The human-to-animal connection is a wonderful and often spiritual phenomenon. Most of us have experienced the genuine love that an animal can provide but how many of us have been saved by an animal? The short film, “A Reason to Change,” tells the poignant story of Pali, a woman who finds purpose and self-healing in rescuing dogs. The film is part of TakeCare, a national initiative that offers tools to help people improve their own health and well-being through messages embedded in inspirational short films. While her story is unique in many ways, what Pali discovers through her relationships with the dogs in her life is not. As an advisor on the film and an animal-human health expert, I’ve had the joy of seeing this phenomenon time and time again: By taking care of an animal, people often learn to take care of themselves.
A path toward healing
In Pali’s case, she had deep emotional and physical scars that stemmed from a difficult childhood. “I don’t remember ever being fed, or being dressed or put to bed,” she recalls in the film. She was only 10 when her mother died, and by 12 she was on her own. She experienced years of addiction, homelessness, and violence. After befriending stray dogs by the train tracks, Pali began to visit and then volunteer at a local animal shelter. “When I was with these animals, it was a time when I felt all the stress of the world melt away.”
The calm that Pali experienced with the animals at the shelter has, in fact, been studied. Research shows that being in the presence of a dog can lower stress hormones, like cortisol, and boost levels of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” Volunteering, as Pali was doing, has also been shown to lower blood pressure and decrease stress.
One day when Pali was visiting the shelter, she met a dog who had been there for a while and was likely to be put down soon. “He was looking into my eyes, and I knew that he was asking me to be there for him.” She adopted him and named him Lead Belly. He changed her life. She finally “had a reason and a motivation to change.” To take care of him, she had to take care of herself. She went into a program for her addiction and began to build a more stable, healthy life for both of them. She went on to start a non-profit organization in San Francisco that rescues dogs and places them in homes. “There was a spark for me, and I felt like I had purpose. I am here to help these animals. I was made for this.”
Animals have a way of mirroring our feelings and emotions – even when we haven’t connected to these feelings within ourselves. When Pali saw fear in Lead Belly, it helped her recognize it in herself. When she made the decision to take care of him – to make him feel safe and loved – it helped her face her own emotional scars. Only then was she able to take steps to heal and care for herself too.
The many benefits in connection with animals
For Pali, caring for animals has offered incredible physical and emotional health benefits. And animals can do that for any of us. They are very loyal, offer unconditional love, and positive regard – powerful sentiments that are not always provided in our human relationships. That is why relationships with animals can be so beneficial to our health and well-being.
Even if you can’t adopt a companion animal for any number of reasons, there are many ways to make them a part of your life. You may have an older neighbor or family member who has trouble getting outside to walk their dog. You may be able to volunteer at a shelter, or find work as a dog walker or cat sitter.
If animals aren’t up your alley, caring for other living things can offer some of the same rewards. For many people, gardening is relaxing and fulfilling – perhaps because you’re helping to keep something alive or because you’re more present and thoughtful when you’re gardening than at other times. Wherever you decide to focus your love will be powerful.
Getting what you give
If you’re attentive and loving, being with an animal can be an amazingly healing and fulfilling experience. Pali puts it beautifully when she says, “It was a time when I felt my soul glow and be really quiet and warm.” When you give animals your time and energy, you will likely get as much from them as they get from you. For Pali this was certainly the case. She reflects, “I know I was there to save [Lead Belly’s] life, but in reality, he saved mine.”
Carlyn Montes De Oca, M.T.O.M., Dipl. O.M., served as advisor on the film, “A Reason to Change,” as a part of The Healthy US Collaborative’s TakeCare initiative. She is an animal-human health expert, blogger, speaker, and the author of the award-winning book, Dog as My Doctor, Cat as My Nurse. She has appeared on CBS, ABC, The San Francisco Chronicle, and gave the TEDx talk: The Life-Changing Power of theAnimal-Human Health Connection. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband and rescue dog, Grace.