I believe all animals were created to help keep man alive.
I couldn’t do a series about mental health and not include our furry family members. I am very much an animal person. I have such an affinity with animals, especially dogs, and I just think they are all remarkable in their own unique ways. I am proud to live a fully vegan lifestyle and I am very much a self-confessed ‘Caninetrovert’. I would happily spend my time surrounded by dogs rather than most humans. I am most definitely the kind of person who would, and has in the past, turned down going out with friends so I could spend time with my dog…usually watching “Queer Eye” together. I talk to any animals I see out on walks, right now I see all the gorgeous baby lambs and it fills my heart with complete and utter joy to see them. It gives me a sense of hope that there are still remarkable things left in this world.
I can tell you without a doubt, if it hadn’t been for my dog Vader, who sadly I lost in 2018, that I wouldn’t have made it through some of the darkest days of my life. He was the only good thing to come out of a very difficult and emotionally abusive relationship and his love and comfort got me through all of that as well as 2 miscarriages, losing the life I knew when I was diagnosed with chronic illnesses, the grief of losing family members and he even kept me and my babies safe when I was pregnant with both of our sons. The power of dogs is incredible, what they can do for humans is second to none and I don’t think even to this day we fully understand the full capabilities of these wonderful souls.
Last year I completed and passed my Canine Behaviourist Diploma with distinction and the further insight I got into dogs made them even more appealing and inspiring to me. In September 2019, my family and I went to The Dog Lovers Show in Glasgow, Scotland where we were fortunate enough to not only watch a demonstration by Canine Partners with a beautiful Labradoodle to show the amazing training they give the dogs to be able to help those who need support but we got to hear directly from a lovely client and dog pairing about how life changing having a Canine Partners dog has been for her. It isn’t just about opening doors and helping with the menial day to day tasks, the companionship and bond made between client and dog is just incredible. In 2016 myself and my husband were invited to a special VIP event for being a long-term supporter of Guide Dogs UK and we got to hear from a variety of client and dog pairings who told their brave and courageous stories and said how having a guide dog had given them more than just their ‘sight’ back but a new love of life.
According to a poll in 2015, 95% of pet owners classed their pet as family and that’s the case no matter what age you are, children, adults and elderly alike all find joy in having a furry family member. It’s easy to see then, how pets and mental health go hand and hand.
There has been a lot of scientific work and research into the effects of pets and mental health and it has been validated scientifically that there are most definitely benefits of having pets to help with mental health. The first research published on this subject was around 30 years ago and research continues to this day but the findings from having a person pet a ‘friendly dog’ (It’s time to really look into the other end of the leash) showed that their heart rate significantly reduced, blood pressure went down, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed. This indicates that patting the dog helped reduce the effects of stress.
There are so many areas in mental health that pets are used for and can help with so I’m going to break each part down.
Pets and Depression
Living with depression feels like an uphill battle every day, you just never know how each day will be inside your head and it is easy to switch from feeling brighter to all of a sudden feeling very low. Pets can help people with depression in many ways. Having a pet can be a great motivator, especially dogs as they need exercise and this can be a great benefit for those living with depression. Pets also have a calming effect on people and just sitting next to, stroking or even playing with a pet can give the owner a sense of calmness and allows them and their minds to relax. Pets can also instil a sense of achievement and routine as they have a regime you need to stick to and this gives the owner more purpose each day. They feel valuable and needed which can really help when living with depression.
Pets and Socialising
This can be a trickier one for mental health as sometimes it’s very possible to want to feel included but not wanting to talk or be around people. As complicated as it can be, pets are a good way for you to feel a sense of connection with people. Walking a dog can often lead to conversations with other dog owners or people who want to say hello to the dog and this can help people feel less withdrawn and help stay socially connected.
Pets and Loneliness
There is a saying “When I reached for a hand, I found a paw” and I wholeheartedly connect with this. In times where I felt the loneliest in my life and needed someone, there has always been a paw on hand and cuddles from a dog to be had. Pets can be great companions, they give a sense of security, unconditional love and they are someone to share the days with. My dogs are the only ones I feel truly understand the genius behind my conversations. They never judge you, they are just happy to spend time with you and I know many cat owners who have said the same.
Pets can be essential and valuable company for those who are later on in life and who are possibly now finding themselves on their own for many different reasons.
