Dogs, or any animal, can be therapeutic

Saturday, June 30, 2007 | 12:02 a.m. CDT; updated 8:14 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Mary Lawrence

“I am decisively a dog hater.”

So declared my brother in ink, John Merrill, on these pages a few days ago.

The effect of his rant against dogs was rather breathtaking. And it was meant to be provocative. It worked. With me anyway. I could understand not caring for dogs. But hating them? How could anyone hate dogs?

Flecks of foam began forming at my mouth.

But Self, another part of my brain said, you hate snakes.

Yeah, sort of.

What do you mean “sort of”?

I don’t wish them ill, but they do give me the willies.

Well, dogs bug some people the way snakes affect you. Picture snakes that bark — relentlessly.

Ack. I’d hate that.

Think of snakes barking relentlessly, nipping at your heels and licking your hands.

OK, OK, OK. I get it. I’m beginning to empathize with people who don’t like dogs or cats or any kind of animal. It’s just that animals have enriched my life from the time I was a tyke. When you love something, you want to share it with others.

And I confess I’m less awkward with animals than with people. They generally like me, too. If I don’t know what to say to a dog, I can always pet it.

I don’t like all dogs. I don’t like yappy dogs any more than I like yappy people (and Lord save me from being one of them).

I understand John’s frustration with dogs that chased his bicycle when he was a kid and with dogs that bark outside his house all night. People who let their dogs do that aren’t taking good care of them and are being inconsiderate of others.

John groans about dogs that come up to lick his hand, even though he despises them. I’m trying to picture the snake licks to understand why he finds this distasteful. But you’re right, John, I’m one of those women who go goo-goo for dogs, so a dog kiss on the hand usually melts my heart. It doesn’t repel me.

If a dog comes up to you at a party, it’s simply trying to be a good host and making the rounds of all the guests.

A cat, on the other hand, has other plans. It deliberately snubs all the people who want to pet the kitty and zeroes in on the one person who not only hates cats but who also is deathly allergic to them. The pussycat has come to make that person’s head swell up and burst.

Now I love dogs and cats, but I appreciate the differences in personalities. Dogs usually appeal to our better nature — although there are some rascals out there. Most cats appeal to our orneriness. They also live for themselves. They don’t care how your day went. Your dog does and helps you get over it.

I was at a retreat several days ago. The setting was a lovely house in the woods, far removed from the bustle of the office. We had barely begun when hot words flew. I know because I flung some of them. I was angry, frustrated and burning to leave — my usual response to arguments — when the house dog stuck its old, gray muzzle on my knee and said, “Hi, wanna pet me?”

Boy, did I.

I petted it as if my life depended on it. And with each stroke, tension drained down my arms and out of my fingertips.

After a few minutes, the dog licked my hands to signal the end of our session and stepped over to nudge the next person. “Wanna pet me?” That’s how the dog made its way around the circle — until it came to a few souls who didn’t really care for dogs, thanks just the same. The dog didn’t hold that against them. Just nodded and moved on.

The dog was there every day. Not pestering us. Just appearing now and then for a good therapeutic stroking. Our week proved to be friendly and productive. That was mainly because of the good people at the workshop. The dog helped, too.

It confirms my belief that more offices should have a workplace dog or cat — with allowances for our allergic co-workers and those who don’t care for critters. And one should definitely be part of every retreat.

We’ll never convert the dog haters. That’s OK. But dogs always will be a comfort to the rest of us.

Mary Lawrence teaches editing at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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