Advice & Features Articles

Our Furry Friends: Animals Help the Human Soul

By Dr. Dean Beckloff | Contributor

It’s no sacrifice at all.    Elton John

Posh. My youngest daughter claimed her and named her (after the girl band at the time, the Spice Girls). Posh was a miniature schnauzer, and wow, she came totally hyper. When my youngest went to college, she became my wife’s and my dog. She drove me nuts at times, and when she got older, she became incontinent. I cleaned up after her day after day, until it was time to let her go. Her suffering was too much, and she was 18 years old. My daughter came in from college, and we found a vet who came to the house to put her down. Not only was my daughter weeping, but I also cried like a baby, hiccupping with tears and grief. Posh drove me nuts—why was I grief stricken? 

There are therapy dogs, therapy cats, personal companion animals. It’s become a resounding word in our country that animals help the human soul. Our dogs, cats, and other animals become vital to our existence and our mental health—our inner well-being. Why do we so need our pets? 

Animals help us to make it when times are hard. Several years ago, I took my daughters to a movie called My Dog Skip. By the end of it, I was weeping buckets. I was an embarrassment to my girls—their dad was crying publicly in a movie theater! Why do we get so deeply moved by these stories? Dogs, horses, even pigs in Charlotte’s Web! They bring something to us that deepens us and helps us to be okay. Stories that include our fellow travelers on this planet, our friends the animals, bring us to our knees with grief and bring us to deep love and inner peace.  They serve people, they serve the police force, they serve the military. Together, when we connect with these friends, we are not only well served, but also we are emotionally helped as well. We deepen, we connect, and we are strengthened. Our animal friends turn out to be necessary to living life well. 

They bring joy to our children. I saw a video recently of several vignettes of kids getting their first pets. Of course, the joy, exuberance, and elation were so very captivating to watch as the kids hugged, jumped for joy, and excitedly petted and stroked their new pets. Some had tears of joy. Pets bring that kind of deep joy in living. They say, “A dog is man’s best friend.” And woman’s. And perhaps most especially—a child’s. Our adopted animal friends can teach a child many things—how to befriend someone, how to treat someone right, how to care for and to take care of someone. And even how to get outside and play hard and with passion, finally falling in the grass in a deep and fulfilling exhaustion. In a world of electronics, perhaps they can teach our children to simply play. Maybe they can also teach adults to simply play.

We learn from them. And finally, the last lesson we can learn—perhaps a hard one that we don’t want our kids to face—is how to grieve. In all likelihood, we will outlive our animal friends. The time will come when it’s time to say goodbye forever. This lesson in grief can deepen us as people. When Posh died, I was staggered with how grieved I was. There was the cost in time and the cost of dealing with her incontinence as she became aged, yet when she died, I felt deep grief. I cried like a small child, which revealed to me my own personhood, my deep feelings, and even about grieving the loss of a significant other. After the grieving, I was glad that Posh had graced the lives of our family in the significant ways that she did. The work that went into caring for Posh was indeed, no sacrifice at all.

Should you adopt an animal friend for the family? Science says yes; psychology says yes. But obviously there are reasons to think it out and ensure the family is equipped to handle the commitment to another living creature. A pet will need time with the family more than anything. And we have to think about whether our busy lives can do justice to the animal. If it seems the answer is yes, then go ahead and grab hold of some new joys with your new animal friend.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Dean Beckloff is a pediatric therapist who specializes in treatment for children and families navigating divorce and other life challenges.  He is the founder of the Beckloff Behavioral Center in Dallas. You can reach him at DrBeckloff.com or 972.250.1700.

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