What We Learn From Our Pets
Don’t underestimate the therapeutic value of our furry family members.
Posted Jun 13, 2016
“Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate.” ~ Sigmund Freud
A growing body of research suggests that interacting with animals improves our health and well-being. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the presence of pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and feelings of loneliness, and increase opportunities for exercise, outdoor activity, and socialization (http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/). People and animals have been living and bonding with one another for millennia. Often, that bond is direct and extremely powerful, providing emotional benefits in addition to those related to physical health.
Increasingly, animals are used for therapeutic purposes in the form of pet therapy, also referred to as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), and animal-assisted activities (AAA). AAT is a formal approach utilizing interactions with pets to help people reach specific treatment goals, whereas AAA involves less structured contact between specially trained pets and people in settings such as rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and hospitals.
The recent proliferation of “emotional support” animals is further evidence of how pets can be coping resources that help people better tolerate distress and maintain emotional balance. Among the elderly, pets can provide connection, social support, and a sense of purpose. Pets can help children develop empathy and compassion, as well as a sense of responsibility. For those that struggle with serious disorders like addiction, pain conditions, chronic and even terminal illness, pets offer unmitigated presence and a unique source of comfort.
The relationships we have with our pets have a purity untarnished by the complexity & ambivalence that usually accompanies our relationships with other people, including the people we love and to whom we are closest. As a result, the presence of pets frequently has a calming influence, increasing feelings of relaxation and decreasing stress.
This topic came up as I process the very recent passing of my dog, Sammy (a fourteen year-old chow mix), and reflect on the qualities that made her and my connection with her so special. She was adopted from a shelter when she was about a year old for my daughter’s 11th birthday. During the intervening 13 years, Sammy lived in 6 different houses and 4 very different household configurations across 2 states, as her human family system evolved from intact biological family through divorce and remarriage. She had been living with me for the last 6 years, since my daughter (now age 24) went away to college.
I invite you to consider the possibility that dogs—while to a great extent creatures of instinct—are remarkably spiritual beings, and when our minds and our hearts are open we can potentially learn a lot from them. Many of the world’s spiritual traditions embrace the value of: 1) Maintaining an attitude of positive regard for others (and for oneself) that is as unconditional as possible; 2) Being present-centered—keeping our focus in this moment—rather than allowing the continuous automatic activity of our thought processes to pull our attention back into the past or push it into a future. Sammy was the epitome of these practices.
She was the embodiment of what Carl Rogers, the founder of Client-Centered Therapy (the humanistic approach that undergirds most contemporary forms of counseling) termed, unconditional positive regard. Unconditional positive regard is the absolute, unqualified respect for and appreciation of others. According to Rogers, we instinctively value positive regard, his overarching term for attention, nurturance, affection, and love.
Generally, our capacity for extending unconditional positive regard to others is a function of the extent to which we have experienced it ourselves. Unfortunately, for most of us, the positive regard shown us by other people was usually attached to various conditions of worth. Growing up, our parents, teachers, peers, and others, gave us positive regard only when we demonstrated that we were somehow “worthy,” rather than because it was necessary for healthy emotional development, and that we deserved it simply by virtue of our humanity.
Many of us have had the experience of getting positive attention, affection, and love, if—and sometimes only if—we behaved to the satisfaction of others. And since these standards are generally disconnected from individual needs and differences, many people—especially children—find themselves unable to meet them, and in turn, subjected to emotional rejection and abandonment. Repeated experiences of emotional rejection and abandonment can be traumatic, contributing to deep-seated feelings of inadequacy; of not being good-enough, as well as increased potential vulnerability to a variety of psycho-social-spiritual difficulties, including anxiety, depression, relationship problems, and addiction.
In contrast to positive regard contingent on external expectations, unconditional positive regard sends the clear message that we are good enough, exactly as we are. The highest form of unconditional positive regard is unconditional love—love free of all qualifications. Sammy, like my other dogs before her, helped me better understand this concept. She was the incarnation of unconditional love & positive regard. In my process of ongoing learning, growth, and healing, I hope to become as good a person as Sammy always believed me to be.
Sammy was also state-of-the-art in being present-centered, that is—staying in the moment—this moment: right here and right now. Sammy was simply present, looking forward to whatever this very moment might offer. There are many ways in which staying in the moment with conscious awareness and acceptance, yet without judgment—also known as mindfulness—promotes health and healing. Present-centeredness provides sanctuary from the poisonous prison of the past and fatalistic fantasies of the future. It bestows respite from past resentments, as well as freedom from anxiety related to future unknowns.
Of course, different kinds of pets have different lessons to teach us. If dogs are built to help us better appreciate unconditional positive regard and present-centeredness, cats are designed to offer us ongoing opportunities to practice patience, tolerance and acceptance. I’ve heard it said the primary difference between dogs and cats is that, while dogs have masters, cats have servants. My cat, Delia, is no exception to this.
Having a connection with animals and having pets as part of one’s family and life helps people learn to be more kind, compassionate, caring, altruistic, and loving. My relationship with Sammy improved the quality of my character and (perhaps ironically) enhanced my humanity. As it became clear that her health was on an unavoidable downward trajectory, I made it a special point to take more time and make more effort to be present with her and love her the way she loved me. And, at the end, I was there, holding her and loving her; giving to her some of what she so naturally gave to me and to our family. As Will Rogers expressed it so eloquently, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went”.
Copyright 2016 Dan Mager, MSW All Rights Reserved.
Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain