Paws for Thought

I got married in April, 1982 during the time of the last recession in Ireland – not nearly as catastrophic as the present one.  I was then employed as a Senior Clinical Psychologist by the Midwestern Health Board and located in Our Lady’s Psychiatric Hospital, Ennis, Co. Clare. I had also established several community psychological clinics throughout the county for individuals, couples and children who were experiencing problems in living.  My wife Helen was working in Cork and we had rented a house in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare and on weekends either she would commute to Ennis or to Cork.  We eventually bought an old farm house in East Cork but continued the commuting arrangements for another eight years until I returned to Cork in 1990 to establish a private practice and design, direct and lecture on courses for University College Cork.   Not surprisingly, during those eight years Helen experienced loneliness and some anxiety about living on her own four nights a week in a remote part of East Cork.  When I spotted an advert on The Clare Champion offering a border collie pup for sale I decided on the following Friday evening to head into the wilds of Clare to choose a puppy and surprise Helen when I got to Cork later that evening.  I chose a black and white male pup and he had the plump softness of a pound of butter when I picked him up and carried him to my car.  I placed him on the front seat next to me, but he was obviously feeling insecure, and he quickly drifted onto my lap and secured himself there for the entire two and a half hour journey.  Unfortunately, on my way through Knocklong, Co. Tipperary I was stopped by a local garda.  This was a time when wearing a seat belt was not mandatory but highly recommended.  After he checked the tax and insurance discs he came to my side of the car and when I rolled down the window he commented on the fact that I was not wearing a seat belt.  He had not seen the pup, but when I pointed to it fast asleep on my lap, his stern facial expression dissolved into softness and with an attempt to show firmness he gruffly said: “Go on so and drive carefully”.

How is it that pups and kittens and most young animals touch our hearts so much?  The saying “A dog is a man’s best friend” certainly captures that tender responsiveness, but, there is a poignancy in that saying, because one would hope that a person’s best friends are himself and a fellow human being.  Do not take me up wrongly here – I loved my dog – we called him Shep (the name of the organisation Helen then worked for – Social and Health Education Programme).

However, I have learned that my best friend is myself and my second best friend has been Helen and, thankfully, I have established several other good friendships.  More than anything else friendship is what maintains a marriage and a relationship and when it is absent it is usually due to the absence of an inner connection with self.

Back to the doggie story.  Helen was besotted with Shep and he became her watchdog when I was away but, intelligently, ceded the role to me when I returned home at weekends.  Curiously, too, when I would take Shep with me on trips in the car – and he grew to be a big dog – invariably he would find a way to put his head on my lap.  Clearly, he never forgot the security he had found there during those first hours of separation from his mother and fellows pups.  When Helen commuted to Clare he would sit up like a human being on the front seat – a strange sight for sore eyes of a dog and a woman in a quirky green and white safari Citroen 2CV as they motored through the streets of Tipperary, Limerick, Ennis and all the way to Ballyvaughan.

On a number of occasions I brought Shep into the Psychiatric Hospital – mind you, not for treatment – but as a treat for those individuals who were long-term residents of the hospital.  The effect the dog’s presence had was mesmerising – grim faces being transformed into grins, smiles and laughter.  Somehow Shep’s presence was no threat for them and they wallowed in his unconditional acceptance of them.  For weeks after these long-term residents would continually ask about Shep and look forward to his next visit.  I attempted to persuade the hospital administrators to get some dogs for the hospital, but, sadly to no avail.  Of course, this phenomenon of the therapeutic effects that a friendly dog can have is well documented.  People who are isolated and lonely can benefit radically with the ownership of a dog.  Individuals who have had heart attacks and heart operations are often advised to get a dog to lift their spirits and lift their fitness with daily walks with the dog.

Shep lived over twelve years but he also sired nine pups with his partner Jessie, a beautiful rough collie.  We kept one of the pups – the runt of the litter – who also turned out to have a very sweet nature.  Twenty-six years after that visit to the farm in Clare that pup called Missy died at the ripe old age of sixteen years of age.  We have not yet replaced their presence but we are sorely tempted.

Dr. Tony Humphreys, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Author, National and International Speaker.