A Curative Connection

Our society seems to be on an infinite quest to find a cure for what ails us. It turns out one of the best forms of medicine for many mental and physical health problems is not available from the pharmacy, doesn’t come in pill or liquid form, has no side effects, and a trip to the doctor isn’t required. No, it is more likely to have four legs, soft fur, and a wagging tail. Fido triumphs over big pharma!

Researchers have coined the term “the human companion animal bond” to refer to the curative connection that develops between people and their pets. These relationships are notable for having some of the best aspects of human relationships. Pets are loving, nonthreatening, nonjudgmental, welcoming, and attentive. And they don’t criticize, talk back, or issue commands. Taking care of a pet helps a person feel needed and wanted, less lonely, and provides an avenue for physical contact. Dog owners know the pleasure of being treated as the most fantastic and important person in the world. This sentiment was aptly described on a t-shirt I saw recently: “Someday I hope to be the man my dog thinks I am.”

The therapeutic value of animals has been well established and it has become a common practice to incorporate pets into the treatment of a wide variety of health issues. The Western Journal of Medicine reports “Studies suggest that companion animals, in addition to their well-known role as helpers to the handicapped, may alleviate depression, provide solace for the lonely, facilitate psychotherapy, socialize criminals, lower blood pressure, increase survivorship from myocardial infarction, and ease the social pain of aging in our society. *

Pets can also extend the lives of people with organic illnesses. A University of Pennsylvania Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society study showed that among 92 victims of heart disease, significantly more pet owners survived for at least one year than did those without pets. Twenty-eight percent of those without a pet were dead in a year, whereas only 6 percent of those with pets had died.**

But pets can also bring on problems and stress, so careful consideration must be given before heading to the animal shelter to rescue one. They require time and care, a financial commitment, and can even stir up family conflict. If the timing isn’t right or family members are not in agreement about acquiring a pet or responsibilities for its care, the result can be devastating.

My family’s experience is a good example of how getting a pet can be a bane or a blessing. The first two times we had a dog were difficult and didn’t end well, primarily because of poor timing and lack of shared decision-making. Not surprisingly, although the dogs were well loved, there was unexpected pain and turmoil. But the third time we got it right.

In my recent post “Create for Life” I described using Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way as a renewal process to recover creative vision through the practice of “morning pages,” I referred to an emotional block that was removed as I did the writing exercise. The context of this was that my family wanted to get a dog for years, but I had been unwilling due to several previous bad experiences, especially the events that occurred when I had severe depression. I had been carrying some bitter residue related to having to give away our Schnauzer puppy because of my illness-induced anxiety symptoms.

That day while writing my morning pages, suddenly, a unique sensation began flowing through me. It was a strange kind of epiphany. The effect was powerful. I sensed a newfound forgiveness about our troubled doggie history. Simultaneously, I felt the removal of a block. Was the block creative, emotional or spiritual? Perhaps it was all three; each represent forms of energy that need to flow. The bad feelings were lifted up and out in one fell swoop … an incision-less surgery. And in their place was a profound feeling of love, tenderness, and openness. Out of forgiveness, I was prepared to take a risk for love.

In that moment I knew – that for Christmas, which was only four days away, I would be giving my husband Steve and our children Johnny and Grace …  a new puppy. I could see him clearly: a yellow lab whom we would name “Winston.” Named after the mighty Winston Churchill, he would be a symbol of forgiveness, protection, and peace.

As I contemplated getting a puppy, I felt a calm readiness. Yes, it was a risk, especially as I considered my previous difficulties with dogs. But I felt able to rise to a higher level of health and to let go of the past. I was empowered to make a new choice: I chose love over fear.

I said to Steve, “I have an idea. I would like us to get a Yellow Lab for Christmas. I’ve done some research and found a good breeder in Loma Linda. She has a puppy ready for adoption.”

“Is it true?” he asked. Do you really want to get a puppy? I can’t believe it; I’m so happy. Thank you so much Lisa, love of my life. You won’t regret this … it’s going to be our best Christmas ever. This will bring us happiness for years to come.”

Maybe it was no coincidence that the breeder’s kennel was called “Meant-2-Be Puppies.” When we saw this adorable creature it was “love at first sight” for all of us. Our attachment has has only grown stronger in the subsequent three years.

Winston is shimmery gold with plush curly hair and velvety ears that flop this way and that. He greets us by dancing around and wagging his entire body. His old soul brown eyes give silent comfort. If he detects sadness he comes close and nuzzles gently. He is always thrilled with the food and attention we provide, and he continually reminds us to run and play. When we take him on his daily walk, he flushes through the wild grasses as if to say, “I was born for joy, and joy I will bring.”

Winston has provided a curative connection in my family – a sublime example of the “human companion animal bond” described above. More than that, he has been an extravagant blessing, like a treasure chest overflowing with gold, enriching us with love, laughter, and pleasure. Winston has been a noble companion, an instrument of peace, and a surprising lesson in grace.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

– Winston Churchill

Winston

Winston

*Fitzgerald FT: The therapeutic value of pets (Commentary). West J Med 1986 Jan; 144:103-105

**New York Times: August 11, 1982, “Owning a Pet Can Have Therapeutic Value,” Brody, JE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Lisa,
    I love this post! Petting an animal for 2 full minutes causes in us a release of the hormone oxytocin, the bonding, and well-being hormone, and what’s more interesting than that, it causes the same hormonal release in the animal. So the bond that we feel is not just in our thoughts or imagination; it’s actually physiological. Maybe that’s why those who love their companion animal live longer. LOVE THIS TOPIC!

    • Thank you Joy! What wonderful data to back up what animal lovers know to be true through their own lived experience. I appreciate your rich addition to this post. It encourages me to look even further into the evidence supporting the therapeutic value of pets.

  2. Much like the Winston Churchill quote, there is another: It’ll be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.

    • Yes, thank you Dave. Good Kingdom theology! The already, but not yet. We live in that liminal state, tolerating the ambiguity surrounding us, holding fast to the promise.

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