June 19, 2024

Pet Love: One of the Cheapest Forms of Therapy Around

Kim and the guysIn my youth, we had a black cocker spaniel named Cokey (Coke? Like in coal? Get it?). Cokey was a ditzy dog who spent her days in the woods around my northern New Jersey home, cleaning the trees of ticks. Cokey’s ears were so long we had to secure them over her head with a clothespin when she ate, or dinner residue would stick to them. Cokey was Mom’s drug of choice when she stressed out about any of a number of things that impinged upon her life, not the least of which was me. What makes our pets so effective in their ability to calm us and tap off the stresses of the day?
I’ve seen the magic that pets can create in my adult life. We’ve had a series of three dogs since moving into our suburban St. Louis home 30 years ago. We adopted a displaced black Lab mix we named Fritz to get my older daughter over her fear of dogs. It worked. They were great buddies. She still has a picture of Fritz from 25 years ago in her home office.

Fritz worked his magic on all four of us. He was a “bear of little brain,” as we called him…once chewed into an electric cord and was clinically dead until I did baby CPR on him and pounded his chest to get his heart started again. He lasted another 13 years. He had a cancer (cancer du foie) issue on his spine, which we spared no expense to fight. Eventually we had to put him down, and that’s still more emotional for me than the passing of my own father. He was that meaningful to my young family.

Then there were the “boys.” Bubba, a beautiful, fairly pure 120-pound black Lab, and Gabby, his wacko border collie mix brother…both freed from the local humane society shelter. Not only were these two our free psychiatrists; they were each other’s! Inseparable, they lived by day in a front yard protected by an electric dog fence and entertained an entire neighborhood for over a decade. By night, they’d pick the family member du jour and work their magic. On the bench during the boys’ tenure were Dillinger and J. Edgar, two feral cats that adopted us for almost 19 years.

I would posit that the biggest reason pets calm us and make us feel better is that they are always in their Learner/Researcher mode. They do have Knower/Judger rules, of course. They learn where to go to relieve themselves, what time to expect breakfast and dinner, and who represents their family (or their pack, as trainers sometimes refer to a dog’s family). In multi-pet families you can usually determine which is dominant and which is submissive.

But when it comes to their relationships with their humans, they normally do not exhibit any agendas (a signal of being in one’s K/J). And they can’t tell themselves stories about how things are supposed to be, simply because they have no words…no way to keep a fantasy alive in their minds. They live totally in the present. They take in data and react accordingly.

My experience with every pet I’ve ever been privileged to have known (including the above-mentioned critters plus a parrot, a parakeet, mice, a gerbil, and a guinea pig) is that they all had the ability to get me present, into the here and now. They brought me back to basics. When I’d be retelling myself some tale of woe about how the boss did this to me or some customer accused me of this or that, I’d look into a pair of big brown black Lab eyes and the importance of that story would lessen. A pet puts things in perspective…kind of a living Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff coach.

And although I tend to trust data I’ve acquired myself, my interpretation isn’t limited to my personal experiences. Pet therapy (using dogs, horses, and other species to speed recovery or develop coping skills) is touted by the Mayo Clinic, no less (short article here).

If pets are counted on by medical and psychiatric professionals…how about you? Are you getting regular doses of healthy pet love?

I’d love to hear about your pet. What kind of animal has your heart, and what does he or she do for you or your family?



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