When I am hurting badly, because I have Crohn’s disease which causes inflammation and severe pain in the intestines, my service dog will come to help me. She’ll press against the place that hurts and the pressure and heat of her body help make the pain go away. More than that, her presence, especially but not only if I stroke her soft fur, causes chemical changes in my body that are nature’s way of reducing pain.
I used to think this was a charitable act on the part of my service dogs, that helping me was the job they did, that they worried when I was hurting, that they felt relieved and happy when I began to feel better. And this is true. But what I didn’t know in the beginning, not until Flash, my second service dog had been helping me for quite some time, was that the dog was also getting all those good chemical changes, that he, too, was feeling the wondrous high of oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin. Tit for tat. The good stuff flows both ways.
But there’s more. You know there’s always more, right? At some time after a dog I rescued from the ASPCA had figured out that I was often in pain and that, miraculously, he could help chase the pain away, we were away together on book tour for my second mystery, The Dog Who Knew Too Much. Book tour, the thing all authors hope for, is very stressful, particularly if you, like me, are painfully shy. So it was a wonder to me that in all those days, in all those bookstores, with all those (terrific) strangers I met and talked to, with eating whatever on the fly, with traveling from city to city when flying with a service dog meant getting yelled at before and after boarding a plane, I never got sick. And in the middle of it all, I discovered why. Instead of worrying about meeting strangers and hoping book sales would make my publisher happy and getting the wrinkles out of my clothes when my clothes came out of my suitcase yet again and, yikes, going on TV with my dog, Dexter, in Phoenix and then rushing to make my flight to Houston, I worried only about Dexter. I would get up at dawn and take him for an hour long walk, buy him bottled water so as not to upset his stomach, beg cottage cheese from room service to top off his kibble, brush him, talk to him, cuddle with him and make sure he was comfortable and happy for all the days I was away. Thinking about him and not about me helped save the day.
Having a dog is a lot of work, no doubt about it. But the fascinating discovery I made on book tour was that everything I did for him not only helped him, it helped me as well. Time spent not worrying about all the ifs in your own life is time well spent. Over and above the warmth, the laughter, the affection, the protection, the excuse to exercise, the incredible company and devotion we get from our dogs, they are a reason to reach beyond ourselves, to think about other things, to care about and take care of someone else. Isn’t it lucky that it turns out that all the time we spend caring for them is good for us as well. Tit for tat. Everything should work out so well.