At a time when ‘mindfulness’ is a global buzzword, when our mental health is increasingly at risk and modern lifestyles lend themselves to more loneliness, stress and depression than ever before, could animals be the answer? Whether pets or therapy or companion animals, spending time with, looking after and rescuing animals is good for the human psyche.
I was one of the lucky ones. I grew up in a utopia of cats and dogs, tame sheep, a calf and horses during my childhood in the UK countryside. When I was at odds with the humans in my life I hung out with my cat, climbed into the dog’s bed with her, petted the sheep and calf that came running down the field at my call, or galloped away from home to cool my temper. And after a long hiatus, I’m now the part-time carer of a sweet dog who balances my work life with regular walks, play time and heart-warming unconditional love. Animals are always themselves; wonderful listeners, great receivers of hugs, full of enthusiasm. No pretence, moods, impatience, criticism or grudges.
Whether in the wild or at home, in institutions, at work, or social media, animals are our constant companions. The capacity the animals we have tamed have for love is extraordinary – wholly and without judgement. So while complicated humans ride the emotional ups and downs of our rollercoaster lives, our pets and therapy dogs make consistent, loving companions.
“Animals live in the now, people live in the past and the future,” says Catriona Rogers, a counselling psychologist in Hong Kong, who sees more anger, due to fear, vulnerability, hurt, and panic attacks these days in all ages. “When you stroke an animal you create a link to it, release oxytocin, feel harmony and calm. Loneliness can trigger depression and oxytocin and dopamine are combatants to depression and anxiety. Having the support from an animal is considered an intervention for mental and many other health issues. They bring out your feelings of loving kindness, you feel a responsibility to look after them, and looking after pets is an important life skill.”
Back in 1991 Jill Robinson of Animals Asia took her golden retriever Max into the garden at Hong Kong’s Duchess of Kent Children’s Hospital. The kids instantly loved Max, and so the Doctor Dog programme was born. From Max to over 1,000 dogs today, the programme benefits approximately 25,000 people each year bringing dogs and their unconditional love into orphanages and schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and the disabled across Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Japan and Malaysia.
“In my experience, the dogs help with mobility issues, social skills and communication problems, as well as providing physiological benefits,” says animal welfare education manager for Doctor Dog Hong Kong, Karina O’Carroll.
The dogs make up just part of a comprehensive wellness plan based on each person’s medical, psychological and physical needs.
O’Carroll says, “Being ill can be a mentally stressful period and the simple joy and unquestioning companionship a therapy dog provides can be hugely beneficial. We know things like heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels, doctors appointments, physical fitness, levels of satisfaction, social skills and motivation can all be positively affected by interactions with a companion or therapy animal. The reach of benefits from this interaction can impact a large number of clients, from the young to the elderly.”
At the Mayo Clinic, pet therapy is acknowledged to help people recover or cope with health issues including mental health but also heart disease and cancer. Their Caring Canines programme features volunteers with registered therapy dogs comforting patients at every stage of their health issues.
Sally Anderson founded NGO Hong Kong Dog Rescue in 2003 and since then has rescued and rehomed over 7,500 dogs and other animals, saving them from being euthanised. “We match the dog
with the situation, whether it’s a single person, a family wanting a pet or as a companion dog for an elderly person,” she explains. “If you’re a runner a dog can be motivation, while some are more into cuddles and can be particularly soothing for kids.”