Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Counseling Connoisseur: Counselors, pets and COVID-19

By Cheryl Fisher November 17, 2020

Isolation is the worst possible counselor.”

– Miguel de Unamuno

 

COVID-19 has provided a unique opportunity to return previously external occupations such as education and employment to the home. This is often doubly true for counselor educators and students as both classroom and clinical practice are being offered via virtual formats.

This transition has not been without challenges. Whether it is a wardrobe failure caught on camera or a feline sprawled across the keyboard, the virtual classroom and telehealth have blurred the boundaries of our privacy. Classmates, faculty and clients now have access to aspects of our home life. Virtual backgrounds may provide the appearance of an office-like environment veiling the reality of the basement, spare bedroom or even closet. However, household sounds are not as easily silenced when unmuted and meetings now often include the bark or purr of the canine or feline household member.

Additionally, the virtual world is a reminder of the distance required during this pandemic. Water cooler talk and happy hours are now hosted through chats, emails and Zoom meetings. Physical connection is relegated to those deemed safe enough to be in one’s “bubble” such as immediate family members and close friends.

Included in that bubble are the family pets. According to researcher and professor of anthropology, Brian Fagan in his book titled The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History, “More than fifteen thousand years ago, relationships of familiarity and respect led to cooperation and companionship between people and wolves, the ancestors of the first animals to become members of human families.”

The human-animal connection has led to an interdependent relationship that has provided physical and emotional satisfaction and support for both human and other-than-human companions.

Pets motivate movement

Sitting for hours in front of the computer is contributing to Zoom fatigue and an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle. Animals motivate movement, encourage play and promote venturing outdoors for walks. For example, my own standard poodle will indicate when it is time for my work break by staring me down. Should I not respond, she resorts to a gentle (but firm and repeated) tap on my shoulder. If I am still remiss in acquiescing her request to go outside, she will break into a barrage of vocalizations that begin as soft whines of malcontent and escalate to barks of infuriation.

One of my counselors-in training described how her pets have navigated the pandemic and motivated family walks and mutual support.

“We have two dogs, a whoodle (wheaton terrier/poodle cross) named Buffy and Coyote, a rescue, who is a terrier mix of some kind.  Buffy looks like a teddy bear and when she isn’t cuddled up with my two boys she is hunting rodents and rattlesnakes. She really lives up to the name Buffy. What can I say about Coyote? Well, he’s a chicken. He’s afraid of his own shadow. The best thing that ever happened to him is this darn pandemic because we are all at home where he can keep tabs on us.  The pandemic has forced us to spend way more time together as a family (for better or worse!) and that includes our dogs. The one thing that we started to do as a family is taking the dogs for a walk. I’m not sure why it took a pandemic to make this a family event but I’m not going to complain, and I know the dogs won’t either.”

Pets decrease symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression

The stressors that have accompanied the pandemic are numerous. Animals are also sensitive to the stress experienced by their human and strive to mediate the challenges. According to Stephanie Borns-Weil, the head of behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, animals are also adjusting to everyone being home and trying to navigate the increase in activity. However, routine engagement with pets appears to decrease the stress hormone cortisol and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression for both human and animal. For example, one client shared this story about her German shepherd:

“After the lockdown, I was feeling sad and isolated. He [the dog] started to see I was in bed a lot. After some time, he would pull me out of bed. Then moved me away from the couch and showing me he was getting fat as well as myself. So, the next morning, he pulled me out of bed and away from the couch. I changed my clothes and started walking. We just walked for 40 minutes, just to be outside and get some fresh air. It started for me to change my habits, diet, routine and even conversation.”

Pets provide companionship without baggage

Pets help decrease loneliness by giving and seeking companionship without the complex emotional conditions of many human relationships. This is not simply an emotional connection but a neurological bond set by increased levels of the neurotransmitter oxytocin in both humans and animals. During the pandemic, people’s increased need for companionship has resulted in an increase in the fostering and adoption of rescue animals. People are searching for that uncomplicated and fulfilling connection. For one client family the pit bull mix they rescued during the lockdown has been a calming presence and a constant companion for their children.

“She [the dog] has given the children unconditional love, a calming presence, and provided us purpose during these eight months of being at home. During the children’s ‘recess’ time from distance learning, we take her on walks around the park and play ball. She forces us to get outside to play and laugh! She keeps us in the present moment. She snuggles them, kisses them and is truly a light during darker days! We are so grateful for her companionship during these challenging times.”

For many people, pets aren’t just companions. As this story shared by a colleague demonstrates, the connection and concern we feel marks them as part of our families.

“My dog has also been my pandemic buddy, sitting next to me through Zoom calls and virtual therapy sessions. We have gone on daily walks and snuggle times on the couch as I did my notes. Sadly, during the last four months he experienced a spinal injury that got progressively worse. We’ve been working with our vet and he’s getting stronger and I can’t imagine what the long days working from home would be like without him.”

Domesticated animals and humans have a long history together. From predator and prey to companions, the relationship is both complex and primal. The pandemic has also invited a greater awareness of our coexistence with many species. Coyotes were sighted in San Francisco, bears in the streets of Los Angeles, and a peacock even adopted a London primary school and the surrounding neighborhood. Many attributed the pandemic-induced reduction in human activity to these increased sightings of wild animals in urban settings.

The human-animal connection is an interdependent relationship and one that can be especially healing during difficult times. When the time comes (and it will) when we begin to return to our classrooms and office spaces, it is important to remember that our pets will also need time to adjust to the changes. While some may be relieved by the quiet, others may be saddened to lose their daytime buddies.

However, never fear. Our pets are faithful and will let us know that deep down they will always forgive us and are ever ready for a luxurious rub behind the ears or a brisk walk in the park. Perhaps it is just as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, one of the first Westerners to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert and chronicle their relationships with animals and the author of The Hidden Life of Dogs, noted, “No person is too old or ugly or poor or disabled to win the love of a pet — they love us uncritically and without reserve.”

 

This is dedicated to my co-therapist, 12-year-old golden doodle, Max who died suddenly in July. Your friendship and guidance is sorely missed.

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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