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Dogs as Therapists: The Case of Actor Mickey Rourke

Rourke says, "That dog saved my life."

Mickey Rourke won the 2009 Golden Globe Award for best actor for his performance in Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler." When actors give acceptance speeches for such awards it is quite common for them to thank God and their family for the win, but Mickey Rourke thanked his dogs. If it had not been for the therapeutic effects of his relationship with his dogs, Mickey Rourke might not have been alive to accept this award.

In the film, "The Wrestler," Rourke plays the part of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler who is now well past his prime, holding on to the remains of a once-famous career, and presented with the opportunity for a comeback. These are circumstances that run more than little parallel to the actor's own life story.

Rourke seemed destined to be a superstar in the 1980's. Most critics agreed that his performances in "Diner" (1982), "Rumble Fish" (1983) "9 ½ Weeks" (1986), and "Angel Heart" (1987) seemed to contain signs that the world was witnessing the appearance of another James Dean or even Robert De Niro.

Unfortunately Rourke's acting career eventually became overshadowed by his personal life and some seemingly eccentric career decisions. Directors such as Alan Parker found it difficult to work with him. Parker stated that "working with Mickey is a nightmare. He is very dangerous on the set because you never know what he is going to do". In addition Rourke began to show the effects of substance abuse. He associated with motorcycle gang members and was involved in several aggressive instances including a charge of spousal abuse (later dropped). Ultimately he virtually disappeared from the cinematic world.

Rourke's career was revived when director Robert Rodriguez cast him in the role of a sinister hit man in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (2003). Two years later Rodriguez again called upon him, this time to play Marv, one of the antiheroes from writer-artist Frank Miller's crime noir comic book series "Sin City" (2005). In that film Rourke delivered a unforgettable performance, alternately chilling and amusing, that reminded any doubters that he was still a force to be reckoned with. However to get to this stage in his life Rourke required the intervention of a dog.

The possibility that dogs can produce major psychological and health benefits for their human companions has been a subject of much recent serious psychological research. Scientific evidence about the health benefits of a relationship with a dog was first published about 30 years ago by a psychologist, Alan Beck of Purdue University and a psychiatrist, Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania. These researchers measured what happens physically when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog. They found that the person's blood pressure lowered, his heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed-all of which are signs of reduced stress.

A recent study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine not only confirmed these effects, but showed changes in blood chemistry demonstrating a lower amount of stress-related hormones such as cortisol. These effects seem to be automatic, they do not require any conscious efforts or training on the part of the stressed individual. Perhaps most amazingly, these positive psychological effects are achieved faster-after only five to 24 minutes of interacting with a dog-than the result from taking most stress-relieving drugs. Compare this to some of the Prozac or Xanax-type drugs used to deal with stress and depression. Such drugs alter the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the body and can take weeks to show any positive effects. Furthermore, the benefits that build up over this long course of medication can be lost with only few missed doses of the drug. Petting a dog has a virtually immediate effect and can be done at any time. Recently, researchers extended this research by looking at a group of people aged 60 and older, living alone, except for a pet. Non-pet owners were four times more likely to be diagnosed as clinically depressed than pet owners of the same age. The evidence also showed that pet owners required fewer medical services and were more satisfied with their lives.

Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: Image from SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

Depression was, indeed, Mickey Rourke's problem in the 1990's. In his case when all friends left him he was left with only his dog, for solace. Rourke admits that things had gotten bad enough so that went into a closet with his beloved dog Beau Jack, locking the door and planning to commit suicide with a drug overdose. In the end he just couldn't go through with it because of his relationship to his little Chihuahua-cross dog. Rourke describes the scene saying, "(I was) doing some crazy s**t, but I saw a look in Beau Jack's eyes, and I put the s**t down. That dog saved my life."

Rourke's life took a major turn after these events. He became active in animal welfare issues, including an involvement with PETA and its spay and neutering campaign. He increased the number of dogs in his house, first by adding Beau Jack's daughter, Loki. The depth of his bond to his dogs became obvious when Beau Jack died in 2002. He recalls, "I gave him mouth-to-mouth for 45 minutes before they peeled me off. Depressed? He died at my home, and I didn't go back for two weeks."

Rourke's canine family has continued to grow. He says "I have five now - Loki, Jaws, Ruby Baby, La Negra and Bella Loca--but Loki is my number one." In describing his relationship to Loki he added, "My dog [Loki] is very old, she is 16 and she is not going to be around for long so I want to spend every moment with her. When I was filming "Stormbreaker" in England, I had to have her flown over because I missed her so much. I had to get her from New York to Paris and Paris to England, and also pay for someone to come with her. The whole thing cost about $5,400."

Rourke seems to understand the therapeutic value of dogs. He says of Loki, "She's like a giant Xanax, you know? I'm not going to get religious on your ass, but I truly believe God created dogs for a cause. They are the greatest companions a man could ever have."

So it was that following his remarkable comeback to a successful acting career, and following his rise from the depth of depression, that Mickey Rourke was able to stand in front of colleagues to accept his Golden Globe award. However his speech was different from the others. It not only included references to the contributions and the support of colleagues and professional associates, but also contained the lines, "I'd like to thank all my dogs, the ones that are here, the ones that aren't here anymore, because sometimes when a man's alone that's all you got is your dog, and they meant the world to me."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events, How Dogs Think : Understanding the Canine Mind, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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