There have been many lovely blog posts recently about people and their pets. These furry friends have been a vital part of their rehabilitation and care whilst living with a mental health condition. It is subject so close to my heart I am only surprised at myself for not writing about it before, so here is the story. As usual, all relevant links are at the bottom of the page.
Animals are amazing. As a small child I always adored them and preferred their company far more to humans. I remember the best holiday ever was going to a horse riding camp for a week and I used to sneak into the stalls and cuddle the horses and ponies rather than spend time with the other children. We didn’t have pets growing up but as soon as I got my own flat the first thing my ex and I did was get a dog. She was just the sweetest doggie ever and I still miss her every day. It’s still a period in my life I find hard to write about so I won’t elaborate for now.
The use of animals in therapy is well documented. Excellent charities such as Pets as Therapy in the UK use them to improve the lives of those who need it most, whilst research has demonstrated the therapeutic benefits of animal assisted therapy many times over. A quick Google brings up the much-cited 1998 study by Barker & Dawson who looked at the effects of animal-assisted therapy on the anxiety levels of hospitalised psychiatric patients. There is also a very interesting 2007 publication by the State Hospital in Scotland which provides guidance on establishing animal therapy in a healthcare setting, based on their own experiences as one of four high secure psychiatric units in the UK. There are numerous studies all demonstrating how helpful animals can be to help psychiatric patients on the road to recovery.
And if the main criticism is that those benefits can sometimes only be short-term? Well, I would take a short-term boost for a few hours any day of the week compared to playing doom scenarios over and over in my head.
So, to my own experiences. I had one dog who was such a blessing. At the time I had no idea I had a mental health condition but what I always recognised was how I felt a little bit more at peace whenever she was curled up next to me, or making me laugh. Sadly I had to leave her behind when my first marriage ended and leaving my dog was far, far harder than leaving my ex-husband. I was actually traumatised for weeks, waking up looking for her on the bed and feeling devastated when she was not there.
When I met my now DH, we always knew we wanted a dog together. Our lives were so turbulent, however, there was never the right time. It wasn’t until I reached the end of another (as yet then undaignosed) manic episode and plunged into a deep depression that he manoeuvered things so we got a dog. His motivation was two-fold, one for us and the other so he knew I had company during the day to keep the dark thoughts at bay. DH was so worried about leaving me every day to go to work that a dog would be his security blanket. Except I didn’t know his ulterior motives at the time – I was just excited at the thought of having another puppy to cuddle.
It was an easy decision; both of us had owned dogs before so we knew the work involved. I badly needed some extra company and something to take my mind off the chaos that I believed I had created with yet another mania and subsequent depression. I was a bit scared it would be too much responsibility, but on the other hand I needed to do something to prove to myself that I could do something useful and worthwhile. Dog ownership encompassed both of those. We decided against a rescue at that stage as I couldn’t cope with a dog that needed someone skilled and patient to help with the dog’s rehabilitation. Also I couldn’t deal with the thought of only owning the dog for a couple of years or so before it passed away. So much though we had hoped for a rescue, we found there wasn’t one that really fit our needs.
We agreed on a breed, found a breeder and went off to pick up our little ball of fluff with great anticipation. It was such a high point in our lives to have something like this to look forward to. And what a ball of fluff he was!
Yes, we were crazy enough to go with a Jack Russell as our dog of choice. I was super apprehensive; they need an awful lot of work, they get bored easily if not kept occupied, they are hugely energetic. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with him and agonised over being a good owner.
Well, that was three years ago. It was not easy having a puppy when I was so sick, that’s for sure. I remember laughing so hard at his antics with DH and then all of a sudden becoming hysterical and sobbing uncontrollably whilst the poor dog wondered if he had done something wrong. He was such an enthusiastic little thing that we often were unsure if he was getting enough exercise, despite not wanting to over-exercise him. But it was the best thing that we could have done for me. I remember so many times just as I was about to lose the ability to talk or go into a moment, he’d just know and start being derpy dog or come and nudge his way onto my lap to give me a cuddle. DH also felt assured as, if I took it into my head to go walking in the middle of the night (not an uncommon occurrence in the midst of an episode) I would have the dog for company and protection (he’s a good guard dog too!).
I didn’t think Jack Russells were cuddly but I was sooooo wrong! I have to say this little one is just the best dog ever. He has been my faithful companion and friend since I moved to The Netherlands and has seen us through our hard times and better ones. He is far and away the baby’s favourite living thing and she giggles madly every time he makes an appearance. He gets us out of the house and moving – some of my best moments have been watching him pelt up and down the beach on a gusty winter’s day. When we were in Scotland he was the one to show us that we needed to leave; he is so in tune with us and our feelings. I love it when he curles up at my feet at night or snuggles next to me as I sit on the computer.
Oh he’s a super scamp and supremely naughty – really cleverness which then manifests into boredom when I don’t do enough with him and that’s actually him reminding me that we need to get out and about. He cannot do enough for food and has made his way onto the kitchen table so many times I have lost count. Perhaps it makes me a bad owner to laugh at that but hey, he’s toilet trained and a very good natured dog who goes to bed when told and provides so much entertainment for the baby that I can’t complain.
Dog ownership is of course not for everyone. I’m not advocating that everyone who has a mental health condition rushes out and gets a pooch, nor that it will work for all. A dog is for life and you need to be sure you can cope with the responsibility. It worked for us, however, and if you find yourself needing an excuse to get out for half an hour a day, have some companionship when you feel down or a warm furry friend to keep you warm at your coldest, then you could do worse than consider a dog.
Mine has saved my life time and time again by snapping me out of a black moment and bringing me back to reality. My JRT is so much more than a therapy dog. He’s one of my best and most loyal friends and I am blessed to have him in my life. What a character he is! And an essential part of my bipolar treatment and self-management. I loves him ever so ❤