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micro skills

This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2017 winners of the award at Register your company for 2018 at

Do you have one relationship whose every interaction is non-judgemental and positive, where when you are struggling with your thoughts you can engage with this person and become more calm, clear and optimistic?

Having a trusted human who takes on this role for you is a gift. Those of us who are fortunate to have a relationship like this know firsthand its benefits on our mental health. However, if you're struggling to find this one person in your life, one alternative is a pet.

Pet therapy has been found to positively impact a person's mental health by creating positive emotions, decreasing feelings of isolation, and encouraging communication.

Being the proud owner of two Valley Bulldogs, Sophia and Dozer, whom I love dearly and enjoy spending as much time as I can with, I've noticed over the years how they help me process thoughts I'm struggling with. This microskill introduces a concept I refer to as pet talk.

Pet talk is, in essence, a mindfulness activity facilitated by a trusted pet. The pet can be yours, a friend's or in the care of an animal shelter or rescue facility, such as the SPCA. The only requirement for this to work is for both you and the animal to feel safe. Pet talk can be done sitting, walking, holding or patting. As long as both you and the pet are comfortable and relaxed, this process can be done with intention.


To begin pet talk requires some preparation. Be aware that you have some thinking you want to process (such as a problem you need to deal with or a decision you need to make) and then decide that you want to focus on this with your pet in a quiet place where both of you are calm. A pet facilitates creating a relaxing environment that's non-judgemental, patient and attentive to your every word and thought.


Only you can create the state and intentions to engage in pet talk. You need to suspend your own judgement and trust the process for it to work. The goal is to bring your focus to the now and make a commitment to deal with your thoughts that you believe require attention and some action. There's no pass or fail when it comes to pet talk; it's a process that promotes calm and creativity. The end goal is to move past thoughts that you may be struggling with so you can decide to act. The decision may be a resolution to get a second opinion or to seek out support.


One benefit of pet talk is supported by mindfulness and metacognition (our internal thoughts and beliefs). Research shows that being able to focus on our thoughts without judgement and allow ourselves to be open to these thoughts and feelings can help remove tensions about the situation we're processing to the point that we can perceive it in a different way. This can help reframe it and create new clarity and a path to a healthy resolution.

Pet talk in action:

1. Preparation – Get to a safe spot with your pet and begin by engaging them and enjoying the interaction. Pets' interactions can help us quickly relax our mental state so we can get our minds turned off and bring us to the current moment. Take five minutes to just enjoy being with your pet and relax. I find that I relax and breathe more slowly when I'm sitting and patting one of my pets.

2. Seek permission – A pure two-way relationship never takes one another for granted. When I'm sitting with Dozer or Sophia and want to move our time to pet talk, I begin by asking if they'd be okay to help me out. I typically get a wagging tail and a few licks. I then internally or externally ask for permission to share a few things I'd like their help processing. I've never gotten a no; they're always ready to work with me.

3. Focus on active thought – Take the thoughts you're looking to process and notice the feelings attached to them. If any of your thoughts is negative or judgemental about yourself or others, ask yourself why you're feeling this way and how it's helping. Ask yourself if you believe your pet agrees with your thoughts. The point is to shift your thinking from negative to neutral or positive so you can be more objective.

4. Consider your pet's wisdom – My pets never agree with my negative thinking about myself or others, or that I'm not capable of solving my problems or making good decisions. Imagine what wisdom your pet would suggest to help you reframe your thoughts and come up with a solution. What questions would they ask you; what advice would they give; what would they like you to think and feel at the end of your talk?

Pet talk typically takes me 20 to 30 minutes. I find that slowing down, following the above process and answering the questions through my pet's belief system helps me facilitate creativity without judgement to gain new perspectives.

Most pet owners understand the power of human-pet relationships. They're special and can be a great source of support to our emotional well-being.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto and creator of an online Pathway to Coping course offered through the University of New Brunswick.

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