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Issue: 60 - Dec 16, 2013
To Listen Without Judgment - the Greatest Gift
By: Dr. Sally J Foote DVM CABC-IAABC
Dr Sally Foote

Over the course of Veterans Day I listened to radio programs, read Facebook posts, and articles on the benefits of dogs for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  We posted a touching story of David Sharpe (veteran) and Cheyanne his rescue dog on our Face book page to support our veterans.  I have contacts with a local assistance dog/veteran’s group "This Able Veteran" based in Carbondale Illinois.  One of the members related to me the benefits of these dogs to the veterans, yet somehow listening to David Sharpe's story brought it all home for me.

As David tells his story, he relates how during an episode where he was punching walls Cheyanne sat and watched with a somewhat curious look.  He was stopped the punching and in calming down for her sake, told her all about what happened to him - all the horrible memories.  She just listened without judgment and as he put is “It was like a 10,000 pound weight was lifted off my chest.”

Another in the video veteran Bradley Fasnacht also speaks of how his dog Zapper lets him get his thoughts off his chest and listens without judging. As he puts it - he holds back on telling others the details because he wonders how they will judge him, and even telling the doctors can be difficult because he figures they have heard it all before. Hearing this directly from the veterans helped me to realize how these dogs are helping veterans in ways unique to being an animal.

Dogs are not the only animal that people bond with by telling them their troubles. Cats, horses, and many other animals all listen without judgment - they don't criticize, offer unsolicited advice, or interrupt. They keep it all confidential so one can tell them everything and know that it will not be shared. For some people talking to an animal can be the first step to sharing with family and friends.

Sharing our experiences is important for humans to grow emotionally but is not often easy. An animal may be one of the best therapy agents for a child or adult who has had difficulties. There are psychologists who may have fish tanks, birds, or even their own dog or cat to ease talking sessions.

While all animals have this ability to listen without judgment, not all are able to handle emotional outbursts and be a good therapy animal. For the animal, being around some of the emotional outbursts without threat to them, or an ability to get away is important. A young animal in the socialization period can be conditioned to not being afraid of the PTSD event. Proper selection and training of a therapy animal is important. This would also be true for any cat, horse, or bird who is being considered for PTSD work. How we feel and act has an effect on our animals.  From the veteran's interviews I could sense they appreciated this and saw how talking to the animal helped with the PTSD and then improved life for them in many ways.

Many of my clients have shared with me how helpful their pet was to listen to them without judgment. I think this is one of the greatest gift of pet ownership. Having a friend, a living being to greet you at the door is great, but the listening skills of animals are far better than many people. So I thank all of these animals and look to them as an example of what I should do when I listen. Maybe someday I will be as good as my dog and cat. I will certainly try.