The Black Dog: How Animals Help with Mental Health

Dogs can be on the lookout when people experience depression or anxiety

While it has been a few months since I have posted, this blog and its readers have been very much on my mind. We are all doing well, although we have had a few challenges and changes in life.

First, a person close to me resumed an addiction that led him to make poorer and poorer choices. He lost his job, his home, his dog, and soon pretty much everything else. His path of self-destruction arced in a downward trajectory that appears to have no bottom. While I know addiction is a disease, I also know that he is the only person who can save himself. Watching this and waking up every morning, not knowing if he was alive or dead caused considerable anguish.

Next, pursuing the writing life proved financially rocky. I walked dogs to provide some regular income as well as a bit of structure for my days, yet that was not going to be nearly enough. Freelance writing was a roller coaster: some months could be flush but others were lean. Professional fiction writing has always been the dream, so I did not know how much time to dedicate to the freelance work – which can be quite competitive on its own. Furthermore, I could no longer afford to go riding regularly, and not being around horses opened up its own world of emptiness.

Along with money concerns, I found being alone each day difficult. I crave solitude on occasion, but that usually comes after several hours of being with others. Solitude packed on top of more solitude felt like a gift of an even larger empty room. Alienation and lack of regular connection set me emotionally adrift, like an astronaut losing a tether to a space ship and floating without direction.

I knew by mid-summer that outside help was necessary. My thoughts had turned dark, and this had become a new normal. The darkness didn’t scare me. Rather, it felt as normal a part of my day as choosing between tea or coffee in the morning. It had settled into my life sneakily – sort of the way an ex-college roommate’s boyfriend moved into our dorm room over a period of a few months. Every day a few more items showed up, even if the guy himself wasn’t there – his presence grew.

And the darkness had a weight, one that increased daily. I had carried all of this for about six months when something inside of me told me that this was not healthy. It wasn’t as though a bright light had gone off, but more like a faint flicker far away hoping to catch my attention. I knew I needed help.

I told my doctor that I wasn’t well – although I’m sure she could tell, considering I’d lost ten pounds that I didn’t have to lose since my last visit. Medication proved helpful. But I also knew other types of self-care were necessary. I began attending al-anon meetings, eating better, exercising regularly, and perhaps biggest of all, I returned to the world of teaching. I saw people, I felt better, and I slept better. And because this gives me energy, I still write.

Vitally important throughout this journey, my dogs kept me sane. I got out of bed because Rufus demanded it. He will whine, put his nose in my face, and paw at me until I am up. Sometimes he’ll sit next to me and stare intensely. There is no hiding from him.

Sophie is a an unofficial therapy dog MVP.

I made sure the dogs ate well and got exercise, even when I didn’t want to move. They in turn, kept me company and made me laugh with their antics. Sophie in particular worked hard to check in with me, making sure she was available to be pet and putting her head near mine. She clearly knew that I was functioning at less than 100%. Her check-ins are regular and she’s sensitive enough to understand when my actions or words are a little off. The fact that Rufus appeared concerned as well startled me enough to know that I had to deal with this.

Medical journals have long noted the connection between animals and positive mental health benefits.  A 2013 Harvard Medical School study stated that having a dog or cat nearby can lower the blood pressure of people in high-stress situations. Perhaps ironically, I wrote two stories about this very issue for two publications: Bark magazine and 5280 last spring. Tim Hetzner, the director of the Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) K-9 Comfort Dog program told me how his dogs have helped people around the United States, from midwest flooding victims to survivors of the Parkland, Florida shootings.

Cubby, an LCC comfort dog, practicing near Fort Collins, Colorado at Scheels All Sports Store.

In times of massive devastation, dogs offer emotional support that humans cannot always provide. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and shooting survivor Connor Dietrich explained to me that “the dogs have been the biggest asset in our healing.”

