My life's work as a veterinarian has been rewarded many times over with interesting stories of pets becoming members of the family. For me, these stories have forever altered the traditional meaning of siblings. Because of the human-animal bond, pets have a special ability to become our natural helpers.
Here's an example. Bruce, a client of mine, once told me a story about his boyhood pet Cody, a Golden retriever. High school was a difficult time for Bruce because he was the shortest kid in class. If that weren't enough, he was also overweight. This made him a prime target for a gang of boys that began to bully him repeatedly. He felt great shame. At the end of each school day, Bruce would walk home, and like clockwork Cody would come racing up the lane to greet him. Their reunion was a crazy ritual of Cody jumping up on his hind legs and turning in circles, all the while whining and licking Bruce's face. He called it their happy dance, symbolic of Cody's unconditional acceptance of his short, chubby companion. While Bruce was telling this story, he startled me by saying, "You know, Dr. Bob, Cody kinda made me bully-proof, and I sometimes think if it weren't for Cody, I might not be here today."
Later in my career, I suffered the loss of a close friend to addiction. This kindled my interest in the addiction field, prompting me to return to academia to become certified as a chemical dependency counselor. During one particular group session, a member recently returning from a treatment center surprised the group by mentioning how great it was to be welcomed home by the wagging tail of his pet dog. Another member piped up saying when she came home from her treatment program only the family cat remained to greet her, helping her through that difficult time when broken relationships are healed and new sober ones are made.
Those two comments opened the floodgates for what must best be described as a pet-fest, as others in the group chimed in, sharing great stories of how their pets were there for them too, especially during those raw days of early recovery when they struggled to find new ways of living without the crutch of mind-altering substances.
Whether it's helping in the recovery from addiction, loving us when we feel like outcasts or offering comfort as we endure the trials of this tiresome pandemic, our four-legged companions are natural helpers.
Bob Slack is a retired veterinarian living in Spokane. He currently works with people struggling with addiction.