Animals have the capacity to influence positive emotional responses; they can lift our mood, improve our health and make us happy. These may well be sweeping generalisations, but as Rowan and Beck (2008) explain: "there is solid evidence that animal contact has significant health benefits and that it positively influences transient physiological states, morale and feelings of self-worth".
As a columnist for Mental Health Today magazine (Animal Instincts), I always feel privileged when individuals entrust their personal experiences of human-animal companionship. I'm repeatedly humbled by the life-changing unions between humans and animals, and the bonds made through compassion and shared experiences. I'm constantly inspired by the way in which certain companion animals help bring new purpose, perspective and direction to people's lives.
Interspecies bonds are not hampered by language or confined by borders. It is an emotional connection which transcends difference. Haatchi & Little B: The Inspiring True Story of One Boy and His Dog, the international bestselling book by Wendy Holden, is evidence of this. For those unfamiliar with the uplifting biography, it is about an unlikely friendship between young Owen Howkins, known as Little B (Little Buddy) to his family, and a three-legged Anatolian shepherd called Haatchi.
This in itself is by no means unusual, but their circumstances and story is. Owen has a rare genetic condition called Schwartz-Jampel syndrome - this causes muscles to be permanently tensed. Haatchi was abandoned on a railway line, hit by a train, and despite losing blood, a leg, and tail somehow crawled to safety. Haatchi & Little B recounts their connection, the changing dynamics of the Howkins family, growing confidence and a new lease of life together. It is truly inspirational!
Life-changing canine companionship is the theme of Chris Kent's new book, What A Difference A Dog Makes. The 'Tail' of the K9 Project. Chris describes herself as 'an ordinary person who has managed to create something extraordinary' with a 'motley crew of mixed breed ex-shelter dogs' 'and some very special people'. The K9 Project, based in Cambridgeshire UK, values dogs for being themselves, and works alongside them to 'reach vulnerable, lonely, isolated children, teenagers and adults'.
Praising the book, Pen Farthing, the founder of Nowzad Dogs and winner of CNN Hero of the Year 2014, points out: 'To most people having a dog in their lives is like having another best friend with four legs, but to Chris and her team at the K9 project they realised the unique ability of dogs to be much more than just a companion'.
In the chapter called 'Giving Up Or Letting Go', Chris writes: 'Sitting patiently, placing their head on someone's lap, greeting people warmly and enthusiastically, saying hello to stranger ... Inspiring, motivating, giving feedback without judgement, love without strings'. What a difference a dog makes! Everyone in life needs to feel connected. In recognising this and helping so many vulnerable people experience this, Chris Kent is an extraordinary person, and the story of The K9 Project deserves far more attention.
All proceeds from What A Difference A Dog Makes go to The K9 Project - a not for profit organisation. Please share this article if a dog has made a difference to your life, and do get in touch if you would like to feature in future Animal Instincts articles.