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Pet Therapy: It’s Real.

By: Rachel Rifkin, LMHC
May 19, 2020
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Pet Therapy: It’s Real.

When shelter in place became official, so did my status as a dog owner. Not exactly what I was expecting in the puppy adoption process, but if this pandemic has taught me anything it’s that timelines never go as planned. My partner and I were wanting to adopt a puppy for a while now, and the timing of our lives going remote sort of felt like a golden opportunity to be home together raising a puppy.

I always knew having a furry friend provides therapeutic benefit; as a clinician I’m a big fan of emotional support animals. However, it was not until experiencing it firsthand amidst a global pandemic that I remembered how powerful the presence of a pet really is.

Here are a few things I’ve learned as a new puppy parent during this time:

Helps improve anxiety and mood. The beginning of this pandemic threw me off more than I expected. I would focus all of my positive and grounding energy to show up for my clients in the day, so when evening came around my anxiety took flight often triggering more intense emotions. Within a couple weeks of having our new puppy, my partner quickly reflected to me that my mood seemed more balanced and my evening appointment with anxiety became less frequent. I was astounded at how much this puppy increased moments of laughter and calm despite my lack of sleep and frustration with his early wake up calls, teething, and accidents!

You become an accidental expert at mindfulness. Taking care of a new puppy requires your constant, undivided attention. This means no multitasking, no “hold on a second I’m scrolling on Instagram,” and definitely no zoning out. When you take all of those options away, it leaves you with time to observe all of the little things. I feel his soft, fluffy fur. I hear the different barks and growls he makes to communicate different needs. I see adorable facial expressions when he’s curious about something new. I’m practicing mindfulness every moment I’m with him, which allows more of my thoughts to come and go without judgment. Not to mention, if you’re distracted for too long, you’re quickly brought back to the present by a yellow or brown surprise on your floor!

Unconditional love and support. I know I receive this from my amazing support system in my life, but there’s something unique about the unconditional love you get from an animal. All they want is love. That’s it. Well, maybe some treats, but treats accompanied by love. They don’t want any favors. They don’t need to vent about their stressors. They don’t mind you talking their ear off. They don’t care if you didn’t do everything on your to-do list that day. They just want you to exist alongside them.

Routine makes all the difference. Before the pup, my partner and I had an attempted routine, but obviously when you’re stuck in your apartment all day that plan easily goes out the window. I felt very scattered and more overwhelmed by my days even though I technically had more time. It took getting a puppy to recognize how ineffective our schedule was for our physical and mental health. Once we created a flexible routine focused on the puppy’s schedule, we were able to implement more time and space for us. Now, we have a really nice flow with room for changes because that’s life. Not only has this helped us transition from work mode to play mode, but it’s helped the puppy’s listening and potty training skills, too!

Pets are intuitive, follow their lead. As a clinician specializing in eating disorders and being recovered from an eating disorder myself, learning to honor and trust the body’s intuition is a philosophy I strive to model and teach for my clients. I like to remind clients that we’re all human, recovery is not linear, and you always have the choice to do the next best thing for yourself. This idea could not have been more accurate when adjusting as a puppy parent. Ironically, I was so engaged in watching my puppy practice intuitive eating, sleeping, playing, and alone time, I was dismissing my own needs. I quickly learned I could not be an effective puppy parent when I was depleted of energy. So, rather than beating myself up for all the “shoulds,” I used my supports to create a more effective routine that carved out time for my own eating, relaxing, zooming, and movement. My puppy helped remind me that quarantine or not, you need to listen to your body.

Challenge your inner critic and practice radical acceptance. We’re all easily our own worst critic. This really came to light when navigating my life simultaneously with my puppy’s life. I was taking everything so personally when he would ignore me, bite me, or have accidents in the apartment. I was convinced it must be something I’m doing wrong. Ever heard that one before? Yeah, I thought so. Whenever something bad happens we tend to jump to self-blame because it’s safe, familiar, and in our control. I had to use my own therapy skills on my brain to challenge these ineffective beliefs and check the facts. Of course the puppy pees everywhere; he’s a puppy! He’s also in a new environment and adapting to change (aren’t we all). Change requires acceptance of what is out of our control and not letting that dictate our worth.

Moral of the story: pets are the ultimate coping skill. If you have a pet at home, don’t take them for granted and embrace the snuggle time! If you don’t have a pet at home, try thinking about what that type of support would provide for you and get creative with how to find that in other ways. If having a puppy has taught me anything it’s that self-compassion is critical right now. So pet or no pet, let’s lean into some self-compassion!

 

Rachel Rifkin is a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders and related concerns, including trauma and cultural/identity concerns. She has a focus in working with the LGBTQ+ community. Rachel received her dual Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, with a certificate in Sexuality, Women, and Gender studies. CLICK HERE for more information.

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