Dogs and Mental Health
Everyone has mental health, whether it be good mental health, or bad mental health. Everyone has it. But one person may not experience the same mental health symptoms as the next person. I always find, the tricky thing about dealing with your mental health is that you are literally the only person in the world who truly understands what is going on in your head, and sometimes it’s hard to explain to others how you feel…so you just give up and start to bottle things up. Unfortunately, you then run the risk of escalating the situation and becoming more withdrawn…I think that’s one of the reasons pets help so much.
According to Mind, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. 1 in 4. That means, 1 in 4 people will suffer with anxiety, or depression, or bipolar, OCD, PTSD, borderline personality disorder..the list is endless. Over 20% of people in the UK in 2018 were experiencing suicidal thoughts, and whats more is that only 1 in 8 adults received treatment. I recently started treatment for my mental health issues and I can honestly say it has been pretty life changing, but it has taken me 15 years to get to this stage. Why is that? Why do we, as children and adults, find mental health so difficult to talk about?
In 2019, I believe that we are very lucky to have the world we live in. Yes, of course, it comes with its draw backs, but we have learned so much about mental health issues over the last 10 years. Talking about your health has become a lot more acceptable. Every time I hear someone being so open about it, it makes me smile. Every time I hear someone talking about it, I feel like we move forward in eradicating the stigma and raising mental health awareness.
So, can dogs help with mental health symptoms? Yes! It is known, that during times of sadness, owners have found comfort from their pets. Owners can feel that talking to their pets can help them relieve any tension they’re feeling, or off load any problems they may be facing. Research has shown that stroking a pet can reduce your heart rate which would, in turn, reduce stress levels. So in short, yes, pets can help with mental health symptoms.
We’ve answered whether they can help, but how can dogs help with mental health issues? This is where I wanted to tell some of my own story and also turn to our supporters. I wanted to get real experiences of how dogs have helped real people with real mental health issues.
The last couple of months I have been dealing with my mental health issues. I was told to find things that that would help clear my mind, bring me peace and help me to just..stop. Mindfulness. So I started walking Bane down Cwm George in Dinas Powys. As I walked, I became more confident outside and around people. If someone spoke to me,I wouldn’t panic because we had dogs in common and I would just talk about Bane. I would always go the muddiest path because i just love to get muddy, and it’s fun for Bane as well! One day, I came to a section in the woods where it was just beautiful. It was colourful, it was bright, there was a crisp chill in the air and I couldn’t hear anything apart from nature and the little stream next to me. This became my mindfulness. I was able to stop, take in the scenery for 60 seconds and just reset. I felt my stress and anxiety melt away for a short period of time and I felt happy. The more and more I did this, the more relaxed I became, the more comfortable I was, and the more I found the true meaning of Mindfulness.
Amy and Piper
“Last year I began really struggling with anxiety, to the point where I found it extremely difficult to even leave the house, see friends, go to work, I found even popping to the supermarket was a huge challenge. I felt exhausted all of the time, but could never switch off and relax. I felt like I was going insane and that I would never feel "normal" and like myself ever again. I did CBT classes, counselling and visited the doctor numerous times but I felt I just wasn't getting better. Every time I struggled or broke down in tears, Piper was always there. She would curl up next to me, cuddle in and try to lick away my tears. She'd bring me her favourite toys, as that's what cheers her up and she never treated me like I was fragile and might break, or that I was as crazy as I felt at the time.
I pushed myself every day to take her on walks. Weekends, we would head out super early so I could avoid seeing other people. She became very protective of me, as she could sense my unease whenever someone would speak to us on our walks. Slowly but surely I began to feel more comfortable and looked at going to dog social events, I found at these it was easier to interact as no one asked about me- it was all about Piper.
Fast forward a year and I feel like me again, but I know I never would have got back here if it weren't for Piper and because of that we will always have an unbreakable bond.”
