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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Commentary: What having a dog has taught me about my mental health

Why investing in an emotional support animal will almost always pay off

 

By CORALIE LOON — arts@theaggie.org

 

Everyone knows a dog is a man’s best prevention method for heart disease, right?

Maybe the fact that dog owners are at a lower risk for elevated blood pressure and heart disease than non-dog owners is not common knowledge, but most people are not new to the idea that dogs (and other pets) provide emotional and mental health support

According to one study, 85% of dog owners self-reported their pets helping their mental health during the pandemic compared to 75% of cat owners.

Other than this being clear evidence that dogs are superior pets (okay, I won’t go that far), I never quite understood the significance of these statistics until I had my own dog.

When I picked her up from a nonprofit animal shelter in Richmond, CA, I knew my life would never be the same. For the next 15 or so years, I would have to feed her and walk her multiple times a day, give her baths and head scratches and pay veterinary bills that would never be covered by my insurance.

I adopted a dog for two reasons: I love dogs and I thought it would help my mental health and anxiety. But as soon as I took her home for the first time and let her hop around the apartment for her first sniff, I was struck with panic at the responsibility that now lay on my shoulders. I would have to put work and energy into this small being and take care of her. Anything that happened to her would be my fault

A few weeks later, the panic began to wear off. Giving her a scoop of morning kibble and taking her outside to pee became routine, and I started to realize that, while I was doing it for her, I was also doing it for myself.

I was spending time outside and getting light exercise more consistently than ever before, using the time to listen to music, call a friend or just think and self-reflect. Every day, my dog reminds me that nature and exercise are two things that hugely support mental and emotional well-being.

She also gently reminds me to talk to other people. When we pass fellow dogs and dog owners, she can’t help but say hi (in dog, of course), and I have no choice but to go along. The brief conversations I have with other pedestrians on the street always leave me feeling warm and remind me of the opportunities for connection that are always around, just under the surface.

One of her greatest reminders, though, is to find joy in simple pleasures. There’s nothing she likes better than lying in the sun and doing nothing. In between the commotion of everyday life, one of the best things I’ve ever invested in is the art of doing nothing.

It’s a beautiful reminder, but in reality, I can’t just sit and sleep in the sun all day. Besides the need to go to class and pay rent, my little friend relies on me, and it does take effort and energy to give her what she needs. 

What has unfolded during my brief time as a dog owner is a bigger metaphor. It takes time and energy to keep my dog happy and healthy, and while during the moment it can feel cumbersome, overall I find myself happier and more self-secure than before I had her. I think of all the times I shied away from going to therapy, meditating or telling a person how I really felt because it required too much effort. As much as we’d all love a quick fix to all our problems, the routes for improving mental health in the long term always require a certain amount of stamina.

Now, I know I would never trade being a dog owner for anything in the world. In exchange for a few walks and field trips to Petco, my dog gives me love, company, cuddles and plenty of daily reminders to be a better person.

I would say that’s a pretty good deal.

Written by: Coralie Loon — arts@theaggie.org