For the Love!

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened - Anatole France

Several months ago, I lost my friend. Winter became sick one night and died the next day. I was devastated. I couldn't stop crying and I felt so empty inside I thought I might get sick and die. When I got up in the middle of the night, I didn't have him dancing at my feet. When I got out of the shower, he wasn't there licking water off my leg. When I got home from work, he no longer popped his head out from underneath the couch looking up at me eyes bright asking to play. My house felt as empty as my heart. Winter was my ferret.

As the contest chair for the Public Safety Writer's Association (PSWA), I was privileged to read a new, unpublished manuscript named King 7. It outlined Officer Darren Maurer's relationship with his K-9 Rocky. His story of joy and loss mixed with my own and hundreds of others tells how pets are not only something we keep around. They are our best friends, companions and loves. Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D. describes several "givens" of police work in I Love a Cop. These include shift work, long hours, crisis-driven, unpredictable work, and the physical nature of the work. Looking at these, along with the unconditional love provided, shows how pet ownership has a number of benefits to police families.

Shift Work and Long Hours

An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language - Martin Buber

Shift work and long hours can wreck havoc on the strongest relationships and most stable home environment. Kirschman describes graveyard shift as isolating and mentions how swing shift can make an officer feel more like "a boarder who pays the bills". Long hours prevent building and maintaining relationships and reduce opportunities to exercise. A spouse who is home alone in an empty house at night can face feelings of isolation and fear. Having a pet can help alleviate some of the stress of this given. A pet can be a friend and protector for your spouse. One of the examples Kirschman gives of an officer and his family adapting to police work states the officer comes home from the swing shift and takes their dog for a walk. This helps him feel like a part of the family and probably is an enjoyable activity for both as they bond.

These "givens" also lead to isolation. Elizabeth Scott, M.S. states in her article, "Pets can help with social supports." When a person takes their dog for a walk, they are more approachable. Even during off hours, a visit to a dog park can encourage socialization. Owning a more exotic pet, such as a ferret, encourages this as well. I've been involved in the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue since I moved back to Oregon. The annual Ferret Agility Trials lets me talk to other ferret lovers and gets me outside my normal social circle.

Crisis-Driven, Unpredictable Work

There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face - Ben Williams

As Kirschman states, the nature of police work is crisis-driven and therefore unpredictable. This in turn creates a stressful environment for an officer. Most officers exist in a heightened state of awareness described as hypervigilance. Although this can save an officer's life, it leads to a number of mental and physical issues. Ways to reduce stress are extremely important to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for both an officer and his or her family. Scott explains, "For those who love animals, it's virtually impossible to stay in a bad mood when a pair of loving puppy eyes meets yours, or when a super-soft cat rubs up against your hand." Research supports how pet ownership enhances mood and can reduce stress.

Physical Nature of Work

A cat is a puzzle for which there is no solution - Hazel Nicholson

Police work can be physically demanding. Many call it a young man's occupation because of the rigorous demands on a person's body. Keeping physically active is key to maintaining health. In her article, "The Health Benefits of Pets," Ursula Cunningham quotes the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) President Link Wellborn, "Pets are... more than just a member of the family - they are central to a healthy lifestyle." Owning a pet not only encourages an owner to get more exercise and participate in outdoor activities, but research shows it can help lower blood pressure. An AAHA survey shows 31% of respondents feel their physical fitness has improved due to exercising with their companion animal. Getting out and exercising with your family and your pet can increase quality time with two-legged loved ones as well. Playing Frisbee can be a great time for you and your kids. I found participating in social events, like walking ferrets (or being walked by ferrets) during the Ferret Agility Trials, can also increase heart rate providing aerobic benefits.

Unconditional Love

A dog is the only thing on earth that will love you more than you love yourself - Josh Billings

Unconditional love is definitely not a "given" of police work. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Pressure flows from external and internal sources. Coming home to a pet eases the negativity that comes with the territory of being a police officer. Scott explains, "Pets can be there for you in ways that people can't. They offer love and companionship, and can also enjoy comfortable silences, keep secrets and are excellent snugglers." Animals don't care about their owner's mood or physical capabilities. They just love. In my experience, I've seen a jaded, cynical police officer walk into their home, lay his eyes on his dog, and just melt. Our intense connection to our pets, often described as the Human-Animal Bond, can also explain the extreme emotion we feel when we lose a furry friend.

Pet ownership holds a number of benefits for police families, including lowering stress, increasing bonding and improving physical health. The negative side of the "givens" of police work can be decreased. Whether your preference is a cat, a dog, a horse, a snake, or a ferret, the unconditional love provided by pets, makes life happier and healthier. For everyone who loves or has loved a pet, this information probably doesn't come as a surprise. If you can't own a pet, you can always volunteer at a shelter. As for filling my emptiness, I now have Marilyn and Gambit, two fat, furry bundles wrecking havoc in my home and my heart.