On a recent Saturday afternoon, Cynthia, a reiki practitioner, was laying her hands on my dog, an incredibly anxious two-year-old hound mix who sat fidgeting between the two of us, utterly oblivious to what was about to happen to her for the next 40 minutes of her life. The noise and traffic of the busy Manhattan street below us filtered up into her second-floor studio, but Cynthia’s eyes were intensely focused on something beyond what could be perceived by our five senses, her hands two inches in front of Frankie’s chest. What felt like minutes passed before Cynthia proclaimed, “She has a nice heart energy.”
Frankie leapt off the futon and ran to the window, perhaps in a futile effort to escape. Realizing there was no out, she returned to us, and to reiki.
A reasonable question to ask here is, what the fuck is my dog doing at reiki, the benefits of which have been widely debunked? To which my response would be, that’s a very good and appropriate question. That I can bring Frankie to reiki is a sign of just how much wellness—that vague catch-all for practices that signal you don’t just care about being healthy and free of disease, but that you care about optimizing your life to meet some sort of maximum potential—has bled over from the strictly human realm and into that of our pets. And why not! Our pets, after all, are no longer just pets qua pets—they’re our “furbabies,” our children (or put another way, a mirror for our own aspirations and self-image), whom we’re increasingly willing to lavish with our love, our attention, and our money.
Accordingly, the Pet Industrial Complex is now cashing in, having realized that wellness warriors are eager to include their pets in the pursuit of both physical and spiritual health. Does your dog have anxiety or depression? You can take them to a psychiatrist who may prescribe them a dog-sized dose of Xanax. Enter any pet store and you’re likely to run into an entire display of CBD-infused treats, marketed as panaceas for everything from stress to joint pain; acupuncture is now offered at an increasing number of veterinary practices nationwide. In this light, it makes sense for reiki to be an option, if not exactly popular, for people with entirely too much disposable income who fret that their beloved Sadie or Max is unhappy or unwell or both, and not living their best possible life.
Dogs have been thoroughly Goop’ed. This is not exactly a new phenomenon—as early as 2007, a veterinarian spoke positively about reiki’s benefits for animals. “I can’t say anything about the communication elements, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about reiki,” she told the New York Times. “The lymphatic system, blood flow, neurons—the body’s health is all about energy flow and making sure it’s unblocked.”
The International Center for Reiki Training describes it as a type of “healing” administered by “laying on hands” that is “based on the idea that an unseen ‘life force energy’ flows through us and is what causes us to be alive.” Reiki as we know it today was the brainchild of Mikao Usui, a Japanese man who in the 1920s climbed a mountain where, as a monument to him claims, on the 21st day he “felt a great REIKI over his head, and at the same time as he was spiritually awakened he acquired the REIKI cure.” According to reiki’s standard hagiography, the practice first spread to the United States in the 1940s, but it truly entered the mass consciousness decades later with the help of snake oil peddlers like Dr. Mehmet Oz, whose wife Lisa is a “reiki master.” Dr. Oz has enthusiastically promoted reiki on his show as well as in the surgical operating room, calling it one of his favorite alternative medicine “secrets.” But it’s not just Dr. Oz who has embraced the dubious practice—while reiki’s most enthusiastic fans tend to be exactly who you’d expect, even cancer wards like the one at Memorial Sloan Kettering now offer reiki to their patients, and some home care agencies have flirted with using reiki as a therapy for dementia patients, with what they have said are positive results.
When I called Cynthia to set up an appointment and told her that Frankie is a “neurotic ball of anxious energy,” she pronounced that my dog was a “perfect candidate” for reiki. “It’ll balance everything out and help her release anxiety,” she said, adding somewhat cryptically, “If you’ve studied anything or heard about quantum physics, that’s how everything works.”
I am not a believer in reiki; I find most practices marketed as wellness inherently suspect—but what I am is curious about what drives people to take their dogs to see, of all people, a reiki practitioner.
In Cynthia’s studio, I attempted to keep an open mind, free of as much judgment as possible. As for Frankie’s mindset, it was hard to say, as she’s a dog.
“Have you heard of the chakras?” she asked me. “People have them, animals have them.” Cynthia compared reiki to massage. “Instead of using applied physical pressure, I’m using reiki to break up the energy and replace it with earth-based energy,” she explained. “The nice thing about working with animals, which is why I like working with animals over people, they’re open to it,” Cynthia added. “There’s no convincing. There’s no explaining. They just receive.”
Frankie yawned. “Yep, there we go,” Cynthia said satisfyingly. “It means the energy is moving.”
I adopted Frankie on the very last day of 2018. Earlier that summer, Hugo, my furry and constant companion for the previous 12 years of my life had died. More accurately, I had Hugo, a perky Jack Russell terrier who had increasingly lost his enthusiasm for living, put down. His organs had started shutting down, one by one; he had begun refusing to eat, but still cuddled next to my side every night. It was the purest form of agony that I couldn’t have imagined until it actually happened, to see the slow march of age finally catch up to a dog that had watched me turn from a just-out-of-college idiot to a slightly less dumb adult. I had his body cremated, and for weeks I had the entirely sane notion of eating his ashes, bit by bit, because why not? To incorporate the remnants of his body into my own felt like a way, however morbid, to keep him alive, a way to accomplish what I had been unable to do.
