With National Puppy Day in March, I think it’s a good time to reflect on the many ways a puppy and dogs can provide emotional support and unconditional positive regard. According to the National Puppy Day website, it is “a special day to celebrate the magic and unconditional love that puppies bring to our lives.” Who couldn’t agree with that? “But more importantly, it is a day to help save orphaned puppies across the globe and educate the public about the horrors of puppy mills.”
National Puppy Day lets me reflect on my own two dogs – Teddy and Coco – miniature doodles who won’t sit still until every inch of my face has been licked with kisses. It’s our morning routine.
Teddy is so in tune with my emotions, he senses when I travel for work. The moment I bring my travel bag downstairs, a sadness settles into his bones and he retreats to a corner of my office to emote and wonder if I’ll ever return. The only thing that softens him is a dip in the pool. An avid swimmer, the pool is his SoulCycle. Nonetheless Teddy’s sad eyes reminds us that attachment disorder is not just experienced by humans, it runs rampant in the animal kingdom.
Coco on the other hand is happy-go-lucky. She is resilient and as long as you shower her with attention, throw a Frisbee or two, she is content, mischievous and will always surprise you. Teaching them tricks and proper store and walking etiquette takes you out of your own experience and makes you responsible for another.
Perhaps the emotion dogs tickle the most in humans is happiness. According to recent findings in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health reported by Time, “people are motivated to walk their dogs when they believe it makes their pets happy, which in turn makes the owners happy.” It’s a symbiotic relationship of mutual positive regard.
It’s not just happiness dogs bring out in humans – research shows puppies and dogs of all stripes may lower stress and anxiety, and even help with certain mental health disorders. Here’s a look at some of the ways a dog may help:
- A dog is by your side. Similar to the way a soldier has his fellow man by his side, a dog can provide a sense of security and protection. Trained service dogs (i.e. a highly trained seeing-eye dog for a blind individual) take it a step further by checking rooms, parks, hallways, public transportation spots, and new places for any threats before you enter. Ultimately, a dog helps you feel like you are not alone.
- Dogs love unconditionally. For military personnel who return from battle, life in the civilian world can be difficult to adjust to as it is very different from life in a war zone. As the person recovering from PTSD acclimates to the change in scenery and culture, a dog will show unconditional love – a reminder that everything will be okay. Additionally, for the person who experiences bipolar disorder, a dog can be a sign that no matter how much fantasy and reality bleed together, the dog’s love is a touchstone of truth. Finally, for the individual who needs to know all is right in the world, a cuddly dog can bring warmth to those nights in on the couch.
- Dogs rebuild trust. For people experiencing a mental health disorder or trauma, trust can be the first thing violated and lost in the aftermath. Dogs demonstrate the personality trait of loyalty, a consistent companion there for you night and day. Trust can slowly be re-learned and returned to its rightful place as a value we hold dear.
If you don’t think that’s remarkable about dogs, try telling that to a prison inmate who adopts a rescue dog. Numerous programs have popped up from state to state that pairs an incarcerated individual with a rescue animal. “Paws for Life” was started in California to help save impounded dogs. The nonprofit pairs dogs with owners who are inmates with life sentences at high-security facilities, the first of its kind.
But who is saving who? For many in the program, the dogs offer emotional support. “I learned how to be more responsible,” says Randi, an inmate serving 2 ½ years for violating a restraining order and a recovering drug addict, to the Washington Times. “I learned to be accountable to something.” That’s a big step in the recovery process. Inmates like Randi don’t take it for granted. “Just like me, all [a dog] needs is a little TLC.”
For the families who are struggling with a loved one who is experiencing substance abuse or other addiction, here are a few tips dogs can teach us. The trick here is these tips are related to mindfulness, a meditative practice that brings our focus into the present moment. As inspired by Psych Central’s 8 Mindfulness Tips for Families of Addicts You Can Learn from Your Dog, there’s a lot we can learn from dogs:
- Self Care. Though dogs need their bowls filled and doors opened, they are very resourceful creatures that take care of themselves. This is a valuable lesson – instead of focusing on the needs and wants of the person experiencing the addiction, let that person take care of their own needs.
- The present is a gift. Dogs live in the moment and react to stimuli as it is presented to them. As such, their tails wag and tongues salivate because the present is a gift of being healthy and alive. Too often families who experience substance abuse and addiction dwell on past traumas or experience anxiety about untold future events. We can’t change the person we were or rewrite moments, but we can exist as the person we are in the present and live our truth.
- Let go. Dogs don’t hold the time they pooped on the carpet and made you mad against you. The insight here is to let go of past hurts and approach the present action with fresh eyes and hearts.
- Rest & play. Dogs lounge like throw rugs on wrap around porches. And when they’re not doing that, they’re sniffing out new sights and smells, people and places, trails and forests. Rest is an essential part of the human experience and can greatly improve mood and energy. Learn from a dog and work small naps into your daily schedule to refresh your senses. And like a dog, explore the unknown. New sights and sounds give us fresh perspectives on our otherwise routine lives. Be curious about the faces and places you can find in your own neighborhood.
- Look for joy. Like a dog discovering a bone in the backyard, life gives you little surprises if you look in the right places. A good book, a walk along your favorite trail or an exercise class, fill your day with the things that you love to help you with the moments you’re supporting the loved one experiencing addiction.
Celebrate National Puppy Day by visiting a shelter. Even if adopting a dog isn’t right for you, the pets and belly rubs will make a dog happy, and in turn bring a smile to your face. And if you or a loved one is experiencing a substance abuse or mental health disorder, feel free to reach out and we’ll discuss ways you can work with your family to bring health and healing.
I learn from my dogs every day that joy, even in the midst of despair, is achievable. With the right tools and coaching, you too may experience gratitude, joy and positivity while you and your pet rise to your best possible selves.