New Topic: Our Very Emotional Relationships with Our “Companion Animals”

This post will swing back to the more psychological, relationship exploration type of topics, away from the identity and artwork topics I’ve been posting about lately.

Of course this is a very personal topic for me, and I will include my own experiences in here. I have been thinking about posting about this for a few weeks now. I forgot what inspired me to think about this, although I think of my own dear departed doggie daily.

In fact, I have to start with my personal experiences in order to reflect upon this topic…

This morning, by chance, I had a DVD from the library, “Lassie” the movie. I think there may be several versions of this movie. I don’t remember seeing the TV show but I knew about the character Lassie of course. As we hadn’t yet watched it, I put it on and watched it with my daughter. I am very emotional about animals of all kinds, but especially dogs are near and dear to my heart. I was tearing up off and on throughout the movie. The main kid character is a young unhappy boy who misses his dead mother. Of course Lassie attaches to him and even leads him to his mother’s diary in one of the closets. Anyway, the story begins with loss, Lassie’s loss of his former owner, the sheep farmer, and then the boy’s family takes him, and the loss theme shifts to the loss of the mother. At some point towards the end, after a couragesous act of saving the boy, Lassie drifts into dangerous waters and is assumed dead. I knew somehow she wasn’t dead, but I cried anyway. At the end the boy finds her and hugs her and says, “I love you.” Maybe this movie was trite but it certainly touched me.

I have always been aware of the different kind of relationship we have with animals than with other people. Growing up I did not have a “real” pet. I had turtles, fish and at one point, a hamster. For one day I had a cat, that my older brother got me, thinking somehow we could hide it from our mother. The cat found a good home, but for a day I was exstatic to have a real pet and immediately got attached to the little kitty.

Anyway, in my adult life I had a small dog that I got when I was about 24 or so; at the time I was nowhere near “ready” for the responsibilities and everything that go with having an animal, especially a small dog. But it did not matter. Love was in the house and stayed there no matter where I went for almost 17 years. This little dog, during healthy times between 11 and 12 pounds, taught me more about a certain kind of love than anyone in my life could have. It is indescribable, this love between a dog or cat and their “owner”. I will talk mostly about dogs, only because I know more about them. At the moment I am at a loss for words. That moment when the boy sees Lassie through his classroom window and realizes she is alive and has come back to him and runs out to hug her, is a picture worth a thousand words. The way a dog sits when s/he knows you will sense his/her presence, that look on the dog’s face as s/he waits for you to notice him/her; this is very special. A dog will wait full of love and anticipation and solid concentration in a way that is hard to describe. It is not the same thing as your child waiting for you to come home. It just isn’t. Whenever there is a big family that has one dog, there is usually one person that dog especially picks, even if she plays with all the kids and gets walked and fed by everybody, there is one person whom she will be focused on the most, just as in the movie, Lassie senses that the boy needs him the most, even though his younger sister was the one who found her and pleaded with dad to keep her. And that love bond just will not break. It is the strongest thing in that dog’s life, and when he is separated from that person for too long, he suffers in a way that is difficult to describe. This is an inter species relationship that is based on mostly non verbal exchanges. I confess that when my little doggie was alive, I had a million special names, terms of endearment for him. And I do catch myself saying these nonsense love words I made up then to my daughter. Not because she has replaced him or that I link them together in some way; in fact I don’t know why. I guess saying these silly words while holding or hugging her is a way of remembering my doggie while at the same time making her laugh or enjoy them herself. I readily admit that my relationship with my dog was very far from what the famed “Dog Whisperer” says is the proper way to treat dogs. He was my “baby”…

A dog’s life span ranges from about 10 to 18 or so years. For some people who grow up with a dog or dogs, the dog is a part of their childhood. Although my dog died when my child was around 2 or so, she still remembers feeding him chicken, what he looked like and she somehow understands how sad it was for me to lose him. Losing him was her first very early experience of death. It was a bittersweet parting as he had been sick for too long and was at the stage where he really had lost his mind to brain cancer. But I knew he still knew who I was. Sitting with him and saying goodbye to him and watching him be put to sleep was one of the most painful experiences I have ever had. However there also was relief that his suffering was at an end, and a feeling of guilt that maybe I had let him suffer too long. This dog also symbolized for me a certain long span of my life where I developed into a “person”, found myself as an adult, went through many different experiences, but always with him at my side. With time I became better at taking care of this very dependent being. He taught me how to think of someone outside of myself, to care for another completely dependent being…

There is something to be said for the structure of a dog’s life and how it helps humans. If you live alone, you cannot stay inside all day, no matter how you are feeling. I have heard many depressed patients comment about how they were lost to human contact, could not function in any way, but managed to get out of bed several times a day to take their dog out for his walks. And no matter how isolated and alone they might be, they were not ever alone at home, as they had their dog sticking to their side, loving them throughout this difficult period. I remember reading that elderly people with a dog or cat tend to be healthier both physically and emotionally than other elderly people living alone. A dog forces you to go outside, breathe fresh air, walk, exercise, and at home, he will stay at your side whether you have forgotten to take a shower or eat but still remember to feed him. I am sure there are many animals out there who have stopped someone dead set upon suicide in his or her tracks. The animal says to you, “I love you. You can’t leave me. You are my LIFE.” When no body else could stop someone from ending their life, the animal companion is there to save the person from himself. Not always successfully, but very often a dog saves his owner from himself and from all kinds of self-destructive behaviors.

