As my dog Beau and I were leaving the assisted living facility where we had spent the past few months volunteering with a pet therapy organization, I heard someone call my name. Pausing, I saw a middle-aged woman walking hurriedly down the hall towards me. She looked vaguely familiar, and I noticed she was grasping what seemed to be a small, stained yellow card tightly in her hand. As she approached me (and Beau started to happily wag his tail), I remembered she was the daughter of one of the patients Beau and I had visited a week before, an affable elderly man who had been living at the facility for a few years. I remembered him specifically, since he had asked me my age and when I had gotten Beau. When I told him I was in my 20s and had recently gotten Beau, he proceeded to recount a lively and humorous narrative about his experience of training his own first dog as a young adult.
As she approached, she unfolded the card, revealing that it was actually a photograph, creased and stained from what were likely decades lovingly stored in a wallet or pocket. “He wanted me to show you this before you left and ask if you could come by again,” she said, handing me the photograph. Beneath its wrinkled and stained surface, I could clearly make out an image of a young and smiling man kneeling next to a German shepherd.
The Monks of New Skete, an Eastern Orthodox sect renowned for their dog training program at a monastery in New York, reflect that one’s relationship with a dog provides “more raw material for meditation than in many a spiritual book.” They suggest that connecting with an animal provides us an unparalleled opportunity to interact with the natural world. Research indicates that interacting with the natural world (by engaging animals or even plants) reduces stress and increases recovery from mental fatigue (Hall & Knuth, 2019). The Monks of New Skete support this research by positing that, by actively relating to another living being, we open ourselves up to the warmth, appreciation, and feelings of profound connection that lie at the root of the human experience. I have found this to be true in my relationship with animals and plants, especially my own animal companion, Beau.
Through my relationship with my dog, my work with him as a therapy dog, and my clinical work as a clinical psychologist, I have come to better understand the interconnectedness of experience and the transformative and healing power of actively engaging with the natural world. On a professional level, I have found that this philosophy extends to my work in clinical psychology by allowing me to understand how interconnectedness with others (both human and animal) inform our perception of the world. On a more personal level, I have found this connection with animals (and plants, of course!) has positively contributed to my own health and well-being.
I was thrilled to discover in graduate school that empirical data supported my relationship with my dog. It was validating to learn that animals are positive for overall health and wellness. According to 2011 research by the Mental Health Foundation, pet ownership reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness. They conducted a survey which included 600 cat and non-cat owning participants. They found that 87% of respondents who owned a cat felt it positively influenced their well-being. Further, they found that 76% of cat owners said they felt better able to cope everyday stress due to the comfort and companionship of their pet.
Surprisingly, even houseplants can act as makeshift pets for the purposes of reducing stress and anxiety. According to Psychology Today, houseplants reduce symptoms of stress, depression, and posttraumatic stress. They’ve also been found to improve memory, mood, and even attention and concentration. Even though plant-parenthood and owning a fur-baby are very different experiences, both allow us to connect with natural world (especially when living in urban environments).
Despite the decades between the elderly man and his beloved dog, man and dog remained interconnected, and their relationship continued to positively influence his present moment. Through my relationship with my dog, my work with him as a therapy dog, and my clinical work as a clinical psychologist, I have come to better understand the interconnectedness of experience and the importance of seeking connection to the natural world.
Dr. Emily Parke, Psy.D
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
CORE - Center of Relational Empowerment, P.C