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Remembering Marlee: The Therapeutic Benefits of Having Pets

This post may be a little personal, but my ultimate goal is to highlight the benefits of having furry friends. In order to honor my longest canine relationship, I feel I have to get a little personal. Today, ironically, is the one-year anniversary of Marlee's unexpected passing. That day was pivotal for me in many ways--Marlee was a true friend to me, and in this life you find very few of those.

One thing I learned very early in life, is that true friendship and unconditional love are much easier to find in the animal world than in humankind. Not to say that they do not exist in humans, just that they are less common. For this reason, I have spent much of my life in the companionship of animals, and I feel that has enriched my life in ways that cannot be put into words, and served as a buffer for me against anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

This statement is actually research-backed--we know from studies that having a pet does contribute to (just to name a few things):

*Healthier hearts (physically, but also emotionally)

*Less need for medical care (actually correlates with less doctor visits)

*Lower blood pressure (particularly under stress)

*Increased seratonin and dopamine levels (calming chemicals)

*Lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels

*Improved social support & social interactions

In addition to these things, animal therapy can lead to other benefits, such as reduced stress and an overall more balanced mental and emotional state. Spending time with animals in therapeutic ways (i.e. animal therapy) has been shown to significantly reduce rates of depression compared to other forms of therapy, improve the mood and well-being of older adults who have cancer and other significant health concerns, and also boost mental and emotional health, even in adults who have depression, dementia, or psychosis.

So, you don't have to take my word for it, research it for yourself! Having pets, or spending time in the company of animals, has a significant and tangible effect on your well-being, both mentally and physically. Having a need for an emotional support animal is nothing to be ashamed of, and, in fact, getting a pet for emotional support is a simple and effective way to almost immediately improve your overall well-being.

While I am a proponent of all animals and feel there is real value in spending time with every variety of them, for this post I will focus mostly on my relationship with a canine. Those of you who know me know all too well how fond I am of cats, as my current "best furry friend" is a feline named Tig (a rescue I bottle-fed from infancy).

So please know I am not saying one type is better than another, I am only focusing on my relationship with Marlee to honor her on this most significant day for me.

Marlee was a registered Labrador Retriever. I chose to get a lab because, having had exposure to that breed in the past, I know they are relatively good-natured, family-friendly dogs. I had just had my fourth child and really wanted to get a family dog for my kids to grow up with. Marlee was the only lab I could find available near me, and for some reason she was the last of her litter to be adopted out, in such a delayed way that her cost was discounted. She was three months old when I met her, and I met her the day I brought her home. I was eager to meet her but. even so, when our eyes met it was the strangest feeling of familiarity--and she seemed to recognize me immediately. It was as if we were old friends. This has been highlighted to me over the years as I have heard of others' experiences of having a "bad match" or having difficulty finding a pet that had the personality they needed or wanted. For Marlee and me, it was love at first sight! Of the nearly thirteen years she was with me, the only complaint I ever had about her was that she loved to chew on things. And can that really be a legitimate complaint?? I mean, she IS a dog, for pete's sake--what is she supposed to do? (hahaha) Other than that, she was the perfect companion. She had the easiest manner, sweetest demeanor, and was so sensitive to our moods. She would have made the perfect therapy dog, had I been able to have her certified.

Marlee was an energetic pup and, to be honest, she kind of never stopped being a puppy. Even at eighty-something pounds, her absolute favorite place was my lap! When she got too big to fit, I tried to accommodate her by sitting on the ground so she could half lay between my legs and half on top of me. She would lay there for hours if I let her! She was so smart, too--the smartest animal I have ever trained. She picked up on the standard tricks so quickly, I barely had to do anything. She was sitting, shaking, heeling, and jumping on command almost as soon as she understood what the commands meant. It took her a little longer to learn to roll over on command, but not much longer. I was so tickled when she learned it that she figured out that was a quick way to get extra treats out of me and sometimes she would just randomly roll over twice and then look at me expectantly like, "Ok, where are the treats? I did the "special" trick!" The hardest one for her to learn was fetch--and that was just because she would sometimes get side-tracked before she made it all the way back to me with the ball/stick/toy. She might decide to stop and chew it for a bit or something. But it didn't take too long, and she would do that on command, as well. We used to have so much fun together--that was one thing I could say for Marlee, she brought true spontaneous joy back into my life. No matter the stress of the day, no matter the burdens I might be carrying in life, I could always come home to Marlee and she would have me laughing. If I needed a hug, or just needed silent comfort, I could always count on Marlee. She never got mad at me. She never gave me the silent treatment. She never demanded anything of me. She never hurt me, never, not in any way. She was just always whatever way I needed her to be. Can you put a value on that? I don't think so. The value of animals has no limit, no quantitative number. To me that is like trying to put a number on the value of human life. You can't.

You can't put a value on the life of a pet, or the gifts they inherently bring you. Marlee gave me over a decade of unconditional love, companionship, emotional support, and joy. I feel the hole of her absence very deeply, even now. Is the benefit worth the pain of the eventual loss, you might ask? Unequivocally, without a doubt, YES. "It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all." (Alfred Tennyson.) I don't have adequate words to describe what she was to me, or the value and depth she added to my life, which is in no way erased by her death. But if you are considering a pet, I strongly encourage you to take a leap of faith. You will be forever changed, and you will not regret it.

Here are a few of the lessons Marlee taught me:

1. Love fiercely, without reservation. Life is short and the most valuable thing in life is love.

2. Life is short--far too short when we near the end of it. Be present in the moment and enjoy every aspect of life with a child-like joy. It's the only way to truly live!

3. Physical touch and affection is a human need. Humans and animals alike need touch to be our best selves, so we should always make time and space for it.

4. We should always have an attitude of gratitude and remain joyous and appreciative of every moment and every thing we have in every moment.

5. Forgive and forget. Dogs don't hold grudges and neither should we.

6. Be flexible because life is always changing. Be appreciative regardless.

7. Always make time for fun and play--life is very dull, otherwise!

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