On a recent domestic flight I was happy to find that my bulkhead seat neighbor was a black Lab. He had been trained to anticipate and respond to his owner’s seizures. The response part seemed natural, but the anticipate part was new to me. I asked the owner how that works. She had no idea but confirmed that her dog always knew before she did and would faithfully let her know if a seizure was imminent and then help her through it. Amazing.
Reminds me of a Bible passage that I’ve sometimes wondered about: “Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee” (Job 12:7). Is it possible that there is a lot more about health that doesn’t have to be invented as much as discovered?
Researchers are still asking questions about how dogs can anticipate seizures and how reliable the ability is. But there was no question in the owner’s mind. If she were headed toward a seizure her dog was on it and fearlessly led her through it.
Dogs are getting a lot of attention these days for their ability to love us through our health challenges. Colleges and universities, from Yale to Eckerd, are bringing in therapy dogs to reduce student stress. Veterans struggling with PTSD are finding comfort and healing with canine therapy.
“As the Army struggles to address the broad swath of stress disorders and mental health problems brought on by more than a decade of war, one of the biggest hurdles is getting soldiers to put aside the bravado and seek treatment,” Fox News reported.
Dogs really shine here. Even the most battle-hardened warriors tend to melt in the presence of a wagging tail.
Ron, a 3-year-old golden retriever-Lab mix, holds the rank of a one-star general and his designated military occupation is a “psych tech.” He’s even trained to bring tissues to distressed patients and put his head on a person’s lap if he or she is stressed.
After the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, a team of canine counselors, led by Tim Hetzner of the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs team, traveled to Newtown with nine specially trained golden retrievers and their volunteer handlers from the Addison, Ill.-based group.
“A lot of times, kids talk directly to the dog,” Hetzner says. “They’re kind of like counselors with fur. They have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don’t judge you or talk back.”
According to scientists who study this healing phenomenon, dogs’ unconditional love stems from the fact that they are one of the only species that does not generally exhibit xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Instead, dogs are xenophilic, meaning they tend to love strangers.
So is it the dog that has this therapeutic effect? Or is it the love expressed by the dog? If it’s the dog’s message (I love you fearlessly no matter what!) as much as the messenger, what’s the larger message to us about the healing power of unconditional love? And where does this love really come from?
My father, who grew up attending a Christian Science Sunday school, often wondered about three words on the church wall: “God is love” (I John 4:8). Much later, as he lay dying from a machine gun wound in the South Pacific during World War II, those words came strongly to thought as something he could hang on to and believe in. He credits his survival to actually feeling the power of that love in his extremity.
It may be that dogs just naturally have a way to tap into that huge love and offer it to us without conditions or constraints.
The Tampa Bay Times ran a column this month by Naomi Judd about a topic dear to her heart. She said, “I’ve come to believe in a broad and open approach to health, one that ministers to the body as well as the mind. … I’ve seen how the power of the human-animal bond can help patients muster the life force they need to overcome anxiety, depression and fear, and begin to heal.”
As more people continue to peer outside the boundaries of mainstream medicine to find reliable and inexpensive ways to stay healthy, the power of unconditional love will probably have increasing application. As Harvard-trained cardiologist Cynthia Thaik says, “Love is a strong emotion, representing human kindness, compassion and deep affection. Love is unselfish and benevolent. Love is pure. Most importantly, love is a vital component for the health of your heart, body, mind and soul.”
I expect we’ll keep learning about dogs’ natural ability to love without expectation or condition. Maybe that learning will help us see how to love more unconditionally, too. More divinely. Our “best friend” can help us find that healing ability and its infinite source in ourselves.
This article originally appeared in The Tampa Bay Times.