Pre-Covid, I had just started volunteering with a wonderful charity founded by the lovely Louise Russell called Give A Dog A Bone. GADAB are a charity tackling loneliness in the over 60’s in multiple ways while also giving a rescue dog their forever home at the same time. They help people over 60 find a suitable rescue dog and help pay towards the costs but they also have 3 community centres in Glasgow, Troon and Alloa where they offer social and canine companionship to retired people in that community. Louise and her team have worked so hard to make sure that people have activities they can go along to such as Spanish and Italian classes, reflexology, reiki, crafts and many more as well as somewhere that you can visit to just have a chat and a cup of tea or coffee. Follow GADAB on their social media platforms and visit the website linked above, to find out more about their amazing work.
People later in life living with Alzheimer’s have been thought to have fewer anxiety outburst when they had a pet in their home. My Grandmother passed away in 2014 from vascular dementia and even when she forgot our names, she still always remembered that I had a black dog, my black Labrador Vader. She remembered she used to see me walking him as their garden connected to the back garden of our house growing up. Even in the last few days of her life before she lost her power of speech she said to me “How is your lovely dog, he is always happy when I see him”. I am passionate about a lot of animal charities and have and will, mention many of them in this post but one of the ones that gets my heart a lot is Dementia Dog Project run in collaboration with “Alzheimer’s Scotland” and “Dogs For Good”. They have big ambitions for this project to help families living with dementia and I think it’s a fantastic project that I know they will do great things with.
Pets and Neurodiversity
This one in particular hits home for me. Both my eldest son and my husband are on the spectrum and have what was diagnosed at the time as “high functioning autism” which I will talk about as part of this series for Mental Health Month.
Pets are great for people, especially kids with ADHD, autism, asperger’s or any other of the spectrum neurodiversities.
Pets need structure and a schedule and people with ADHD and autism find it easier each day when they have a particular schedule. I know in my household, this is the case and my son and husband see it as a mental checklist, they break each task down to fit their own needs. My son started school this year in the pandemic and as we weren’t able to take him into the building, we made his own little mini-schedule for drop off; he’d hug me, he’d get to the gate and say hello the attendee on the gate, he’d follow the green dots and on to the orange where he would stand and wait for his teacher. One main thing but broken down so he could check each part off. Pets have different schedules depending on the animal it is but there are things that need to be done every day; feeding, walking, bathing, litter tray cleaning etc that can help children learn how to plan and give them a sense of responsibility.
Pets need play and that can get excess energy out for both animal and child. Burning off energy walking the dog, throwing a ball, playing with a cat with toys can help relax the child on the day and mean they are more inclined to have a calmer night. The bonus too of walking a dog is that the fresh air actually helps increased oxygen-blood flow the child’s brain and allows better concentration also. A pet can also be a great listener and one that never talks back, never critiques and offers unconditional love. This can also help a child’s self-confidence.
Children with autism usually, but not always, find that sensory issues are common. Dogs and horses can be used for sensory integration for the purpose of helping the child get used to how something feels, sounds or smells. Children with autism often find it calming to work with animals. It has been said that animals can reduced stereotyped behaviours, lessen sensory sensitivity and at times increase the ability to connect with others socially in the case of people with autism.
Dogs for Good are a charity I proudly support and I mentioned them previously in the article also in regard to the Dementia Dog Project. They help a lot of people with varied diversities but they do amazing work for people, particularly children with autism also. Click he link above to find out more about the 10 ways the dogs can help with autism and find out more about this amazing charity.
From my own experience, our current Labrador, who is lovingly nicknamed “Dugpool”- as his full name is Wade Wilson- as well as our dearly missed Labrador Vader, can sense when my eldest son is feeling upset or anxious. There are times I’ve seen both of them try and get close to him to put their body weight near him to comfort him. I haven’t trained them to do so they do it instinctively.
As I have said, and probably will say many times in the future, I believe in the power of dogs and just how life changing opening your home and heart up to them can be. I don’t want to sound biased, I know many people feel they get the same security, love and companionship from cats, rabbits, reptiles also and I fully support that but it just seems that dogs are better examples of humanity than most humans.
All I know is that I hope one day I will be the amazing person that my dog seems to think I am.
Love hard. Be fierce. Horns high.