What Do Teenagers Need? Ask the Family Dog

Ms. Greathouse has also observed something many pet owners report: animals recognize when there’s a heightened emotional need. Sunshine, who always wears a leash when roaming the school hallways, “sometimes walks past 15 kids, and then makes a decision to go up to a particular student.”

Dr. Downes likewise confirms that animals are especially attuned to body language in people and that “you are likely to get attention from a dog if you are emotionally upset, or just not yourself.” While the animal may simply be curious about why we seem different, Dr. Downes notes that it’s easy for humans, and perhaps teenagers in particular, to read its interest as a welcome source of sincere concern.

For teenagers who struggle with emotional difficulties, animals are sometimes formally recruited into a therapeutic role. In my practice, I have witnessed the important, if less designed, support that animals sometimes provide to adolescents facing ongoing challenges. For instance, one patient of mine grew up in a family that was materially comfortable, yet relationally impoverished. Cleareyed about her situation, yet still trapped within it, she developed a powerful bond with her cat. She described the cat as the only member of the family she could count on — always available, always ready to listen, always keeping her secrets. It was clear to me that the young woman’s cat helpfully buffered the privations of her upbringing.

While that particular teenager relied on her relationship with her cat to move past a painful present situation, animals can also support young people by grounding them in the moment.

Dr. Downes, who is also the mother of two teenagers, appreciates that animals can help young people to focus on the now, “which is not what teenagers usually get to do. They are always having to think about the futures, having to worry that everything they do might hold implications down the line.”

Sadie, the teenager who carried her aging dog outside, agreed. “We’re hardly ever present,” she said. “We’re always wishing we had done better on that Spanish test last week.”

Her younger dog, a poodle named Mikey, is “so happy when he’s just looking at the wind and letting it hit his face, just smelling the smells of right now. He’s not thinking about what he’s going to be doing later, which is something my dogs have taught me a lot about.”