The term “the black dog” has come to mean depression after Winston Churchill used the phrase to describe his struggles. Funnily enough, it was my own black dog Rufus who proved integral in helping me move on past the metaphorical black dog. He demanded that I be present and pay attention to to what was genuinely real and in front of me. He did not understand the nature of the struggle, but he seemed to know that my mind drifted off much more than usual. He may have noted listlessness on my part as well since he would wag his tail encouragingly when I stood up to walk into another room. “Good job – let’s go and do something!” his wag told me. I tried as hard as I could to keep up with him, even though it felt as if I were dragging five hundred pounds of rocks behind me. Rufus and Sophie both did what they could to carry that load with me.

Whether it’s one person carrying a crushing weight or hundreds of people trying to make sense of the senselessness of violence, dogs calm us, away from the demons in our minds. Soft eyes, cold noses, and wagging tails are powerful tools in our battles both quotidian and existential. They may not be my only weapons against the darkness, but they are by far the most important.

Rufus stepping up and being my comfort dog.


11 Thoughts

  1. I’m sorry you have had such a tough time. I left my full time job in July 2017 and also now work as a freelance writer. I’m your basic introvert and like being alone, but sometimes I do miss office life with other people. I now try to occasionally work at Starbucks and plan lunch with friends so I don’t get too isolated.

    I love how you wrote about depression – it does really creep in and slowly take over our lives and invade our heads and hearts – sometimes without us even noticing. Good for you for getting help. I also agree that dogs can sometimes heal and help us in a way others can not. I had a really tough time this last year as well and lost three people I love, including my dad in February. Although I have lots of friends and family, it was truly my dog Ruby who helped me (and continues to help me). Just her presence at my side, keeps me grounded and present. Thanks for sharing your story and I’m glad you are making your way out of the darkness. I know from personal experience it is not a fun place to be and I’m sending you much light as you find your way back.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for being so transparent and sharing your story. Depression can be debilitating, and it definitely sneaks up on you. I’m so glad you had Rufus by your side. When I was battling my own darkness I didn’t have a pet, and I think it would have made a world of difference. It’s nice to see you posting, and I hope the world becomes brighter for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Animals definitely know us better than we know ourselves sometimes. I’m so grateful to have had my two girls with me at my lowest moments in my life journey. Stay strong and so glad Rufus has been such a blessing in your life emotionally and physically.


  4. I am so sorry you have had a hard time, I understand you so and although I share very little about my life I want to thank you for posting this blog and making me realize that I am not alone. The struggles are hard but without Layla I am not sure where I would be, I call my studio my bubble where I feel safe, but having her makes me go out and see the world, go to the dog park or other events which is really good as I am outdoors. I am blessed to have a wonderful network here not of friends as I have few, but of other people who keep me balanced and let me vent, without them and Layla I would be a lost soul. Stay strong and remember you are not alone

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I work from home and I am not an introvert and I don’t really like it much but it’s what I have. My online friends have been a help since Dash Kitten was killed by dogs too and the blog, although I am not sure that’s the right direction either yet 🙂

    Depression is not taken seriously enough. Mental illness is not taken seriously enough. Out of sight is out of mind for those who are coping well enough and don’t want to be reminded how fragile life can be.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Everybody needs love, companionship and acceptance. Dogs are fantastic at giving all of those. And then there are the direct physiological effects, such as oxytocin release.


  7. I know first hand that pets make the world a better place, and especially when we need unconditional love. I think that every time someone shares a story like this, it helps people who suffer from depression, as well as the people who love them. Your writing is beautiful and I hope you are able to write some fiction and have it published. I’m glad that you are feeling better and hope you continue to do so!


  8. Not only can dogs truly can sense when we need extra love and attention, they are quite instinctive at dispensing it just at the right time. Thank you for sharing your story with such tenderness and truth. I know it will be inspirational and helpful to others as well. I’m so glad you are feeling much better and have your wonderful black dog to help!


  9. I’m sorry you’ve been going through such a tough time with these issues. I hope things improve for both you & your friend. Dogs really can help lift us out of darkness with their presence & Unconditional love.


  10. I’ve suffered from depression for 30+ years. I’ve learned a lot of coping strategies, but sometimes I must seek professional help and take medication. My cats do a lot to help me relax! I’m happy to hear you are working your way out of that darkness.


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