Apologies to Lulu for the title. Her call for bloggers about mental health issues inspires a lot of good work and discussion at Canvas of the Minds, and we’re lucky to have her driving the conversation.
This post is based on an off-hand comment I made a while back:
I think you should get a dog (I think everyone should get a dog). A dog will not allow one to lie abed; he requires attention, every day–and gives back unconditional love. Before I met DeeDee, my dog was sometimes the only reason I even bothered to eat–he needed me, and that was reason enough to take care of myself.
I won’t go into the sad, sordid story of before I met DeeDee, but I will admit that my most fervent prayer is to be more dog-like, because dog is love. I want to expand on that comment, though, because I believe that owning a dog has real benefits–beyond having a designated dishwasher to clean the plates. The first and most important of these, of course, is unconditional love.
Dog = unconditional love
A dog will always be happy to see you. A dog loves unconditionally, and helps us learn to do the same, which can help us let go of resentment, accept flaws, and embrace joy. Dogs will show this love in several ways: by wagging, licking, playing, smiling… it’s hard to feel bad when you’re petting a happy, playful dog. But if you do, a dog will recognize that you’re not feeling well and will try to comfort you.
Dog = responsibility
Of course, as every kid who ever begged for a puppy knows, owning a dog is a big responsibility. But sometimes, responsibility is exactly what we need. I’m not talking about taking responsibility for your mental health—you know that no one else can make sure you get the care you need—but the benefits that come from caring for something outside yourself. The resolution to care for something else, something that can’t care for itself, provides a purpose, a reason to get out of bed even when you don’t want to. A dog does not care that you feel depressed or anxious; the dog recognizes your state, but still needs to go outside, still needs you to provide food and water. A dog cannot do these things without you. You MUST care for the dog, regardless of how you feel.
And, in so doing, you might realized that, having gotten out of bed, you can do other things, too. And doing something may, in turn, help you feel better—or at least distract you from feeling so poorly for a while.
And ignoring the dog (and feeling guilty about ignoring the dog) isn’t an option—the dog will bark, eat your shoes, and shit on the floor if you ignore him. The dog needs his exercise, which leads to another benefit.
Dog = exercise
A dog requires exercise, and the link between exercise and improved mental health seems to be real. According to the National Institute of Health, “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.” There are other benefits, too:
- Improved sleep
- Increased interest in sex
- Better endurance
- Stress relief
- Improvement in mood
- Increased energy and stamina
- Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
- Weight reduction
- Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness
All of these help us feel better, physically, and that also helps. A dog requires walking at least twice a day, making it easy to get enough exercise for these benefits. And as a bonus, starting to exercise makes it easier to get more exercise, which increases the benefits of exercise.
There are other reasons to get a dog, of course. You can train and show a dog, maybe even go on to win at Westminster, if that’s your thing. A dog will guard your house, give you reasons for social interaction, and might even attract members of the opposite sex (ask DeeDee how we first met). For any of these reasons, or all of them, I think you should get a dog. I think everyone should get a dog.