Here’s something I’ve noticed. When you really want to make someone feel bad- create shock value- or evoke dark feelings of despair, sadness or regret- there’s not a more effective route than talking about kicking or hurting puppies. Poor puppy! Who doesn’t love a puppy?

Sidenote: I LOVE puppies, you guys. I admit it. I don’t have time for one, but I want one so badly. Really. An adorable, fluffy, huggable, loveable, best friend who never competes for the same guys, never stands me up on a Friday, and never tries to get me to write their term paper? That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Now, you may or may not be a huge fan of dogs. Maybe you’re a cat person.  Fine. But there is no one in their right mind that doesn’t squeal, smile or at least feel a small sense of love when they see a puppy. I had an old roommate who used to make an instant transformation when she saw a picture of a one. “Look at the cute widdle puppy. Hello widdle baby- Who’s a fluffy widdle one? You are!!!”  You couldn’t even mock her for it, because you knew you kind of felt the same way.

It’s no wonder that we feel such empathy for the adorable and defenseless creatures.

Usually, we think of a puppy as a loving pile of fur that will greet us with kisses and snuggles, and a blank, but loving expression. That’s usually right on the (wet) nose.

But occasionally you meet a puppy who isn’t friendly. You go to pet the puppy, and it shrinks away. Its eyes don’t gleam with the joy of love, a day at the park, or the prospect of a piece of bacon. He doesn’t let you touch him, and if you do, you can feel his fearful response. It’s subtle, sometimes, a slight shiver. But you notice, because when there is a cute fluffy little puppy in front of you, you give it your undivided attention, damnit! I say this with the utmost sincerity. Puppies are important.

When a puppy doesn’t greet us with unabashed love, we know something has gone wrong. And we feel bad. Every time. We feel bad- every time. Sometimes the puppy strikes out, nips at your fingers, barks, but we still see through that and we feel bad. This is called, empathy. And it’s one of the most primal, human responses that we have.

When I see a puppy that doesn’t radiate love, I hurt. I literally hurt. I think, wow, that puppy has obviously been abused. It’s been hit, maybe. Yelled at? Neglected? Who knows—I don’t typically think in details about the puppy’s backstory, to be honest. I just think, hey, there’s a cute loving creature has been hurt. And I feel for it.  And this is about as universal of an experience as I’ve seen. I’ve seen children illustrate this, as well as full grown men and women. We see the puppy, and we get it.

We don’t look at the puppy and say, “oh, that’s a less loving puppy.” “That puppy has an attitude.” “That puppy doesn’t deserve my love the way the other puppies do.” “That puppy deserved whatever bad things happened to it.” We certainly don’t look at the puppy and say “get over it.” And we don’t ask the puppy if it’s sure it has earned the right to hurt the way it does…

Why do we not see people the same way?  Sure, people are (usually) less fluffy, and don’t pee on the rug (typically).  But once upon a time,  we were even cuter than (or almost as cute as) puppies—when we were babies. And then we just…grew. But we didn’t change. Not as much as we believe we did.

It’s funny, ‘cause what I said at the beginning, about hurting puppies bringing up people’s feelings of empathy. Bringing up kicking or hurting babies is ineffective cause it yields too strong of a response. “That’s in bad taste” someone will cry. Yeah, it is. Guess what babies grow into?

It’s not that we’re a heartless nation, free of empathy–Quite the opposite. We already get it. We’ve been feeling empathy all along. So why do we pick and choose who deserves it?

What if we take all of our feelings about puppies and transfer them back to people- the way we did before we learned how to stop caring. What if, every time someone gave you attitude at work, said something outrageously mean, seemed to be having a bad day for no apparent reason, or illustrated something you perceived as negative, annoying or unpleasant- what if you thought of a sweet little puppy and knew that this was once a sweet, loving person and the only reason you see otherwise is because something happened to change that, whether for that one incident, or permanently.

If we can cut slack to our k9 friends, why can’t we cut some for each other? Today, entertain the possibility that life could be a little bit less ruff if we support each other.