“Going for a walk or cuddling with my dog is like a free therapy session”, is something I hear a lot from colleagues and friends. The sentiment behind calling other animals “therapists” is understandable. There have been countless days I’ve been thankful to have dogs motivating me to go for a walk or nuzzling their way into my arms on a bad day. I can’t deny the power that has to lift my mood immensely! Thankful, I can only hope to offer the same in return.
So what’s problematic about referring to them as my therapists then, even jokingly, if they make me feel better?
We know that words matter. As someone who researches animal labour and humane jobs specifically, I am hyper-aware of the terminology we use to discuss it. Aligning with prominent animal labour scholar Kendra Coulter (see especially 2016a; 2016b; 2017; 2020) in particular, I recognise that just as all humans work, so do all other animals. This, as Coulter’s work goes into more depth discussing, can take the form of, predominantly: voluntary, subsistence (eco-social), and mandatory work. Legal and other protections for workers as a whole are lacking, but perhaps especially for those of other species. Recognising them as workers is a first step in creating a foundation to argue for their worker’s rights.
So if we recognise all dogs as workers, what does that mean to label them, for example, a “therapist”, especially a “voluntary” one in the case of a companion dog? This naturally varies and there are cases where no harm is done to those individuals specifically – many offer their dogs a balanced work-life and the highest level of care. However, the label “therapist” creates expectations in those who hear it, especially repeatedly over time, which can lead to myriad ripple effects.
The 2020 pandemic offers a strong example. Even organisations such as HABRI (Human-Animal Behaviour Research Institute) claimed that acquiring an animal companion will improve psychological and emotional well-being. This has a real impact on the dogs themselves. They are expected to provide a service: in some cases, that consists of active therapy, therapeutic presence, emotional support, to name a few.
What happens when they are unable to fulfil this role due to, most often, their own needs not being even adequately tended to? Seeing as therapists often have their own therapists, are these dogs receiving support to cope with their human’s, at times, quite intense needs? Do they have a strong social life to offset the hours spent working? What do their working hours look like? Do they retire? Are they receiving an education to act as a “therapist” and able to step back from the job when it is too much? Is the dog acting as the only “therapist” for this individual or is a licensed human professional supporting, as well?
Being a therapist is mandated work and, in my opinion, not something that should be expected of anyone for free, especially without clear recognition, adequate preparation, or education for the job, in addition to compensation when and in whatever form appropriate for the individual offering the service. We might offer a friend a moment of support which can act therapeutic, but I do not call my friend a therapist as a result. I see my dogs much the same: a roommate, a friend, someone I share my life with and, regularly, we have moments where we get each other to feel better. Dogs, to stick with this example, are even more vulnerable, as they are unable to distance themselves on their own in most cases.
So, during the pandemic especially, we then have increasing numbers of dogs bought to work (it is work) as “therapists”, quite often resulting in abandonment in shelters. Even those who are not given away or sold, can develop significant “behavioural problems” which I rephrase as burnout, emotional exhaustion, and generally the result of inhumane work practices at the hands of individuals who do not recognise their dogs as working.
These things matter. Saying that living with a dog is like having a friend instead of a therapist, instantly shifts expectations significantly, even subconsciously. Friends (hopefully) improve your well-being, support you when you are feeling down, and have an open ear for when it is needed. But being a friend suggests reciprocity, a mutual benefitting from a relationship. Having a therapist, however, does not.
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Coulter K (2016a) Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Coulter K (2016b) Beyond human to humane: A multispecies analysis of care work, its repression, and its potential. Studies in Social Justice 10(2): 199–219. DOI: 10.26522/ssj.v10i2.1350.
Coulter K (2017) Humane Jobs A Political Economic Vision for Interspecies Solidarity and Human-Animal Wellbeing. Politics and Animals 3: 31–41. Available at: www.politicsandanimals.org.
Coulter K (2020) Toward Humane Jobs and Work-Lives for Animals. In: Blattner CE, Coulter K, and Kymlicka W (eds) Animal Labour: A New Frontier of Interspecies Justice? Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, pp. 29–48.