By Allison White, ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D
Wellness Alley, LLC
I?ve always been a pet lover. I was 7 when I got my first dog, which changed my life. They were with me during both good and painful times, major life events, and were stable forces in my life, even during the darkest turmoil.
I often ask myself whether I?m living my life as my dogs do. Am I loving without conditions, judgments or expectations? Am I living in the moment, or do I let the past cast shadows on the present? Do I feel anxiety about the future? Living life through the eyes of a dog is a challenge, but it?s slowly changing my life.
I saw amazing results when I took my two certified therapy dogs on visits to a children?s home. Charity seemed to use her sixth sense to identify which child needed extra attention. I watched as she ?worked? the room, going to the child who was quiet and reserved, but who lit up when she sank her head into the child?s hands. I started becoming more aware of how she interacted with these kids, using an unassuming presence without expectation or reward. She just sat by them, until finally, their hands reached out to touch her. She let them initiate the first step before moving closer. Then, beside even the most resistant child, she would roll over to get her belly rubbed, to the glee of the child. She loved her visits with ?her? kids and knew whenever it was time to visit, waiting patiently by the back door as I prepared her therapy vest and tags. The uniform turned her into a dog on a mission, and she took her job very seriously.
Chip, my golden retriever, takes his job very seriously too. He patiently watches leaves and twigs fall, then runs around gathering them into piles that he quickly shreds into small pieces. He spends a long time on this task, stopping only when I call him inside. The day in the life of a dog ? it doesn?t get any better!
I practiced enjoying the moment as I watched Chip sleep peacefully in a chair on this lazy Sunday morning. A ray of sunlight beamed onto his head as he snored. I stopped writing my grocery list to capture the feeling of serenity and happiness, while watching his legs move as he dreamed. How I love this dog. His mission in life is to bring me dirty socks, towels and sticks, and to roll in anything muddy. Oh, and to bring me his beloved tennis balls!
I work with clients who have chronic issues such as depression, anxiety and addictions, and they don?t always feel like there is hope. It?s hard for them to see there is light on the other side of the darkness, and peace seems so far away. As I use my dogs during pet therapy visits, I see that spending time with animals brightens up a person?s mood and brings joy, even if it?s for a short time. That moment allows a small trickle of light into that person?s heart, which may not have been there before. During one session, a client asked if she could get on the floor because she wanted to talk to my therapy dog about something ?very important.? She buried her head into my dog?s fur and told her about the horrible week she had endured. As she stroked my dog?s fur, I could see a sense of calm overtake my client in a way I could not have accomplished by merely talking with her. No judgments, no expectations ? just a furry hug.
When we?re facing despair, loneliness, chronic health issues, depression, addictions, or anything beyond our ability to cope, a pet may help ease the pain. He or she can give us a reason to get out of ourselves and our thoughts to focus on a sense of purpose, meaning. Even pictures of pets can warm our hearts and make us laugh. I keep cute animal pictures readily available for a quick pick-me-up. The relationship we have with our pets is real and symbiotic. What I give to my pets comes back to me in ways that can?t be measured. If you?re not able to own a pet, there are many ways to reap the benefits of a pet relationship. Volunteering at a local shelter or helping rescue groups or therapy dog organizations are ways to save pets? lives, and possibly your own.
Wildlife photographer, author and television personality Roger Caras said it best when he stated, ?Dogs are not our whole lives, but they make our lives whole.? Now, go enjoy a pet, and allow yourself to reap the benefits he or she will so generously give back to you.
ACSW, LCSW, CCDP-D, CHC