A year ago I went to our local shelter and adopted an adorable dog. I adopted him with the support of my therapists, in the hope that he would be helpful for my depression. That little mutt has proven himself to be just as beneficial as I had hoped and of vital importance to my treatment, recovery, and continued stability.
It’s easy to say dogs are good for mental health. But how exactly do they provide this benefit? What is it about a furry four-legged creature addicted to fetch that helps mitigate depression? There are plenty of scientific studies on this matter, but all I can do is share my personal experience of how I have seen my dog, Tidus, positively impact my mental health.
1. A dog needs walks.
Dogs need exercise and unless you have a huge fenced in yard, that typically means going on daily walks. Tidus gets me out of the house and walking around my neighborhood, even when depression makes me want to hide under the covers. Going for walks also means getting exercise, especially if you live in a hilly area like I do. Exercise has been proven to be beneficial for mood disorders. Plus, going for walks means I get more Vitamin D than I did before I owned a dog. I normally have a tendency to only spend time outside when the weather is nice, but Tidus wants to go for a walk regardless of the weather or the season. Vitamin D has also been proven to be essential for positive mood, particularly in the darker winter months. I now have a reason to go outside in the daylight no matter the season.
2. A dog has a schedule
Dogs thrive on a schedule. They need to go out to pee regularly and eat twice a day. Tidus depends on me in a way that no other creature does. (At least so far, since I don’t have any tiny humans running around.) It doesn’t matter if I’m feeling well or am in the throes of a depressive episode, Tidus still needs to pee. And if I don’t take him out, at some point he won’t be able to hold it anymore and he will pee on the floor. The same goes for his food. He can’t get the food out of the bag for himself. If I don’t get out of bed and give him breakfast, he will be hungry. He depends on me to feed him, take care of him, and provide his basic necessities on a routine schedule. The great thing about these tasks is that they are manageable, not terribly overwhelming, and able to be accomplished even when I’m severely depressed (unlike making myself food, for example).
3. A dog provides soothing cuddles
When I’m feeling upset or am crying, Tidus knows to come up to me and cuddle with me. Dogs thrive on emotional stability from their leaders, so this behavior usually has to be trained. He provides a resource for soothing and grounding. Grounding is a coping strategy designed to help someone focus on the present moment and manage overwhelming feelings. (Look for more blogs on grounding soon!) By really focusing on the soothing feeling of stroking my dog and the different textures in his coat, I am able to calm down and set aside my overwhelming feelings. I especially use this technique for overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or agitation. Again, dogs will naturally let you pet them, but a dog (usually) must be trained to go towards an emotionally distraught situation and present himself as a comfort.
4. A dog is a constant joyful companion
My world is often so dark, but Tidus’ is always full of joy and light. It’s like I can actually see him doggie “smiling”. He always wants to play, always trots around with his tail up, and simply carries a happy demeanor. In fact, sometimes he wants to play a little too much. I seriously think my dog is legitimately addicted to fetch. He might have to go to doggie “rehab”. Lately I’ve been training him on the command “All done”, in the hope that we can avoid in-patient fetch detox. In short, a dog is a great distraction. Sometimes playing with my dog is the only thing I can manage to accomplish that day. A dog that is always willing to play means that I always have something to distract me from my negative emotions. Playing with Tidus is part of my personal safety plan in more than one way.
5. A dog provides a presence to help keep me safe.
Tidus follows me everywhere. In fact, he does this more than any other dog I’ve had or interacted with. Maybe it’s because we got him from a shelter, but he is definitely attached. He follows me upstairs, downstairs, into the bathroom, to the kitchen to get water. The only time he intentionally leaves me is when I turn on the shower. This constant presence helps keep me safe when the darkness is completely overwhelming and I’m battling suicidal thoughts. It’s pretty difficult to consider a plan with puppy eyes full of unconditional love staring at you. Plus, Tidus doesn’t like it when I get hurt. He is determined to protect me from other people and even from myself. He will do his best to keep me safe, whether that’s through barking, growling, licking, or just generally getting in my face with those adorable puppy eyes. Funny, I never had to train him to do that.
Tidus has had an incredibly positive impact on my life and my mood. I’m very glad I adopted him and I thoroughly believe in the power of pets to change our lives. If you’re at all a dog person and you struggle with depression or anxiety, you should seriously consider getting a dog. If you’re not a dog person, several of these benefits could also be gained by getting a cat or even a fish. Getting a pet is not a decision everyone should make, but if you struggle with mental illness it might be more than worth it.