Pandemic Pet Therapy

November 23, 2020

Karen McCullough never wanted a dog. “It would have tied me down, and I had a great, very busy life,” she says.

Her career as a keynote speaker at conferences has taken her across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. “My job is to get everybody engaged, excited and ready to network,” she says.

McCullough loved the travel — “cool hotels and not worrying about having anything at home,” she says. “I don’t even have any live plants in the house.” As she sailed into 2020, she expected her best year yet.

Then “BOOM” — everything stopped, including conventions and conferences. The pandemic “took my life away,” she says.

Living alone in Houston, she started feeling the stress — anxious and worried about money. On top of that, she couldn’t see her three grandkids who live nearby. “I’m such an extrovert and it’s just been crazy and hard.”

The surprising solution, for McCullough and many other Americans in 2020, was often furry, with four feet: a pet dog or cat.

First, her son and his wife adopted a puppy. McCullough decided to do the same, quietly hoping that if she got a puppy, the grandkids “would want to come and visit me in the front yard.” On Labor Day, 8-week-old Rosie, a Wheaten terrier, arrived.

Rosie opened a new world to McCullough — within just a few blocks. Strangers became new friends. “I know all my neighbors now,” she says. “We have a routine and she gets me out there; we walk three times a day!”

The loneliness that had started to sink McCullough as the pandemic wore on is gone. “Rosie has been like this magnet; she’s attracting me to people and it’s good.”

And there’s some science to back up McCullough’s feelings. Research from Australia finds the “pet factor” does bring people together in helpful ways: Pet owners are more likely to get to know people, form friendships and get the social support humans need.

Psychologist Lori Kogan, a professor of veterinary medicine at Colorado State University and chair of the Human-Animal Interaction Section of the American Psychological Association, has been cataloging stories like McCullough’s during the pandemic.

Kogan and colleagues from Washington State University, University of San Francisco and Palo Alto University did two anonymous online surveys via social media to current pet owners — one regarding cats and another asking about dogs. The surveys asked participants to share their thoughts, experiences and concerns amid the pandemic.

They found a significant number of people reported feeling they have less social support from friends and family now than before COVID-19 spread across the U.S. For many, their pets have played a critical role in helping reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation and loneliness in these tough months.

Pets, Kogan says, are “a respite from the difficulties of life” and provide their human companions “an outlet to give.” And while relationships with friends and family can be fraught, she says, “relationships with animals are simple.”

Here are more stories of pet owners discovering animal companions can be the unsung therapists of these difficult times:

Get up and get moving: Dr. Gregory Brown and Kai

Dr. Gregory Brown is a psychiatrist in Austin, Texas, and a spokesperson for the American Psychiatric Association. Brown says he has been seeing an increase in anxiety, insomnia and depression among patients he has counseled in the past six months. “People are definitely dealing with economic stressors, a hard time with money, and with just being idle” — not getting out of the house much.

A dog “nudging at your foot or barking because they want to go for a walk” can be a real motivation every day to get out and get moving, he says. And that’s good emotionally as well as physically. “We know physical activity can help reduce depression.”

Though Brown says he’s a fairly active guy, he found the reduced structure of these pandemic days meant he was getting to bed a bit later, getting up a bit later and sometimes letting his exercise schedule slide.

Then, about a month ago, he and his wife decided to adopt a 10-month old golden retriever/lab mix named Kai. Now, every day starts with her wake-up bark around 6:30 a.m., returning some sense of structure to their lives.

And Brown says that he spends at least some time outside daily, jogging and walking and that helps make the days seem “a bit more normal.”

“She’s just been a joy to be around when she’s not busy eating up my wife’s favorite pair of shoes,” he says.

As a psychiatric social worker in Rockville, Md., Karol Kullberg has spent most of her work life in a small room, listening to patients face to face — work she finds rewarding and fulfilling, she says. When the pandemic hit, she was able to work from home — a blessing in some ways, but not others. Offering therapy online, via telehealth appointments, has been convenient, Kulberg says, but she also finds it isolating and somewhat alienating.

“It’s intensely stressful — I think for everyone,” she says. “Certainly for patients as well as therapists, who weren’t particularly technologically adept or even comfortable using Zoom or other platforms.”

Reading patients’ facial expressions and body language can be more difficult she says, and without colleagues to talk to in between therapeutic sessions, “you’re very aware that you are suddenly working in a vacuum.” Kullberg doesn’t say she’s lonely. She says it’s more like being “profoundly alone.”

By the end of March when it became clear that staying at home would be the norm for quite a while, she decided to adopt a dog.

Enter Molly, a 5-year-old terrier mix who “came right into my home, was perfectly well-behaved, perfectly housebroken, and even welcomed my cat — who didn’t return the favor.”

For Kulberg, Molly was “like getting something you didn’t know you missed; you forgot how wonderful it was to have something you didn’t notice until all of a sudden it’s there again.”

She finds Molly an extremely comforting presence, “like having somebody’s arm around your shoulder without having to say anything. Sort of like a dance partner you don’t have to teach; they just figure it out.”

Today, Kulberg says she no longer feels alone. “I get up in the morning and Molly curls up in her bed and we go to work.”

“My glorious chow chow mix died at the end of January and I was heartbroken” says Peggy Pacy, who initially planned to let some time pass before getting another dog. But, “a heart needs to love,” she says, “and I started looking.”

At the end of February she adopted a large and fluffy Great Pyrenees mix — she named him Emmet. It was just before lockdown in Washington, D.C., where Pacy lives and works as an independent producer of commercials. Emmet arrived “just in time” says Pacy, who lives alone. “No question, it’s very easy to go down the dark path in the world we’re in today.”

