For the Love of Dog: How Our Pets Can Help Soothe Us in Times of Distress

For the Love of Dog: How Our Pets Can Help Soothe Us in Times of Distress

If you know me or have read my blogs or books or have listened to me interviewed, you know I love Oprah Winfrey. I recently listened to an episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast on which she said, “Over the years I have felt the truest, purest love—the love of God really, I imagine that’s what God’s love feels like—the love that comes from your dog, because, everybody says, it’s unconditional and they’re always happy to see you no matter what and there’s never any judgment.”

If you have a dog, or maybe any pet (I’m a dog person and the cat I used to have was kind of an a-hole so I really don’t know), you get what Oprah is saying. I sometimes joke that I should have named my dogs Therapy and Prozac. They have superpowers to comfort, cheer, or bring laughter like no other. Dogs literally keep some people alive (one common reason severely depressed people give for not killing themselves is their pets). 

We get so much good from our dogs, and I recently turned up the volume on that goodness while listening to an episode of the podcast I co-host, Psychologists Off The Clock. In this episode, my co-host, Dr. Diana Hill, interviewed world-renowned neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, an expert in neuroplasticity and strategies for changing our brains to improve resilience and wellbeing. Dr. Hanson led a visualization practice involving gratitude. I was listening to the episode at home when Dr. Hanson instructed listeners to “think of things you feel grateful for…really simple.” I happened to be looking at my two French Bulldogs snuggled up together in the same dog bed (with an empty one beside them, preferring to be squished and together than comfortable and separated), and so I thought of them, my guys for whom I truly do feel so grateful. 

Dr. Hanson went on, “help the idea of these things become a feeling—even amidst a difficult life, even amidst pain and sorrow and loss there can still be things we’re grateful for.“ During the exercise, I visualized myself laying in my comfortable bed with my dog Chips sleeping between my knees and my dog Biggie snuggled up against my side (their favorite spots). I felt the warmth of their little potato bodies against mine. I heard their rhythmic snores and I sensed the rise of fall of their thick bellies.

Dr. Hanson went on, “help the idea of these things become a feeling—even amidst a difficult life, even amidst pain and sorrow and loss there can still be things we’re grateful for.“ During the exercise, I visualized myself laying in my comfortable bed with my dog Chips sleeping between my knees and my dog Biggie snuggled up against my side (their favorite spots). I felt the warmth of their little potato bodies against mine. I heard their rhythmic snores and I sensed the rise of fall of their thick bellies.

This was part of an exercise Dr. Hanson calls the HEAL practice that is built around science suggesting our brains are “Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.” In other words, negativity tends to stick, while positivity does not. However, our brains are also capable of linking negative and positive together so that positive experiences can gradually soothe and ease the pain of negative ones. HEAL is an acronym that is broken down as follows:

H: Have a beneficial experience in your current moment (this is what I did by looking at my dogs in their bed) or create one by calling on a pleasant or soothing memory.

E A: Enrich and Absorb. Help the beneficial experience to grow and endure by enriching it through your senses (this is what I did by noticing the temperature, movement, and sound of my dogs) and absorbing it into your body, allowing it to sink in. 

L: Link. Associate positive and negative together. When you’re experiencing emotional pain, call upon the HEA to soothe or HEAL it. 

This is a practice we can use as often as we like, showing up to the small moments of goodness throughout our day, and choosing to respond in ways that grow that goodness, that help it stick like Velcro, instead of slip by like Teflon. These small moments can be anything—dogs or otherwise. I know for me, anytime I link my dogs to anything, my mood and outlook immediately improve. And under our present shelter-in-place orders, amidst all the anxiety and uncertainty, we have an unprecedented opportunity to connect with the goodness of our pets throughout our days and to use those connections to help soothe our pain.

As Oprah said, “Some of my best moments on earth have been spent with my dogs.” Let’s not miss those moments, but practice growing them into those that can HEAL us during these difficult times. 

If you are struggling with anxiety and stress, you might like my new book, Be Mighty, that you can check out by clicking here.

This blog is in loving memory of my dear friend's best canine friend, Rudy (Boston Terrier pictured above with Chips) who left us last week.


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