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Dogs have been used in airports to help passengers chill and in hospitals to calm patients. Now athletes are using K9s to up their mental game. Time to get in on the puppy love.
At the 2016 Swimming Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., tensions were high. Swimmers from all over the country had waited for this moment since they were little kids, and yet most of them would end their Olympic dreams there in Omaha, not in Rio. With the stakes looming so large, organizers decided to do something a bit unorthodox: They invited about 30 pet therapy dogs to the trials in an effort to relieve the anxious swimmers.
“Therapy animals don’t know someone is in a ‘winner take all’ race, so in that moment they wouldn’t put the same amount of pressure on a competition that another person might,” says Lani Chin, Psy.D., who has been using canine-assisted therapy with her patients since she opened her Los Angeles-based psychology practice in 2012. “They have a way of being present that can benefit most people.” Especially athletes in the throes of pre-competition stress.
“Most people don’t really appreciate the level of intensity and the level of stress that athletes undergo pre-performance,” says San Luis Obispo-based mental performance specialist Jeff Troesch. “Anything that can help them break through that—as long as it doesn’t disrupt their routine in a negative sense—is good.” Troesch has worked with both MLB and NBA teams and is a huge proponent of making a routine and sticking to it—something he calls creating a consistent internal environment. Adding a pet to that environment is a good thing, he says; they provide unconditional support, regardless of the stakes involved. Just make sure they’re in your pre-performance plan.
The physiological benefits dogs offer to strung-out athletes are quantifiably real, Chin says. “Many people are able to relax, showing a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, when an animal is present.” A 2005 American Heart Association study found that patients saw a 24 percent drop in anxiety scores after only 12 minutes with a volunteer-dog team.
Not a dog lover? No problem. “There has been ample research that therapy animals can range from dogs to birds, pigs or even llamas,” says Chin. “It just depends on which animal the person feels comfortable with.” Also, everyone’s experience with an animal may vary. “Some may benefit from petting or interacting with a therapy animal,” says Chin, “whereas someone else may enjoy just being close to an animal.”
Pets and their sporting benefits aren’t limited to the moments before big competitions; they can play a huge role in training, too, particularly for multisport athletes who have notoriously tight tunnel vision. “For a triathlete, the days are long, the training sessions are grueling, often triathletes are training on their own,” says Troesch. “It can be pretty arduous. Having a pet nearby or something to check in with would help with that. Like a touchstone or something to get away from the grind.”
Magali Tisseyre knows that well. In her seven-year career as a pro, she has won no fewer than 16 70.3 events, and her dachshund, Alice, was by her side for through all of her training—and still is. “Whenever I can, I take her to a workout,” says Tisseyre. “I have her little travel bag that I put her in. Sometimes she stays on the deck and watches me swim if the pool allows it.”
For Tisseyre, Alice is a wonderful little motivator. “Over the Christmas holiday, I was having a tough time with motivation, and I brought her downstairs, set her down beside the trainer, and just went to work,” says Tisseyre over the phone, as Alice yips in the background. “It was like this presence that was there with me, like a witness. She was there holding me accountable.”