Karen and Kleio
“I suffered really bad PTSD after a traumatic birth and everything that went on afterwards. We rescued Kleio from Romania, however I don't think I rescued her…she rescued me. She gave me unconditional love, didn't judge me. She was literally my hero. She got me out of the house when I wanted to bury myself in darkness and not go out. On the hard days, when I literally couldn't go out, she would sit or lay on me and got me through the day. It's been a hard journey. Having her then got me involved with rescues after which then gave me a purpose. Now.... I'm not 100 percent, maybe I never will, but I'm nearly back to the old me and I’ve started back working which I never thought was possible. There's a lot of things that happened that she was there for me - too many to list. She literally saved my life.”
Becky and Loki
“My husband and I tried for a child for a long time. After failed fertility treatments that started to take its toll on my mental health, I simply couldn't take any more heartbreak. Back last Feb we decided enough was enough, that having children clearly wasn't meant to be for us. Learning to accept my infertility was a struggle - I became depressed and suffered anxiety. My life seemed full of darkness, I had so much love to give and nobody to give it to.
Then my husband got me my pug Loki.. he gave me a reason to get out of bed, to leave the house for walks, to show love. He saved me from the darkness and because of him I have a reason to wake up every day. He is more than a dog to me, he is my best friend, having him has made my life worthwhile again”
Alex and Dora
“For me I can honestly say I wouldn’t still be here without my dogs. I’ve had mental health issues since I was young and would cuddle my dog and tell her all my worries which always made me feel better. Over the years they’ve seen me through some very low times and I can honestly say I wouldn’t still be here without them.
In 2015, I was working and my mental health was starting to dip. We had two Chihuahuas at the time but thought we’d add another to the family. I wanted a dog that would be suitable for therapy work as I had just retired my border collie, Isla. Dora came into Llys Nini Rescue. She was very cute and friendly so was reserved quickly, but Dora would scream when she saw a dog and this quickly changed people’s minds! So she came home with us. She’s been a lot of hard work relating to her reactiveness around dogs but she was always the friendliest dog off lead and to people. It’s taken a lot of training and hard work but she rarely reacts these days. Dora has kept me going through all my ups and downs. I have struggled with depression and anxiety over the years and particularly social anxiety. I have a panic attack if I had to go into a room of people I didn’t know, but when I have Dora with me I can handle these situations.
I volunteer for Time to Change Wales and have given a lot of talks over the years. Dora comes with me to most places to help with my anxiety, because of Dora I gave talks to all staff at the Welsh Assembly about mental health, I’ve gone on TV and radio and now really enjoy public speaking, something wouldn’t of been possible without Dora. She also offers support to those who are struggling or have been triggered by my talk, Dora helps to calm people. We have recently started visits to Coleg Y Cymoedd where we meet with students who have been identified at risk of dropping out or are struggling with their mental health. They get half hour to fuss and cuddle Dora. We’ve had great feedback from students who say Dora’s meant they haven’t dropped out. I always speak about the positive effects dogs bring to me and my mental health during my talks. More often than not people will say “me too!” and talk about how their dogs have helped, leading to a conversation on mental health. “
Therapy dogs are just that…dogs used for therapy. I have experienced something similar when Hope Rescue brought in a few rescue dogs into my work! It was such a great day, and we were allowed time to go and spend time with these pups to help relieve stress. Employers are becoming more and more accepting of Mental Health and appreciate that things are tough sometimes and that people struggle. It’s really great to see them recognising mental health symptoms and raising awareness within the work place. Hope Rescue coming into my place of work helped with Mental Health awareness, but also helped raise awareness for rescue dogs and showing people that they have other options when getting a new fluff in their life.
If you’re wondering if you can register your dog as a therapy dog, or have questions surrounding it, have a look at the P.A.T website. They will be able to answer questions about registration, fees or any queries you may have surrounding a therapy dog and your current situation. Debs and Muddy Puddles have experience in this field and have kindly shared their story..
