In J. Aronson, (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (209-225). San Diego,CA: Academic Press.
35 Kohn, A. (1991). Caring Kids: The Role of the Schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 72, 496-506.
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2012). Equine Therapy: Building Empathy. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 27, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/2012/07/equine-therapy-building-empathy/