Sitting in Starbucks writing this, I have equal parts of my brain devoted to my assignments, my family’s debt, my husband’s life-threatening illness and my kid’s recent tween boundary-pushing. Also, why are my jeans so tight? So the usual stew of low-level anxiety with spikes of acute uneasiness. But out of the corner of my eye, there’s a little bit of sunshine: A woman has just gotten in line with two of the most adorable French bulldogs, who are happily snorting, biting each other’s faces and sneezing. For a minute, I’m transported and I know what I have to do.
Back up a minute: Everyone knows pets make you feel good and dogs help their owners live longer, yadda yadda yadda. This is not a story about any of the great benefits of pet mommyhood—of which, by the way, I’m a huge supporter, with three (!) dogs in our home. (That’s a 1:1 ratio with humans in our nuclear fam.)
What I’m talking about here is how I’ve learned over the past few years that, when the going gets tough, I need to find the nearest canine. Specifically, I find myself seeking out someone else’s dog when I’m in a high-stress, low-resilience situation. By interacting with an unfamiliar pup, I have to completely set aside whatever worries are preoccupying me and pay complete attention to the dog’s demeanor (welcoming wag or trepidatious hair at attention?), her preferences (oh, so you like a tummy rub, do you?) and if I’m lucky, her offer to lick my face (with or without salty tears). And of course I have to quickly convince the human at the other end of the leash that I’m not some sort of crazy dognapper.
Au contraire. I am a transactional romancer of dogs.
My discovery of doggy therapy came a few years ago when I found myself in Alaska with another family for a two-week road trip in an RV. Five adults, three children, 125 square feet and 2,500 miles. Somehow I hadn’t really thought through how unsuited I was for such close quarters and rustic environs, and when we stopped at our first campground, I basically lost it in a hysterical fit—crying, laughing and thinking of how so much money could buy so little comfort. I flung open the door and put my head down on a picnic table, and then I noticed that the RV next to us had a dog tied on a leash. Instinctively, I lurched toward the little terrier mix who was yapping there. Little Westie was only too happy to lick my tears and jump into my lap as I sat cross-legged and told him how much fun he was going to have. When his owner came out to see who was holding his dog, something about my panic-stricken face made him smile wanly and back up, shutting himself safely inside. But Westie sat patiently with me until I calmed down and walked back to my RV, driving off to what ended up being a great trip.
Turns out, there’s a scientific explanation for what’s going on here—and it benefits both me and my canine counterpart. Studies have shown that when humans mingle with dogs, each experiences the release of oxytocin, the happy-making hormone that’s also released when a mother looks at her child. It makes you feel trust, it makes you relax and, if you’re not paying attention, it makes fellow PetSmart shoppers really annoyed because you’re blocking the aisle as you hug that overgrown poodle you just met.
While most research on human-dog interactions understandably uses pets and their owners, I’ve found the most useful crisis canines to be ones I don’t even know. My own pets get agitated when I’m upset, whereas most passerby dogs don’t know if I’m always a hysteric, nor do they especially care. They’re just in it for the belly rubs and salty tears.
The whole experience is my makeshift version of equine therapy, a technique used at wellness spaces and addiction treatment centers where you learn to be quiet and deliberate in your actions toward an animal, in hopes of learning something about yourself. Which is to say, it’s not always a lovefest—like the time I entered a party and immediately grabbed a schnauzer in a fit of joy, only to have the dog squeal, leaving me to spend the rest of the night making sure she was OK. (Turns out she was fine, she just had her limits.)
And then there was the greyhound a friend was dog-sitting. The dog’s eyes bulged as I petted his head and moved my face down to whisper my troubles to him. When my friend came in, he mentioned that the dog usually doesn’t like anyone touching him there. I like to think the shadowy beast gave me the extra patience I needed that day, and that it’s my debt to pay forward to some other needy mammal in the future.
But I digress. Suffice it to say, irony of ironies, in the super-fraught year of our Lord 2018 (the Year of the Dog, coincidentally), I learned how a few moments spent gazing into the eyes of a dog (it works best if you get right down to the pup’s level) can give me the emotional balance I need to make it through the next life challenge, fear or even scary success. But back to those Frenchies. Their mom has finished her coffee now, so I gotta go. This is my chance to give them a cuddle before they snort out of my life forever.