Months later, as I stared down the barrel of a new year, I decided that I was ready for another creature to fill the dog-shaped hollow in my life. Enter Frankie, who I quickly learned had her own special—if hardly unique—quirks: a tendency to shy away from men and small children, a love of pouncing on my face every single morning the instant I opened my eyes, and an anarchic glee in destroying all of my possessions unless I took her to the dog park to run freely for two hours every single goddamn day. Before I brought her home, I worried that I wouldn’t love her—don’t all parents have this worry about their second child?—but fuck, she is the best, if you couldn’t tell.
Frankie’s existence is both a source of extreme joy and debilitating terror. With Hugo, I never worried about him dying, until he began dying. The first week I had him, I took him to the beach and fed him candy, which he promptly threw up onto the sand; I once caught him lapping up wood varnish, and didn’t think to call Poison Control. With Frankie, everything worries me: Will that single raisin she ate kill her? Will she somehow detach herself from her leash—which I’ve attached to two separate dog collars—run into the street, get hit by a car, and die in my arms? I’ve become the kind of dog owner that scrutinizes every single ingredient in everything I feed her, falling down internet rabbit holes on questions like the benefits of grain-free diets that provide no concrete answers (or at least, answers I can parse and reasonably trust). In short, I’ve become the kind of dog owner who would give reiki a go, despite my skepticism about its effectiveness or overall worth. I guess I really would do anything for her!
“Generally, what works on people works on dogs,” Cynthia told me. “People are really concerned about the well-being of their pets.” She sees reiki as a supplement to standard veterinary practices. “Vets deal with the physical, but reiki, it works on the spiritual, the emotional, the mental,” she said, a statement that assumes my dog, as well as all other dogs, have a keen interest in metaphysical matters.
Minutes into our session, Cynthia’s eyes sharpened. “Right here, I’m sensing something,” Cynthia said, her hands hovering over the joint of Frankie’s right front leg. “I think it could be…” She trailed off. “It’s a little bit more intense here, and I think it’s due to the leash. It just feels like more of a pull.”
She was sensing “some stagnant energy,” she told me, “things that need to be reconnected.” An image of a toxic waste pit lodged somewhere in Frankie’s body bloomed in my mind, and I suddenly began to worry about Frankie’s stagnant energy, like anyone who is told their child has something wrong with them, no matter how vague or outlandish. My mind was screaming, this is bullshit, but my heart (or whichever of your chakras is supposed to be the susceptible one) was concerned. I asked what she meant by “stagnant energy,” and Cynthia reached for an analogy that I would understand. “If you have a kidney stone, or a tumor or something. It’s like a traffic jam, with energy,” she said. “Things can’t move and get to where they need to go in a normal way, because there’s an accumulation.”
AKA, a blockage? I told Cynthia that a few days ago, Frankie had eaten a fairly large part of an oven mitt coated in chicken grease, and had yet to throw it up. She didn’t seem that concerned, which both put my mind at ease and made me question—not for the first time, if it needs to be stated—why I was there. Reiki, after all, wouldn’t help Frankie vomit up that chunk of fabric currently residing somewhere in her gut. But I guess that oven mitt isn’t energy, and Cynthia is concerned with energy.
Cynthia began studying reiki in 2005 while in China. I envisioned an old-school practitioner, perhaps a seemingly ageless Buddhist who traveled to Japan to learn from the masters. “No, it was a white guy from London!” she told me. “No one had even heard of it!” she added. There, she began doing reiki on stray cats she found roaming the streets, with what she said were positive results: “They just kind of came up to me, and I was like, ‘Oh, do you want some reiki?” When she came back to the United States, she started a dog care business, one that included reiki as part of its offerings.
Frankie emitted a low moan, a hybrid of a whine and a woof. “I know, you’re releasing a lot!” Cynthia cooed at her. To me, she explained, “I work very intuitively now, so I’ll scan around and see where I need to go.”
As her hands alternated between hovering above Frankie’s fur and touching her body, Cynthia told me about herself—how she had mononucleosis that went undiagnosed for years but then saw a chiropractor—a “healer,” in her words—who fixed her; how the latest breakthrough she’s excited about are stem cell patches, one of which she was wearing on that day, at the nape of her neck. “This one’s the anti-aging one,” she said, adding, “All my girlfriends are doing it.” Has it worked? “I’ve noticed that my skin’s gotten a lot tighter, and the lines on my neck are reduced!” she said. They’re good for dogs too, she added, and she recommended putting the patches on their collars to “regenerate the body.” She’s currently using them on a client (a dog, natch) she said is mostly paralyzed. “They’re getting really good results,” she said.
The 40-minute session ended, and Cynthia was off to see her own reiki practitioner. I paid her $82.49, a different sort of energy transfer.
She told me that she hoped to see me and Frankie again. As I walked us to my car, I kept an eye on Frankie. Did she seem calmer than usual? The answer, unfortunately, was no. She still barked at cops, she still went into a frenzy whenever a cyclist whizzed by us as we drove home. Frankie didn’t need reiki—she needed to chase another dog for an hour. But I realized I felt soothed, much in the way that I imagine an anxious parent might feel in believing a crank who tells them, no matter how wrongly or breathtakingly dangerously, that vaccines have caused their kid’s health problems.
I had done something, even if that something was bogus. It wouldn’t stave off Frankie’s eventual death, which is coming for her, the way it will come for us all. It wouldn’t even help her barf up that oven mitt, which she did all on her own a few days later. But for a moment, I felt like a good dog owner. I was doing everything right.