Early on in the pandemic, the first three minutes of every morning would start with a “mild panic” she says. But then a “giant white paw lands on my shoulder and I wonder if it is possible to literally feel serotonin,” she says, referring to one of the neurotransmitters thought to help stabilize mood.

Emmet spends much of his time chasing flies, unearthing clothing Pacy had forgotten she owned, and making friends with neighborhood kids — just watching him is diverting, she says. “All day long the kids drop by and yell for Emmet.”

Even in times of despair, Emmet makes a difference. “I’m standing in my front hall, lost in thought … wondering if I will ever work again, if my small business loan will be approved, if I will have to sell my house. And then, gazing in the direction of my couch, Emmet decides that a long slow back flip to the floor is in order.” His antics pierce the grief and remind her to stay in the moment, she says — ” be grateful for what I have.”

Pacy has a Post-it on her door that says: “I have health insurance; my cabinets are full of food; I have a home; I have Emmet. This makes me happy.”

Devin Green, a small business consultant and life coach, who lives in Portland, Maine, started looking for a dog to adopt in May. After many false starts, a close friend helped her find the dog of her dreams, a miniature goldendoodle (a cross between a golden retriever and a small poodle).

Taco has “changed my life in ways I never expected,” says Green. As he grows, his puppy fur is getting replaced by adult dog fur which can get matted. So Green brushes him nightly, giving — and recieving — needed physical touch. “If I’m having a bad day, he’s very warm and snuggly.”

She sometimes struggles with anxiety, she says, and soothing the pup’s needs helped her get beyond that. “I’m consumed with him more than the worries in my mind,” she says. “My brain space is now taken up by something far more productive than it used to be.”

Green says she used to panic a little if she didn’t have plans for the day, but Taco has introduced her to the neighborhood and helped her feel more a part of the community. Every morning, they walk to the nearby fire station — a big loop, Green says. “The fire station is his favorite place.”

Taco runs inside and “loves on all the firefighters and they love him back. I had never even spoken to any of them before but now we’re all buddies.”

  • Most Recent News

    Students Get Therapy Dog

    January 8, 2021

    When middle school students return to class on Jan. 11, they’ll find a new face at the door: Daisy. Daisy is a therapy dog and the personal pet of Rob Kreger, principal of the Rock L. Butler Middle School. The five-year-old golden retriever is not a school pet or mascot, but rather a working dog […]

    Read more

    Therapy Dogtor

    January 8, 2021

    Last March, Caroline Benzel, a third-year medical student, began to notice the stress and discomfort her nurse friends were feeling from the pressures of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “[Personal protective equipment] can be really rough on the skin,” Benzel, 31, tells PEOPLE. Benzel and her 3-year-old Rottweiler, Loki (who’s also a therapy dog) hatched a […]

    Read more

    Therapy Dog Pups

    January 8, 2021

    When Stanley the miniature fox terrier’s owner passed away, the little dog started a ‘paw-some’ new role – bringing puppy love to some of the Gold Coast’s oldest residents. After Carinity Cedarbrook Diversional Therapist Julianne Staff adopted Stanley, he began visiting the aged care community at Mudgeeraba as a therapy dog. Therapy dogs help to […]

    Read more

    Puppy Cams

    January 7, 2021

    A nonprofit is providing an unusual form of therapy for those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic – puppy cams! “You spend five minutes with a puppy and try not to smile,” said registered nurse Robin Lingg Lagrone. Lingg Lagrone says watching little furballs wag their tails and prance on their paws helps […]

    Read more

    Pet Committee

    January 7, 2021

    When Moore County’s school doors were abruptly closed earlier in 2020, two- and four-legged volunteers from the Moore County Citizens’ Pet Responsibility Committee (PRC) were in their 12th year of presenting a six-session Pet Responsibility Education Program for fourth-graders. The PRC quickly shifted gears and placed its program materials online as part of a home […]

    Read more

    The Right Rescue Dog

    January 7, 2021

    If your New Year’s resolution is to add a canine family member, good for you. Somewhere out there is the perfect puppy or adult dog for your family. You have a lot of things to think about when you begin to look for that new family member, puppy or dog? Large or small? Purebred or […]

    Read more

    Police Dog Attack

    January 7, 2021

    A resolution headed to the Duluth City Council on Monday could put to rest a lawsuit filed by Teri Lynn Ehlers, an employee of the Patch Motel, who was bitten by a Duluth police dog named Oakley. Former Duluth Police Officer Marc Johnson was a registered guest of the Warroad establishment May 28, 2018, when […]

    Read more

    PAWS With A Cause

    January 7, 2021

    Pebble Hill Plantation and the Thomas County Public Library are pleased to announce the upcoming Enlightening Bites program, “PAWS With a Cause,” on Friday, January 8, 2021 at noon in the Flipper Room of the Library. The program is being presented by Jeri Anderson, field representative. Anderson is recently retired from the City of Monticello, […]

    Read more

    Police Canine Team

    January 7, 2021

    Kingston Police revealed in a news release late Wednesday afternoon that they’ve been keeping a four-legged secret for roughly three months. The force announced it added a second canine unit, with the arrival of police service dog Dak this past October. He is working with Const. Jeff Dickson, while police service dog Bask is working […]

    Read more

    K9s For Warriors

    January 7, 2021

    K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that provides military veterans suffering from severe PTSD, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma with service animals, recently changed the name of its main campus to honor its leader and founder Shari Duval. Duval began K9s For Warriors in 2011 after her son returned from two tours in […]

    Read more

    More Recent News