Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Power of Pets in the Recovery From Trauma

Excited at 24 to have arrived in New York to begin her new job, Rose’s welcome was a brutal one. Taking an early morning jog in a nearby park within her first week, she was pushed from behind, slammed against the ground, groped and likely would have been raped had a car not pulled into the empty parking lot, and on approaching begun beeping, scaring off her attacker.

As Rose would later describe to me, she could never have stayed in New York had it not been for Murphy, her 3 year old Jack Russell and precious companion. The police, new neighbors and concerned family all stepped up to support her, but it was cuddling with Murphy that would calm her physical shaking and lower her startle response to every sound.  Intuitively staying by her side no matter what she did, Murphy was the “familiar network of support” that fosters physical and emotional safety in the acute stage of trauma.

Together they would sleep with the lights on those first nights.  Going out together in the following weeks, Rose and Murphy would walk past her fears and reclaim her new neighborhood.

Pet Potential and Recovery

Most of us are aware of the extraordinary efforts people will make to rescue animals and of the incredible stories of animals whose uncanny sense of danger and devotion result in the amazing rescue of humans.

As you see in the case of Rose and Murphy above, there is another way that animals rescue us – they play a crucial role in the emotional recovery from trauma.

Trauma and Recovery

We know that traumatic events are unexpected and often unimaginable. They jolt us physically and psychologically, imposing helplessness and isolation, and robbing us of our sense of mastery, well being, trust in others, God – the world as we once knew it.

The Role of Pets

Even a glimpse at pets in the aftermath of trauma underscores their role in recovery.Their touch emotionally and neurophysically calms us, their bond reduces isolation and despair and our investment in them helps restore the connection with a viable self and a possible future.

Following Her Lead

A friend and colleague recently suffered the rapid decline of her vibrant husband to Alzheimer’s disease. With pain and courage she faced the bewildering and continual loss of the man she knew as she continued to care for a person she loved but barely recognized. When he died the loss startled her. The cumulative impact hit her and seemed enormous – everything seemed empty.

A few days after the funeral, a friend arrived with Cozette, a well bred little 5 year old dog. Not having the strength to refuse, Barbara agreed, knowing only that Cozette was adorable and made her smile. Thankfully, Cozette knew everything. It was just a matter of following her lead.

A number of weeks later, Barbara returned to see patients in her office, Cozette followed.  Wanting to hold on to the comfort of Colette’s presence, Barbara dared to see how patients would react. The first couple walked in and seemed delighted with the little dog. As if on cue, Cozette jumped unto the couch next to them – looked at them and then at Barbara as if to say, “We’re Ready.”  In many ways they were.

The Sense of Value

Part of the collateral damage of trauma is the suicidal despair that makes the past seem inaccessible and a brighter future impossible. When assessing the level of danger of such feelings we look for protective factors as self esteem, sense of value, social contacts, spirituality etc. Pets serve as protective factors.

A professional man who was no longer working due to a heart surgery followed by the onset of a chronic and debilitating disease revealed the protective role of his two Siamese cats.

“When I wake up in so much pain, I really wonder ‘what’s the point of going on?’  Then I’ll see one of the cats or they will jump across the bed and I’ll think. ‘They give us so much joy. They are so wonderful and I am their guardian. I am responsible to keep them alive and safe and happy.’ Even my wife says they respond to me differently – they are really my cats.”

A Mission of Freedom

One of the post poignant examples of the role of pets in the recovery from trauma is the remarkable role of companion dogs in the NEADS Canines for Combat Vets Program. When we recognize that central to the emotional pain of an injured veteran is the shame and often self-blame of not being strong and independent, one can see the sense of agency and restored competency in teaming with a dog that has learned to bring a prosthesis, get the phone, find the wife, carry objects and support a wheel chair. The slogan of the vet and pet team is “Both highly trained – both on a mission of freedom.”

A Sense of Purpose

Addressing the invisible scars of war and combat, another program called “Paws for Purple Hearts” recruits veterans suffering from PTSD to train dogs for two years to become the companion dogs for vets in wheelchairs. The power of the program is the motivation to help another vet and the therapeutic impact of the emotional connection and investment needed to bond with and train the dog. Vets report learning to be more patient, calmer, less avoidant. The natural remedy in bonding with a pet is that is fosters re-connection with self – one of the most difficult tasks in the recovery of trauma.

On Going Recovery

Ron Capps is a retired veteran with a twenty-five year career in the Foreign Service and Army Reserve who suffered from PTSD and came very close to suicide. At some point he forced himself across the barriers of care to begin his recovery. As a free-lance writer and spokesman for veterans, he now lives impressively and courageously with the scars of war. Hearing him speak about recovery from trauma at the Roslyn Carter Symposium for Mental Health last week, I remembered that he mentioned his dog. When I asked about his pet, he told me:

My dog Harry helps me recover every day.”


Listen in to Mutual Rescue: The Benefits When People and Pets Adopt Each Other on Psych Up Live