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By: Pauline Ho

Valentine’s Day has always been a bone of contention for me.  The mass commercialization of love makes me cynical.  Why not celebrate it everyday rather than as a token one day a year?  The one-day prices are inflated, and people are either pressured into romance or left feeling alone and excluded.

Having said that, I find myself looking for a special gift for the two I love the most in this world, Toro, the French bulldog, and Mittens, the cat.

How did this happen?  When did this happen?  When did my two animals become the loves of my life to the point that I’m buying into Valentine’s Day?

Recently, I went to a community event where a new Syrian refugee told me he wasn’t sure what to make of Canada.  “It’s a country that puts women and children first, then pets and then men,” he said.  I had to chuckle as the thought passed through my mind that I’m more likely to kick my partner out of my bed than I would Toro.

Reflecting on this fact, I realize I’m not the only one.  Lately, I’ve been to more doggie birthday parties than I have to human ones.

As I pondered this pet love, my best friend put his dog of 14 years to sleep due to old age and quality of life issues.  Two weeks after her passing, he was still sleeping on the floor and cuddling her fleece coat since he couldn’t get past the grief of not having her in his life.

As concerned as I am about him, I recognize this is a healthy grieving process since she was his furry child, his emotional support and the one living being that was always there for him unconditionally and without dysfunction, much like Toro and Mittens are there for me.

I have more friends with furry children than I do with human children these days.  My friend, Cory even goes so far as to call his brother’s golden retriever his “sister-in-law”.

Is this just with my group of friends or is it a more wide-spread modern day phenomenon?

Pets have been around since ancient times. Historically, they have been seen as loyal companions or working animals but not as replacements for traditional human relationships as seems to be happening around me.

Where better to ask about this phenomenon than at my local pet boutique, The Dog Market in the Beach neighbourhood of Toronto.  The Beach is a doggie heaven.  Within a 12 block stretch, there are four pet stores and the Dog Market is the only locally owned, high-end specialty store.

In asking the staff if they could think of some pet owners who have deep, over-the- top love for their animals, all of them pointed to a framed, professionally taken picture of a gorgeous, three- year old English bulldog named Stanley.

Stanley has been across Canada with his human parents, Jeff and Vanessa Train, from coast to coast, north to south in an RV.  Apparently, no one loves their furry child more than the Trains.

As I entered their lovely house, Jeff, who is a retired member of the Canadian Armed Forces, greeted me warmly. He grew up with dogs but was unable to have one as an adult due to working overseas.  The house has been renovated for Stan with a new dog friendly deck for sunbathing and his own bedroom with a flat screen TV larger than the one I have at home.

When I asked about his great love for Stan, Jeff spoke openly about being a soldier with PTSD and how Stan knows when he is not well and lays next to him.  He spends 24/7 with him.

“Dogs pick up people’s emotions and when I’m not feeling well, the dog will rest his head on me or find ways to show his support,” Jeff told me.

What surprised me even more about Stan was his therapeutic connection to Vanessa.

The couple met nearly 10 years ago when Jeff worked in the Philippines.  She was a dynamic woman with a flourishing career and many adventurous interests, including skydiving. They fell in love and married.  When Jeff’s father, who was also in the Philippines, needed live-in support, the three of them left their comfortable life for Toronto.

Vanessa had a massive fear of dogs but when Jeff brought Stan home, he was small enough for Vanessa to make friends with him and overcome her fear.  Today, he is her sense of safety when Jeff is away.

Settling in the Beach area of Toronto has not been easy for Vanessa. Leaving her family and community behind, she now finds herself often feeling isolated and discriminated against. Stan has been her constant emotional support.

Jeff and Vanessa recognize the special healing that Stan does for them, which is why their lives revolve him.  Weekend road trips work to secure the bond and provide a routine that gets them out of the house and engaged in social activities.  Stan isn’t just their furry child, he is their emotional connection on many levels.

Leaving their home, I couldn’t help but think about the emotional, therapeutic role dogs have played in my life.  When my mental health was at it’s worst, it was fostering dogs that saved my life.  They were able to connect me to life beyond my traumas.

My personal relationships with people have their highs and lows but my furry kids have always been a constant, which is why Toro can revenge pee on the bed when he is upset with me and I will huff and puff but still cuddle him every night to sleep well.