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pets as teachers

Meet Luna, my furry therapist

How a slobbery friend improved my mental health

Updated June 17, 2020

Created By

Bryony Timotei Ravate,
luna the dog

meet Luna, my furry friend and therapist

When going through a difficult time, most people may opt to see a therapist. However, not all are able to seek out therapy. This may be due to expenses, waiting lists, or even a ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­reluctance from the clients perspective. Therapy is often portrayed as an uncomfortable experience within popular media. Two strangers, sitting in an unfamiliar setting, discussing the client’s most intimate problems. The situation often reflects the dynamics of student and teacher. This portrayal of therapy and therapists can make people wary when seeking out help.

During university, my therapist took a slightly different form. Instead of two legs, she had four.

During university, my therapist took a slightly different form. Instead of two legs, she had four. Instead of hair, she had brown and white markings often covered in mud. Instead of inspiring words, she had jowls in which she would shake her saliva onto unsuspecting passers-by. My therapist was a dog; a Saint Bernard called Luna, whom I borrowed from a family during the final two years of my Animal Behaviour Undergraduate Degree.

University can be a tricky time for anyone. The first year was a difficult transition; however, by the final term, I had settled in well. However, the jump from being a carefree fresher to an almost-responsible second year made me feel as if a rug had been slipped from under my off- white trainers. I felt lethargic, with little motivation to engage with my studies or even my own friends. Luna helped me by giving me something fun to do, and someone to always chill out with.

There have been many studies on how dogs can improve our health, both mental and physical. The benefits can range from lowered blood pressure, increased exercise, and reduced feelings of loneliness and isolation. Some organizations have taken note of this, and have implemented the use of dogs in nursing homes, hospitals, and educational settings, under the name of animal-assisted interventions.

I knew that I adored dogs but had never had the chance to own one.

So, it makes sense that my furry companion on lease also helped me feel less alone. I had heard of animal-assisted interventions through my course, and I had read numerous studies about the human-animal relationship. I knew that I adored dogs but had never had the chance to own one.

Like many others, I craved my own pet. One day, I found an application called Borrow my Doggy. As a borrower, you sign up with a small annual fee. After verification, you are free to contact owners about their dogs. I had a few half-hearted conversations with people, most of them unenthusiastic nor really engaging with me about how my potential role of voluntary doggy sitter would fit into their lives. Then, I saw an advertisement for a Saint Bernard called Luna, belonging to a woman who, to respect her privacy, we will call Sarah. We began talking, and we both seemed keen to meet up. We arranged a trial walk.

The trial walk went amazingly. Luna was a lovely dog. However, she had a slight wariness and attitude about her, which I liked. When I knocked on the door, she barked at me until Sarah gave me a treat for Luna. Peace was restored. Sarah had experienced some bad dog walkers, so she wanted to make sure I was going to be a good fit. Sarah was reassured that the trial walk went well. I had both of their approval. Within a few weeks, I had keys to the house and 24-hour access to her dog. I started to babysit her children, and pop in when I was feeling homesick.

The house became a home away from home and a bit of a safe- haven. I would go there sometimes to do my university work; the regular thumping of Luna’s tail underneath the table acted as a form of white noise to keep me in focus.

Luna and I went for many walks. When my studies were overwhelming me, it was nice to know that I had a permanent walking companion when I needed to burn off some steam. Whenever I let myself into the house, Luna would come running over, wagging her tail. She began to associate me with walks and treats, which I was happy about.

I have a lot of human friends; however, I believe that dogs provide a different type of comfort.

When long walks through the local park were off-limits, I would take her to my student house. We would all relax with her, fighting for her attention, and running away when we thought she was about to shake her saliva from her mouth onto us. My friend worked at a local dog-friendly pub, and when she was on shift, I would sometimes bring Luna there to help the hours pass by.

Luna acted as a canine friend to me. I have a lot of human friends; however, I believe that dogs provide a different type of comfort. When I wanted to talk, she provided a judgment-free space to vent. When I just wanted some reassurance, she would always be down for a chin scratch and a cuddle.

It’s not always possible for people to own a pet. You need to commit up to 15 years to a life that needs to be cared for and nurtured. However, there are ways around this. The application I used called Borrow my Doggy allowed me to bring a new companion into my world. Not only that, but I became good friends with her owner, whom I still speak to this day. However, it is only available in the UK. For those in the US, Rover is a great alternative.

Ways to get part-time access to a furry friend

Here’s a list I put together of a bunch of different tools and organizations that you can use to get part-time access to a dog.

Volunteer at a shelter — There are so many unwanted dogs at shelters. Sometimes staff may be finding it difficult to give each dog enough attention and socialization to ensure he finds his perfect fur-ever family. You can offer to foster the dogs for a fixed-term contract, or until they find a full-time owner. If fostering is not an option, you can volunteer to either walk, socialize, or clean out enclosures at your local shelter. I’m sure they would appreciate the help!

Use a house-sitter — Networks like MindMyHouse allow for potential house sitters to connect with those in need. It’s a global website, meaning that the only borders really are your imagination! You can toggle the settings to search for households with pets.

Use working apps — Remote working apps, such as WorkAway, allow people to seek voluntary or paid work within local (or worldwide) organizations, charities, or even homes. You can work on farms, canine sanctuaries, and even with sled dogs. Some placements are paid, whilst others offer benefits such as free housing or accommodation.

Join a dog walking or sitting organization — Alternatives to BorrowMyDoggy include Rover.com. They offer dog boarding, house visits, and of course, dog walking, among other things. Better yet, they are based in ten countries, including the UK, US, and Canada.

Check the local listings — You can check listings in your local area for dog themes meet-ups. People often arrange meet-ups like this near me, and I’ve seen many a pack of beagles playing, surrounded by their disgruntled owners.

Join a Facebook group — If face to face contact is out of the question for you, you may opt to get some furry therapy online. I am a member of Dogspotting and Dogspotting Society on Facebook. The feed is updated daily, with people contributing pictures of their own dogs and dogs that they meet whilst out and about.