Which brings me to more on the topic of animals and therapy. While an animal can be a stronger “anti-depressant”than any medication, s/he can become the focus of the therapy session. Many people acquire their animals in a breakup. Sometimes the person will enter the relationship and the animal will go to him/her, even though the animal was the girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s. And so the breakup happens, and the dog or cat is suddenly yours, as for some obvious reason, you are the one best equipped to take care of it. And it can be hard to have an animal that is associated with a difficult loss in your life. At the same time, this animal is with you in very lonely times and you are not alone, and love has not left the house; instead a different, more steadfast love, is there…

I am not suggesting that an animal can “replace” a romantic relationship, but it is very different to suddenly find yourself single and alone and to find yourself single and with a companion that was there during the relationship’s ups and downs and is still there.

Animals in the therapy session: Many people come to therapy and at some point talk about their relationship with their animal. In some cases, it is because of the above mentioned situation, that the person is aware of “inheriting” the dog or cat a, part of the breakup, and so the animal comes into the session in that perspective. Often the focus on caring for the animal outweighs his symbolizing that failed relationship. Living with this animal you are already involved in a relationship that cannot fail, and you are in complete control, which can be somehow therapeutic.

Another way an animal enters the therapy space is when that animal himself is sick, physically or psychologically. There is nothing more difficult than caring for a being who is suffering yet cannot communicate in words. Babies and small children at least let you know when they are hurt. Many animals are stoic to a fault so by the time they make any noises you know it is really bad. I’ve had patients with their own trauma recognize that their pet came to them also traumatized. I have seen people endure bites and all sorts of weird and scary difficult behaviors from their animals because they know the animal is sick. After all, many loving people aquire their animals as a rescue. I always place as much importance on my patient’s discussing their relationship with their animals as with another person. People sometimes feel silly talking about their dog or cat in therapy, but I always emphasize how central this relationship is to their life.

The worst way an animal enters the therapy session is when s/he dies. I’ve seen people who cannot cry in front of me finally let go and weep when their animal dies. For some people, this is their first experience of the death of a close family member. Even if this is not the case, there is always a mourning process that is usually very painful. Dogs and cats are not built to last as long as people, so when you acquire one, there is this knowledge in the back of your mind of loss. I was very often aware of the precarious part of that relationship with my dog, and that he would not be able to accompany me throughout my life no matter how strong the bond. At times when my dog was older I felt the weight of this feeling that I held his life in my hands and it was my job to prolong it, a job doomed to failure. I also had many tears shed talking to friends about feeling “not good enough” in terms of giving him the best life possible. I guess at times I took this relationship too seriously. And there are times when your animal can feel like a burden; it is only natural to feel this way about a being completely dependent upon you.

People treat the loss of their animal in all sorts of ways. Some get a new but different breed of dog or cat pretty quickly following the death of their animal. People sometimes wrongfully assume you are “replacing” the dead animal, but this is never true. There may be a longing for the presence of a dog or cat in the house to fill that empty space, to comfort you in your grief even to distract you from it. Others may wait a very long time to get another animal they know they will eventually lose as well. The shadow of this next loss mat overshadow how much you miss that special kind of connection you can have with an animal. Of course there is no right answer. No matter what, the loss of an animal requires that you look at your life and where you are on your personal journey when you lose that loved one.

I remember someone thinking after I lost my dog that I had my little girl to “replace” him. If course thus was not true. I did have to continue taking care of her as much as before, but that is different. For me losing him involved losing a certain part of myself. How much that tiny presence in my life taught me about love and how to love. I will carry that with me for the rest of my life. And I do hope one day long from now at a very different time, I will again have a dog. The relationship will not be the same as with my first dog. It’s like a first love, he defined me as much as I defined him. I know that won’t happen again, and that I will not need it again. I will continue to miss him no matter what. It is a heart ache, but I wouldn’t trade that heart ache in for anything…

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3 thoughts on “New Topic: Our Very Emotional Relationships with Our “Companion Animals”

  1. My first pet died just three months ago and I appreciated reading your perspective on your experience. It still breaks my heart that Penny is gone, even though I am relieved her suffering is gone too. It’s going to take a while to get to the point of having another animal as so far I just couldn’t accept that the new animal wasn’t her. One day… πŸ™‚

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