Debs and Muddy Puddles
“I’ve seen first hand how dogs can help break through unseen barriers to help those in a mental health crisis. I volunteer at our local busy hospital with my dog, Muddy Puddles, as a Pets As Therapy dog. One of the first observations I made was how much the staff in A & E look forward to seeing Muddy (and to a much lesser extent, me). They give him cuddles, take selfies with him and sometimes feed him treats. They stop for a minute or two only but so often I hear about how seeing Muddy has really cheered them up or made them forget the stress for a moment or made their day. One patient that sticks in my mind from A & E was a young boy aged about 9 or 10. The nurse asked me to see him as they were having trouble getting him to engage at all with them.
When I went in to the hot, windowless room I saw a man (who I now know to be dad) sitting in a chair looking very stressed and hidden in the corner of the room on the floor beside him was a young boy, with his hands over his ears, rocking backwards and forwards.
I sat on the floor too with Muddy. Close enough so that he could see us but not close enough as to cause distress. I started playing with Muddy and it didn’t even take a minute for the boy to start to watch me from under his hands. I asked him if he wanted to stroke Muddy and he declined so I asked him if he wanted to hold his lead instead and he accepted this connection. I think everyone was astounded to see that within ten minutes the young boy was out from the corner, and walking Muddy out of the room and around the bays in the A & E ward. He had a huge grin on his face and whilst at first his steps were tentative, it only took some gentle persuasion that Muddy needed more exercise for him to pick up his pace and do two laps of the area. His dad looked like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
We returned to the room and sat on the floor together whilst the boy played with Muddy until the doctor arrived for a consultation. I’ve thought about that boy often, wondering what it was that gave him the confidence and resilience to leave his anguish behind and walk out with Muddy. I can only conclude that it was the unassuming approach, the getting down to his level (literally) and the fact that dogs don’t judge. They just offer unconditional love. And lots of it.”
Mental Health is something that needs to be spoken about more. The more we talk about it, the less judged it is. As someone who suffers with mental health issues, I have realised that talking about it definitely helps. It can literally save lives. More people need to be open about things like this, more companies need to raise awareness and we all need to encourage it. As a Pet Photography business, we understand that people struggle and have different requirements. We want our clients to know that we understand, and that sometimes, we struggle as well. We have also taken comfort from our dogs and they’ve helped us over come things we may never have done if it weren’t for them. If you ever have any requirements when it comes to photoshoots or communication, then please tell us so we are able to assist you in the best possible way.
Its important to recognise the signs of a mental health issue. If you feel that someone around you just isn’t being themselves, or is withdrawn, ask them if they’re okay and use the SHUSH listening tips from The Samaritans.
If you’re suffering with mental health and are finding it difficult to speak with those around you, please seek out help from one of the mental health charities below. If you require urgent help, please contact the Samaritans on 116 123 https://www.samaritans.org. They are available 24/7 to listen to you – They are lifesavers and hold no judgement over you or your situation. It’s important that you know you are not alone, there are those who you can talk to and they will not judge you. Talking to someone could make a world of difference to you, you really don’t have anything to lose by opening up, and every time you do, the stigma surrounding mental health gets easier to eradicate.
Thank you to everyone who shared their story today. Thank you for being open, and for finding the strength to get through your difficult times. We really do hope you are doing well and that you have the support you require.
- Samaritans – Urgent Help – 116 123 - https://www.samaritans.org
- Mental Health Foundation - 020 7803 1101 - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/
- Heads together - https://www.headstogether.org.uk
- Stem4 (Mental Health for Teenagers) - https://stem4.org.uk
- SANE - http://www.sane.org.uk/
- Mind - https://www.mind.org.uk/
- Rethink - https://www.rethink.org/
- Time to Change/Time to change Wales - https://www.time-to-change.org.uk
- BACPS – Find a therapist - https://www.bacp.co.uk/search/Therapists