There was a death in my family just as the year was turning and it was an emotional time on every level, but through all the stress and grief, one member of our clan kept her composure.
Yuna is a 4-year-old American bulldog/boxer blend who joined the family by surprise when my son returned home after some years of college and life in West Virginia. She is a bundle of energy, curiosity and muscle. Fortunately, she’s also a devoted friend to just about everyone except squirrels and the occasional dog walker who, for reasons known only to her, poses an existential threat to our home requiring a few loud minutes of cautionary barking.
“Grandpa,” as we called him — though he was my father-in-law — spent the last two years in the final stages of life, still fit for an old guy, but with only that kaleidoscopic memory and sporadic communication that is left when the brain suffers from strokes and dementia.
As his path (often unsettling) through the healthcare system progressed into residential settings, we were pleased to learn that many of these were dog-welcoming environments. So, whenever possible, my son and Yuna would visit to share meals or just hang out and watch TV while Grandpa snoozed.
This pattern continued into the hospice facility at Concord Hospital, where Yuna would take her post on her own bed or sometimes climb in next to Grandpa. He didn’t seem to mind. She was easily on her very best behavior, self-tuning her energy level to fit the situation and abandoning her usual tactics of begging and angling when human food was being consumed (mere inches away!).
Although Grandpa and Grandma had not kept dogs for decades, the bedside bonding was strong and the pairing seemed right. Grandpa had lived his life boldly, first as a warrior — a West Point graduate who served two tours of duty in Vietnam — then as an athlete, hunter and outdoorsman. Adventure was in his blood and it coursed through the heart of Yuna. It seemed clear she knew why she was there: to guard, to comfort, to witness the last days of this fellow runner, this kindred spirit.
While working on this issue, with its focus on the animals who “rescue” us from toil and loneliness or bring comfort in our human afflictions, I’ve had time to reflect on the nature of these bonds. While just about any furry, feathery or even scaly animal can bring comfort and connection to a human in need, there does seem to be a more essential bond between humans and dogs (cat lovers, sharpen your pencils and tell me I’m wrong).
One other species that, while much less house-friendly, seems to have a similar power to draw us out of ourselves into a partnership with the natural world is the horse.
This makes sense. Both dogs and horses have been more than companions through the course of human history, serving in wilderness, wars and danger zones; shaping civilization and in many ways evolving alongside us as we grope towards a better world. So, even if you don’t care for dogs or horses, their ancestors and yours relied on one another in matters of life and death. Like the odd, distant relatives you only see at funerals, they are your kin.
This perhaps explains the promise of a new animal therapy program: the Human-Horse Initiative (see the story here). It’s fostered by Teresa Paradis from Live and Let Live Farm and former Navy SEAL, now-psychotherapist Dave Ferruolo. They plan to pair up abused and neglected horses with military veterans, often suffering from PTSD and feeling similarly discarded by the country they served. They hope to prove that the truest kindred spirit is one who stands watch in both good times and bad.