Your Therapist's Favourite Therapist: How My Dog Changed My Life
Therapist Lindsay Roche's life changed when she picked up her cockapoo Mo last year
From connection to comfort, to enhancing therapy – here she shares the unexpected impact her dog has made to her life
Twelve months ago, my partner and I picked up our now 15-month-old cockapoo, Mo. We’d done our research, read the books and were prepared for sleepless nights, ruined carpets and furniture. We were ready. Or so we thought. What we hadn’t anticipated was the mirror Mo would hold up to: ourselves, life and the world.
One year on, and in a year where the companionship and mental health benefits of a pet have been felt by many, it feels like an opportune time for reflection. A way to honour Mo’s, and more generally, dogs' impact, importance and meaning, in our lives.
(Before I begin, I’d like to add an important caveat. Whilst the sentiment of this article is positive, or should I say pawsitive, it is not intended as a sales pitch. This feels particularly important to state in light of heart-breaking numbers of ‘pandemic’ pets either being abandoned or handed over to shelters. Becoming a pawrent is hard, a big life-style change and not a decision to be taken lightly.)
I truly believe that the way dogs live is a beautiful practice. If my experience is anything to go by, they can teach us about gratitude, love and compassion, being present, and joyous. But above all they can show us how to love without expectations, to be kind and non-judgemental of others.
As a therapist, I couldn’t help but notice the overlap – I’m essentially listing Carl Rogers core conditions for therapeutic change. Whilst training, a tutor described the role of a therapist in terms of ‘breaking down barriers to love’. If this is true, than dogs are naturals. In writing this article, I hope to share just some of their wisdom.
The importance of connection
As many of us experienced, January and February of 2021 were difficult months: dreary, cold and in lockdown. Yet Mo made a lock-downed London softer, friendlier and warmer. I quickly realised that having a dog opens up a city, people, and connection. His commitment to sticks (no matter the size) never failed to raise a smile from passers by and bowled over by his puppyish looks and personality, people would stop, say hi and open up.
At a time when people were separated from family and friends, moments of connection, however small or brief, mattered and had meaning. These experiences resonated personally and professionally, I was reminded how impactful moments of meeting and connection can be for both therapist and client.
Practise empathy, openness and curiosity
As therapists, we bear witness to our clients' stories and I am continuously struck by the ease and openness Mo elicits. A dog's natural empathy, absence of judgement and curiosity inspires reciprocity. I particularly remember a man in a Margate cafe who, after noticing Mo’s similarity to his own cockapoo, shared that he was recently separated. His ex-wife had their cockapoo and he spoke of missing the companionship. As he was speaking, Mo licked his leg and he became visibly emotional. Meeting Mo had made his day, he said.
Every dog lover will speak of the comfort found in those small gestures: the paw on your leg, a wet nose nudging your hand and a loving lean, communicating ‘I’m here’. Fans of After Life will also recognise Tony’s dog, Brandy, as his anchor amidst his grief, which he expresses beautifully in the final episode:
“She saved my life. She knows when I’m sad; I mean I’m always sad so it’s hard for her to be wrong. At night, she’s right there - on duty. She recognises Lisa on video as well and we sit there missing her but at least we’re missing her together.”
Live in the moment
Dogs pause, rest, play, seek joy and in turn invite and encourage the same. As a puppy, Mo would curl up in my lap and this quickly became a ritual - a reminder to stop, breathe, and be still. Again, dogs have a natural ability to practise self-care and love, which are two things often reflected on and encouraged in therapy.
Life and society can focus on big milestones or achievements but dogs are much more simple – practise, and celebrate, the things that make your tail wag! Each time you make a good decision to take care of yourself; give yourself a treat.
Feel and express emotion
Dogs feel a wide range of basic emotions, including joy, sadness, fear, anxiety and loneliness. Attuned to themselves and their feelings, they express these readily either vocally or through body language.
Mo is continuously communicating and I, and my partner, quickly realised that it was up to us to listen and work out. I’m reminded of the quote by the author Orhan Pamuk: ‘Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.' A nod to the power of two therapeutic tools: attuning to non-verbal communication and actively listening.
Your therapist’s favourite therapist
Finally, as an online therapist, I regularly hear and witness the importance of my clients' pets. An unexpected, often humorous and wonderful bonus of working online with clients, has meant that their pets can be a part of our work and sessions. They are an in-session resource: soothing, safe and supportive. They are also unpredictable, chaotic, funny and inspire connection. Many a time, a client and I will laugh, as a cat obstructs their laptop, my view or miaows audibly throughout the session. I notice too that clients like to ask after Mo, invested in his day, week or latest stick personal best and he has now begun to sit in, well sleeps through, my supervision. As always his presence calming and companionable. My hope is that one day he could be in sessions but first we need to negotiate his adolescence!
As Tony summarises in the final scene of After Life ‘If you treat a dog bad and show them no love, that’s what they’ll act like. If you show them kindness and hope, they’re fine. It’s the same for people.’ A closing tribute to the wisdom of our four legged friends.
As for me? Call me biased but I think everyone should be more Mo.
Lindsay Roche is a verified welldoing.org therapist in North London and online