It’s Not Pet Therapy

January 27, 2021

A painting of a woman with various animals surrounding her.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

I try to hide how much I love my dog.

The way my nervous system relaxes when she nuzzles me. The fact that my heart beats faster when I put the key in my front door knowing her wagging tail is waiting for me on the other side. My profound need to know where she is at all times.

It’s okay to tell you how much she needs me. After all, dogs adore their humans. But admitting that I need her?

Those truths are not contained in the script we are handed as children. Animals and people are different and distinct tribes, we are told. Don’t get too attached, our parents admonish. And soon enough they do die. All too soon they leave us.

Perhaps we hold our furry friends at a slight distance to protect ourselves from that inevitable loss?

My little Amelie has been with me since 2008. She is now 14 years old. Still spry and full of puppy-like antics at times, but signs of aging are there too. She used to run ahead of me. Now she trails behind most days. Her hearing used to be way better than mine. Now she can’t even hear me when I raise my voice. So I use hand signals or clap my hands to get her attention.

But I don’t think their short lifespans tell the full story on why I, and maybe you, don’t want anyone but our furry family members to know how much we depend upon their love and companionship.

Despite the fact that a majority of American households include pets (67 percent) and the products produced for pets are driving a $99 billion industry that includes such luxury items as yogurt for dogs and “pretty litter” for cats, experts remain perplexed about the human-animal bond. In fact, many researchers prefer to label the emotions that flow between animals and humans as human-animal interactions because the term “bond” contains too much sentiment for them.

According to these experts, our relationships with animals are simply the product of evolutionary scenarios bereft of any emotional meaning. You don’t enjoy petting your dog or cat because of the love you share. You are simply reenacting an ancient grooming impulse passed on to you from your primate ancestors.

Being good with animals makes you seem trustworthy to other humans. That was passed down through your DNA too. But what lives in your heart and in my heart? It’s not meaningful except as an evolutionary adaptation.

No wonder we love our pets. When the dominant discourse reduces our relationships and our emotions to genetic code and evolutionary adaptation, our lives can feel emotionally barren. It can feel like more than we can bear. For that reason our pets can provide relief from our own captivity in a sometimes sterile world lacking in feeling.

Or at least that’s how I see it.

There are, of course, other voices on the role animals play in our lives. Some researchers have documented health benefits for humans interacting with animals. Some professionals provide animal-assisted therapy. But the data supporting the widespread belief that interaction with animals reduces stress are not entirely convincing. There is even some research asserting that pets can have an adverse effect on health (though that research is pretty flawed, in my opinion).

But while scientists try to sort out these controversies, I can’t help but wonder why. What is all the fuss about?

Do we really think we love pets because they help lower our blood pressure? Is that why we love anyone?

I wonder why we as a society, and the scientific community as a whole, express so much confusion about the fact that we love our animals.

Is it scary for us for us to consider that we might love them for who they are, not just for what they do for us? Might that threaten the hierarchy we have been socialized into?

If we simply let ourselves love other creatures without trying to find some self-serving explanation for why we respond with our hearts and emotions, would we violate some unspoken taboo?

Do we find our empathy for other life forms to be unnerving when those living beings cease to be a resource for our benefit?

Instead of a pet “owner” you might be transformed into a pet parent, pet guardian or pet caregiver. In that role, you might find yourself taking into consideration, not just the physical needs of your furry family member, but also their preferences. Their happiness might become as important as any other ”person.”

And in fact, that is exactly how it is for many, many families with pets. Their pets ARE members of their family and as such, they have rights. But before we go down that road, and to be clear, I am not going to go down the animal rights road in this article, let’s return to your heart and mine.

I love my little Amelie. She came to live with me when the person who originally adopted her thought she had behavioral issues. Yes, she chewed on my clothes and dug up the yard. But I could sense the abusive childhood (would you be more comfortable if I said “puppyhood?”) that drove those behaviors. There was no doubt that she had been abused before she came to live with me.

As part of her recovery from that abuse, she needed clear boundaries and lots of exercise. And she needed love. I broke the “rules” and let her win at tug of war. I know how to be “alpha” but I also worked to bolster her self-esteem. In no time, she went from acting out her anger to living comfortably in her own skin.

Today, people marvel at how “obedient” she is. But she isn’t obedient. I don’t relate to her that way. Instead, I have invited her partnership. There are times that I need her to do what I want. But there are also plenty of times that she gets to choose between options. Stay or go? This or that?

Her species isn’t “supposed” to be capable of that. But Amelie and I don’t let things like our species define us. Over the years of our relationship, we have given each other many gifts. You could say that she has become a little more human and I have become a little more dog.

Is that really surprising? If we want to follow the data, there is evidence that humans and dogs coevolved. In fact, early dogs were probably the result of wolves who “domesticated” humans. (NG)

How’s that for turning our stories about the human-animal bond on its head?

A painting of a woman with various animals surrounding her.

“The Calvary” by Laura Junge

I have joked that Amelie is a “therapy dog” to my clients when she has come to them while they were crying. But Amelie isn’t a “therapy dog.” She is a caring and empathetic individual. And when she loves you, you feel more connected to yourself and to life. Your heart expands and you breathe into what really matters: love.

I don’t own Amelie. I live with Amelie and she lives with me. I love Amelie. And she loves me. It’s really that simple. Most loving relationships are that simple; and, as anyone (including the scientists) can tell you, love is the best therapy of them all.

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[…] you find this topic interesting, you might want to check out my article in Healers Magazine. It’s short and to the point. And it might help you find the courage to speak openly about […]

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