4 Benefits of Pet Therapy During Addiction Recovery

And following its path, we took no care

To rest, but climbed: he first, then I – so far,

Through a round aperture I saw appear

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears,

Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.”

Dante Alighieri, “Inferno

I don’t know for sure why I named my dog Dante back then. I must’ve heard it somewhere, thought it sounded really original and it obviously stuck with me. Then, one day, I remembered. We’d studied parts of Dante’s Inferno in Lit class at college. Heavy stuff, from what I can remember. So it stuck.

Dante, when he finally came into my life, was no pedigree, but he looked like one. Mostly Labrador, with a bit of German Shepherd, and some other stuff I could never distinguish, he was so noble-looking, and so in tune with me. I hardly ever commanded him to do anything. He just seemed to know what I wanted. Dante, my big, mind-reading mongrel, who shared the good and the bad of my life without judgment.

If people ask me how I’ve managed to stay clean and sober for so long (it’s over 8 years now), I say a dog helped me do it.

Born in Colombia, my family moved us all to California when I was a few years old. I took my first drink aged 9, smoked my first joint at 14, and was doing meth at 19. I was responsible for nothing and no-one, not even caring about myself. I was arrested on drugs charges in my early 20s, spent some time in jail, came out and got so wasted, so badly, that it was either rehab or an early death. Was I born with my responsibility gene missing? Dante gave me the answer.

A few months after leaving a life-saving rehab, my therapist asked me, “Why don’t you get a dog? You’re active, getting better every day, and I think your mind’s right for some responsibility. So what do you think?” Living back at my parents then, I hopefully offered up the idea to them, and they readily agreed. A few days later, Dad drove me down to an adoption center, and Dante, just 4 months old back then, was duly rescued and christened.

Quite obviously, I’ve become a strong advocate of pet therapy, also known as animal-assisted therapy (AAT), in addiction treatment and recovery, thanks to Dante. This article will explain the 4 benefits of such therapy in helping those with addiction adapt successfully to their disease, based on the introduction of AAT in rehab centers, and my own personal experiences with my boy, Dante.

Proven Health Benefits

Although many of the research studies into the advantages and benefits of AAT have proven to be actually inconclusive, due to the nature of the individual studies themselves, in general, the following health benefits are more common than not. They include:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Less anxiety and stress
  • A more stable mood
  • More controllable anger
  • Higher self-esteem

For the more scientifically motivated among you, the European Journal of Integrative Medicine has published a number of documents relating to AAT, its continued research and subsequent findings. Only last year, they published “Animal Assisted Intervention: A Systematic Review of Benefits and Risks,” which analyses previous studies and confirms the above benefits across a range of study groups.

A Sense of Calm

Addiction treatment is all about getting sober; addiction recovery is all about staying that way. Little did I know how instrumental Dante would be in keeping me in a sober state, even when things were getting tough and fear of relapse was looming large. If there is one thing that I can say he brought into my life, it is this. A profound sense of calm.

My rehab’s drug detox process  involved there being an element of “chill out,” so to speak, in my medication, learning the practice of meditation, eating well, and, of course, the human-based therapy. I knew I felt calmer, and happier for it too. When Dante appeared on the scene after ehab, the calmness seemed to become stronger, and, slowly, fewer and fewer things were causing me issues as they had done before. I was more sociable around others, just a better person to be with than I ever really felt I was before. Because I was calmer. Because of Dante.

Here’s an example. He came with me once to an AA meeting. I was expecting to be told that he could wait outside. However, the chair of the meeting jokingly said that Dante could join us all if he behaved, didn’t poop and didn’t bite anyone. When it was my turn to speak, I spoke about Dante, and the positive effect he’d had on me and my recovery.

Someone asked,”You name him after the Man in the Iron Mask?”  I knew he was referring to Edmund Dantes, from the book, “The Count of Monte Christo.” It’s crazy, but something like that would have really annoyed me in the past. Got me angry, in fact. It’s Dante, not Dantes. However, I smiled at the guy, smiled at my dog, and said, “No. He’s leading me out of Dante’s Inferno. He’s accompanying me out of hell.”

Keeping Fit

Exercise is an important part of any addiction treatment and recovery. I left rehab with a physical fitness regime, and it’s one that I’ve stuck to with Dante’s help. Always having been quite athletic, I preferred team sport (basketball is a personal passion) to solo stuff like running. However, I started running with Dante when he was old enough, and, sure enough, I came to thoroughly enjoy our early morning runs around the local park and surrounding neighborhood. He had an eye for the ladies back then, so we occasionally had to take 10, just so he could go strut his stuff with them. Well, as much as he could do. The adoption center insisted he be neutered. No “ball games” for him, poor boy…

Responsibility

It was a lesson a long time coming, but it was learnt eventually – thanks also to Dante. Responsibility was something I ran from; nothing was as important as my selfish self. So why bother? With all that I had been through, the booze, the drugs, the jail-time, the health issues that I was facing, I had a few reservations about having a dog in my life after rehab. Could I be trusted? Could I even trust myself?

Everybody was saying, “It’ll be fine. No problem.” For me, it still felt like a gamble. What if I failed? How could I ever hope to have a relationship or true friendship with another human being if I couldn’t even have one with a dog?” My concerns back then were just another example of the damage of addiction – my low self-confidence, low self-esteem, low mood, low everything.

From Day #1, that dog lifted me. His undeniable need just to be close to me, to be my companion whatever life threw at us, the rough with the smooth, everything about him just made me feel better, day after day.

Dante taught me I could be responsible, and could be able to nurture and care for a real friendship. The ultimate proof for me is the digital marketing agency I now run back in my original hometown of Medellín, Colombia, and all the employees that I have working for me, making it a success, and the friends that all of them have become.

If You Can…

This second quote, a simple poem, nails it for me:

If you can start the day without caffeine,

If you can get going without pep pills,

If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,

If you can conquer tension without medical help,

If you can relax without liquor,

If you can sleep without the aid of drugs,

Then, my friend, you are almost as good as your dog.”

– Anon

Dante’s qualities are undeniable – friendly, nonjudgmental, happy and content, and always there when you need him. His amazing impact on my life and my precious sobriety wasn’t intentional by him on any level. He was just happy to be there. So, the 4 benefits of pet therapy during addiction recovery: proven health benefits, a sense of calm, keeping fit, and responsibility.

What other benefits has a pet, and it doesn’t have to be a dog, brought to your life when you needed it? Did they help in your recovery process in ways you didn’t think possible? Please, feel free to add a comment below describing your experiences.

Lastly, Dante is getting on now, a little slower around the park, but we still enjoy each other’s company as much as the first day he came home with us to my parent’s house, all legs and ears and soft fur. To reward his friendship (and not for the first time, I might add), I’ve been thinking about a gift for Dante. I’ve settled on a companion for him, a canine one (he’s more than happy to grab a favourite plaything from underwater, so best not get a goldfish…). I know I could never thank him enough, if that were possible, but I’m pretty sure his response would be  a simple “You’re welcome.”

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