Dogs Bring Wags and Emotional Riches to an Ailing Village

By Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It never crossed my mind. But now I can’t stop thinking about it.

Last week, I was invited to attend the third annual “Better With Pets Summit” in Brooklyn, NY, hosted by Purina.

This event brings the brightest minds in pet science and culture together to showcase how the bond between pets and people is improving every day through research, technology and innovation.

This year, the focus was on emotional wellness for pets and their people. Specifically, how can we improve the emotional wellness of our pets while they, in turn, enhance our emotional health?

Which brings me back to the thing that never crossed my mind before—that caring for animals isn’t just good for us as individuals, but that animals can be the cornerstone of a community’s health and prosperity.

Animals are, in many cases, essential to the emotional and economic wellness of small or large groups of people. I don’t think I’d ever considered that concept before, but it seems so obvious now.

While the Summit featured a variety of sessions including millennials and cats, stress and our pets, and raising pets and kids, the morning keynote summed up the components of the entire day. Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, professor of veterinary nutrition and senior researcher with Nestle Purina, shared a powerful story about how dogs have healed a small village in rural Alaska.

Dr. Arleigh Reynolds tells the story of Huslia, Alaska

Dr. Arleigh Reynolds tells the story of Huslia, Alaska.

Huslia, Alaska is just north of the Yukon River. Many decades ago, the village depended on sled dogs for transportation, food, warmth and protection. The dogs gave people purpose. But in the 1960’s and 70’s, dogs began to disappear from the village due to the emergence of snowmobiles, which eliminated the need to have dogs for transportation.

Subsequently, children stopped being raised with sled dogs in their life.

It wasn’t long before the youth in the village began to lose sight of what was meaningful, what made their village and culture special. Kids were dropping out of school. Teen depression and suicide were on the rise. Jobs were scarce.

It wasn’t until champion sled dog racer George Attla returned to his village after being away for 10 years, that it became clear that dogs were the missing link to the health and prosperity of this community.

Attla started a youth sled dog program in 2012 to teach the kids how dogs played a role in their culture. Kids learned how to harness and train dogs, how to build kennels with their newfound construction skills. They learned to fish for salmon to feed the dogs.

In just four months, the village began to transform.

Soon, the kids understood that everyone had an important role in caring for the dogs. Graduation rates began to rise and many kids went off to college. Teen depression and suicides dropped.

The dogs were once again the center of life in Huslia, Alaska. And the people were once again aware of and proud of their heritage.

Here’s a great video that tells this uplifting story.

Since the Summit, I’ve been thinking of the different ways that animals build strength and purpose among neighborhoods, communities and cultures.

In modern times, we rely less on animals for anything that machines or technology can provide. But, they’re still essential in many communities for emotional wellness and pride among people.

Some obvious examples are farming, cattle and fishing communities. Another example is the bond that animal shelters and rescues often create in a community. The homeless pets in their care bring residents, community leaders and businesses together for a common cause—saving lives and finding forever homes for abandoned pets.

Petplan “Paws it Forward”

Two days after my Better With Pets Summit experience, I witnessed just such an example.

As a proud ambassador for Petplan – a pet insurance leader that has reimbursed over $150 million to policyholders since 2006 – I was invited to attend the ribbon cutting for their Paws Foster Cat Pad at their headquarters in Newton, PA.

Named one of America’s Most Promising Companies (three years running) by Forbes magazine, Petplan dedicates time, space and commitment to their local shelter, PAWS of Philadelphia, to help save the lives of homeless kittens and cats. So when it came time to expand, they made sure that their own pet community was not forgotten in the plans.

Inside one of the company’s new meeting rooms, foster kittens from PAWS now reside—allowing for more kittens and cats to be saved, treated and loved until they’re ready for adoption. A true win-win-win for the company, the community and most of all, the critters!

PAWS foster kitten, Athena, enjoys the toys in her new digs at Petplan!

PAWS foster kitten, Athena, enjoys the toys in her new digs at Petplan!

Check out these photos of Petplan’s pet-tastic (and life saving) headquarters!

This is a slide for people (not pets) in the dog park at Petplan.

This is a slide for people (not pets) in the dog park at Petplan. Yes, I slid down it!

Employees at Petplan can take pet and snack breaks while playing with the foster kittens in this cool Drool cafe!

Employees at Petplan can take pet and snack breaks while playing with the foster kittens in this cool Drool cafe!

Petplan co-founders Natasha and Chris Ashton get a kitten fix before cutting the ribbon for the new PAWS foster room.

Petplan co-founders Natasha and Chris Ashton get a kitten fix before cutting the ribbon for the new PAWS foster room.

What examples do you see in your own community where animals are the glue that bonds a group of people?