For the last four weeks I have fostered a rescue dog, Dawson. My sense of purpose, need for connection, and sense of value have been fulfilled immeasurably. Not only that, I have felt physically and mentally great; I have more energy, I have had less days feeling down, stressed, and depressed. And I am not alone; there are many books and posts out there which speak to the power of animals in healing trauma, addiction, grief, and many other stressful life events.

I have always loved animals. I had dogs for short periods as a child and have always gravitated towards the cats and dogs of my friends. I just love holding and stroking animals—they one of life’s great joys. My friends call me the dog whisperer. I have wanted to get my own dog for a long time. It was just never the right time due to either my living arrangements or with my rapid decline into addiction.

I have now been sober for a while. After my big move to the US, once I had settled, I figured it was the best time to fulfill my dreams of getting a dog. I found the nearest rescue shelter and went along to meet them. I was filled with the familiar joy of being around beautiful dogs. Conscious, however, of the commitment required—and the tom cat in my house—I decided to try fostering a dog first.

I hadn’t even prepared myself mentally, before a young chap needed a home. Along came Dawson.

He was the cutest, sweetest, cuddly little guy. I almost immediately fell in love with him. Initially, I wondered what I had taken on—he was nervous, suffered with separation anxiety, and struggled to settle. But within a day, he was cuddling up to me. Within two, he wouldn’t leave my side. He was utterly adorable. But this wasn’t without adjustment myself.

Dogs—as much as they are worth it—are not just companions, they require commitment, responsibility, and effort. Initially challenging—especially with a rescue dog—I doubted my abilities but ultimately rose to the challenge.

I was immediately thrown into a position of increased responsibility: I needed to keep to a schedule to juggle my work—as a freelance writer and coach—and caring for his needs: regular walking, feeding twice a day, making sure he has enough water, and that the room he was in was safe, cool, and sheltered.

I also had accountability of ensuring that he was adjusting okay, and had to deal with his behavioral issues such as quite advanced leash aggression and fearful behavior. Heartbreakingly, Dawson had been abandoned; he was rescued from a place where he slept on a concrete floor. He had callouses on his skin and had bald patches where hair was missing. His trauma was obvious in his reaction to people—he was terrified and would cower or hide from new people. Dawson was in desperate need of love and stability and I made it my mission to provide that for him—even if only for a short time until he was adopted.

This responsibility provided not only structure to my life, but a sense of purpose—I knew there was someone who needed my help. I wasn’t able to isolate or withdraw—the all-too-familiar symptoms of our disease. So I quickly got my hands dirty; I sought expert advice for his issues, immediately began dealing with his leash aggression, provided a safe and calming environment, and gave him as much love as I could.

That level of accountability, sense of value, and responsibility left me feeling fulfilled. I can see how these factors are major elements of keeping one sober. Much like when you’re sober around children, you wouldn’t want to jeopardize their welfare in favor of relapsing.

What’s more, pets can have the added benefit of affecting us emotionally and neuro-physically. Even though Dawson was challenging, he brought me so much joy. He was so cute, quirky, responded quickly to training and new tricks. Stroking him had a calming effect. And the love I felt for him seemed to fill my whole being. Dawson contributed to me feeling less stressed, I have suffered less depressive episodes, and have felt mentally well. Which is great for sustaining my recovery.

Writer and author, Jennifer Matesa often tells me about the power of having a pet. She said,   “I’ve read that gazing into your dog’s face releases as much oxytocin—the bonding and attachment hormone—as looking into your baby’s eyes. But you know what, recovery has taught me that I don’t always need to rely on ‘studies’ to confirm what I already know in my body: my dog loves me and supports me in staying healthy. And she gets me running or walking in the woods four or five times a week, which is invaluable for healing the body!”

Physically, as Jennifer alludes to, there are numerous health benefits of regular walking and running—which includes stress relief, and reducing your risk of illnesses due to inactivity and obesity related diseases.

As far as other animals are concerned, some studies show that having a cat can reduce your risk of heart disease. For 10 years, Adnan Qureshi, professor of neurosurgery and neurology at the University of Minnesota, followed 4,500 people. In 2008, he announced his study’s intriguing conclusions: Those who owned a cat were 40% less likely to die from heart attacks than those who had no cat in their lives.

Whether a cat or a dog, pets are massively beneficial to your recovery—providing  accountability, companionship, and stress relief. Nothing seems quite so big of an issue when you have a pet to cuddle with. That gives you a great sense of perspective in life.

My past four weeks with Dawson were incredible. I had a true companion who taught me unconditional love, helped me deal with stress, and made me feel great. I wouldn’t change that for the world. He has now moved on I can’t wait to get my next dog.

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The Power of Animals in Recovery
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