GPSOLO July 2009
IN THE SOLUTION
Pets and Mental Health
When I was first asked to write this article, I thought that I wasn’t qualified to do so. But as I thought about the topic and my experiences as the director of a lawyers assistance program and as the owner of a certified pet therapy dog, I decided to accept the request. It’s important to this article that I disclose some things about myself so that the reader can have some understanding of my perspective. Although I am going to write about my experiences with a dog that also happens to be a pet therapy dog, my experiences and research tell me that the improved mental health benefits of having a pet of any kind are significant.
I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict with a history of depression. I practiced law, primarily civil litigation, for 18 years until my addiction became so powerful that I had to resign my license. I am not a licensed mental health therapist but was a certified alcohol and drug counselor. Last, and probably most importantly to this article, my wife and I were the owners of a wonderful, big, friendly, and loving Bouvier des Flanders named Bix.
Bix came into our lives shortly after we moved from Oregon to Des Moines, Iowa, where I took up the position of director of the Iowa Lawyers Assistance Program. He and his brother, Cody, were offered to us by a breeder after the dogs both had bad experiences with their first owners. We eventually decided to adopt Bix. He was about 18 months old at the time, and I decided that it would help me with my own stresses and my depression to train him as a pet therapy dog. Those of us who are in recovery are frequently confronted with our own issues of self-centeredness, and we know that one of the best ways to get away from that is to get outside ourselves. To work with another recovering alcoholic is the antidote to self. My experience with Bix was similar. By working with him, training him, and then using his skills as a pet therapy dog, I found a resource to help me with both my alcoholism and depression.
My first life lesson from Bix was to learn patience and tolerance. Bouviers were bred as Belgian cattle-herding dogs. They are also large and powerful and were used to pull carts. They almost became extinct during World War I because they were used to help cart bodies from the battlefields. They are proud, intelligent, and sometimes stubborn dogs, and as a puppy Bix was a handful. On one occasion while I was teaching him to stay and come, I made a very poor decision. We were at a local park near a pond, and I had him off the leash. There were some ducks swimming around on the pond, and I could see Bix eyeing them, then looking at me, and then eyeing them again. I knew then that I had made a mistake. He took off and headed for the pond, not knowing that you can’t walk on water. He ran down the dock right into the water and to his utter shock and dismay sank immediately to the bottom. I didn’t know whether to be mad or to laugh. I opted for the laughter, which I don’t think he appreciated as I dragged him from the pond. He was soaking wet and covered with algae. It was a good lesson for me as well as for Bix. He learned that a dog can’t run on top of water, and I learned a little more patience and experienced the benefits of a good laugh.
I believe that dogs, by nature, love their owners unconditionally and are always eager to serve and to please. After we finished obedience school we started pet therapy training and received our proper certifications. The certifications gave us the ability to go into hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes. We began our time together in that role. He loved it, was always willing to go, and was particularly happy when small children stood up to his height and looked him in the face. Their usual reward was a wet tongue washing.
It gave me a great deal of joy to see Bix accept the attention and affection of children and older adults with no preconditions. I think that he knew he was making people happy; that made him happy and in turn helped me more than one might imagine.
It always made me feel better whenever he was with me, not only in his role as a pet therapy dog but as a companion. I work from an office at home, which is a change for me. I had always worked in a law office or in a treatment center as a counselor, surrounded by people. There is a significant adjustment to working alone, and Bix provided me the company I missed. That, and he never talked back, sassed me, or got into an argument with me.
No matter the context, pets have a positive effect on the mental health and well-being of their owners. This might be particularly important for lawyers, who experience high rates of alcoholism, drug dependence, depression, stress, burnout, and other mental health issues. In a study reported in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry in 1990, researchers surveyed a sample of Washington state lawyers. The study showed that as many as 19 percent of these lawyers suffered from depression and 18 percent were drinkers, nearly double the rate for U.S. adults (as determined by the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information). A full 26 percent of the attorneys said they had used cocaine at some point in their lives, compared with 12 percent in the general population. The same research group found similar results from a previous study, which was conducted among Arizona lawyers, indicating the rates may not be dependent upon jurisdiction within the United States.
Two of the most common issues within the legal community are stress and burnout. Continued high levels of stress over a long period of time, without adequate coping strategies, can lead to burnout, a form of depression characterized by apathy, negative feelings about the job, declining productivity, and increased illness. In some instances it may lead to an increase in substance abuse. I am receiving more and more calls from lawyers who feel overwhelmed and confused and who do not have the coping skills to deal with these issues.
To combat these problems, there are many resources available to lawyers, such as exercise, meditation, counseling, and group therapy, just to name a few. But the positive returns one gets from owning a loving pet are unique. The therapeutic benefits of pet ownership are supported by a large body of scientific research. There are social and emotional benefits to loving and caring for another creature and having that affection returned.
Scientific research also supports the benefits of animal-assisted therapy, the use of animals, such as my Bix, in formal therapy sessions. The presence of a friendly animal helps ease a patient’s anxiety. This involvement can also improve social interactions and decrease aggressive behaviors. An increasing number of dogs are being trained to help individuals with a range of disabilities other than psychiatric issues. Some of them include seizure disorders, Parkinson’s Disease, and heart disorders.
I thought I’d conclude this article with a section of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” which I found apropos:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they’re so placid and self contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the earth
Hugh Grady is director of the Iowa Lawyers Assistance Program. He may be reached at email@example.com.