Natural Helpers

My lifework as a veterinarian has been rewarded many times over with interesting stories of pets becoming “members of the family”, forever altering the traditional meaning of siblings.  Many of these stories are about the curious ways pets help their human partners through difficult times—like this pandemic.  Because of a shared bond, the human-animal bond, pets have a special ability to become our “natural helpers”. 

            Bruce, a client of mine, told me a story about his boyhood pet Cody, a Golden Retriever.  High school was a difficult time for Bruce because he was a “slow grower”, the shortest kid in class.  If that wasn’t enough, he was overweight—a short, chubby kid.  This made him a prime target for a gang of boys that began to bully him repeatedly. He felt great shame.  At the end of each school day, Bruce would walk home, and, like clockwork, Cody came racing up the lane to greet him.  Their reunion was a crazy ritual of Cody jumping up on his hind legs and turning in circles, all the while whining and licking Bruce’s face.  He called it their “happy dance”, symbolic of Cody’s unconditional acceptance for his short, chubby companion.  While Bruce was telling  this story, he startled me by saying, “You know, Dr. Bob, Cody kinda made me “bully-proof” and I sometimes think if it weren’t for Cody, I might not be here today”.  Fortunately, Cody was his natural helper.

            Later in my career, I suffered the loss a close veterinary friend to addiction.  This kindled my interest in the addiction field, prompting me to return to academia to become certified as a chemical dependency counselor.  So, I blended my work to include counseling those suffering from addiction.   During one particular group session, a member recently returning from a treatment center, surprised the group by mentioning how great it was to be welcomed home by the wagging tail of his pet dog.  Another member piped up saying when she came home from her treatment program only the family cat remained to greet her, helping her through that difficult time when broken relationships are healed and new sober ones are made.  Those two comments open the flood gates for what must best be described as a pet-fest, as others in the group chimed in, sharing great stories of how their pets were there for them too, especially during those raw days of early recovery when they struggled to find new ways of living—without the crutch of mind-altering substances.  

These four-legged companions are there for us—whether it be to help us endure the trials of this tiresome pandemic or to aid those in early recovery from addiction—natural helpers to us all.  

Dr. Bob Slack is a retired veterinarian living in Spokane.  He currently works with folks struggling with addiction and writes stories about the Human-Animal Bond.

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