Shawn Henfling looks back at the effect his dogs have had on his own mental health.
Humans and their pets are inexorably linked in so many ways. Emotionally and physically, we share so much with each other that it becomes nearly impossible to separate the pet from the family member. On the surface, they are wholly reliant upon us for everything. We feed and bathe them and make sure they receive the necessary medical care. We take them for walks and to the park or buy them toys and treats. They need us for their very survival. Except they don’t. Dogs and cats thrive in the wild. They don’t need us. We need them.
I sit and write this in what’s left of our dining room. Our family is moving soon, and most of our furniture has been tossed out. My wife, our daughter and our three dogs are starting over soon. There isn’t a couch right now and my daughter is sitting on the floor with her Algebra book propped up against the back of a chair. Her paper is sitting on the seat with a glass of milk perched precariously beside it. Our TV, playing the latest episode of Backstrom, sits on the coffee table I refinished years before I met any of them. It’s marked and scarred with countless moves and relocations. On the floor beside my daughter lay our three dogs, Digger, Moe and Whiskey. My wife is off at work and I am trying very hard to focus on the task at hand.
I am, at this very moment, happy. For much of my adult life, happiness has been an abstract concept. It has been my Higgs Boson. I know that it exists, but I’ve been unable to capture it for myself. There have been times when I’d catch a glimpse, like a shadow dancing just at the edges of my vision. As soon as I’d turn my head for a full view it would somehow flit away, leaving me with only the feeling that I’d missed something important. I didn’t know it then, but I had a mental illness. I am one of the invisibly sick. I am depressed.
The juxtaposition and counter intuitive nature of being both happy and depressed at once isn’t lost upon me. I still sit clacking away upon my keyboard with a contented smile upon my face. My daughter has now settled upon “How to Train Your Dragon 2” as our nightly entertainment. The dogs are all passed out upon their pillows in variously uncomfortable looking positions. Every morning I bring their three beds out of our bedrooms and lay them along the wall. Each evening, the beds are brought back into our bedrooms. Our three loyal companions remain by our sides when we’re home. So it is with family, and so it shall ever be.
Depression nearly killed me, and not long ago at that. Twice I nearly attempted suicide. There were dark days. Darker indeed than the benefit of hindsight will allow. Even now, months separated from rock bottom, I have trouble realizing how far I’ve come, how far there is to go, and just how bad it was. Sitting here, enraptured by what I can only guess is the very definition of contentment, there is one thing I’ve not forgotten.
Though my days were often dark and even surrounded by my wife and family I felt alone, our dogs somehow managed to reach through the shadows and touch me. They knew, the four of them, and they rallied around me. Be it a gentle nudge or laying in my lap, they always seemed to know when I was on the precipice. I have no doubt that their ability to perceive, identify, and react to my pain saved my life countless times.
They have been a welcome distraction to the illogical fixations of my mind. Often when depressed, my mind focused on things over which I had no control. I’d replay scenarios over and over again, zoning out into my own dark world and forgetting to pay attention to my family around me. Blankly I’d stare at the television, helpless against the rising tide of pain, guilt and sadness overcoming me. Somehow, their incessant begging for attention or playful nature became an interruption, a tidal break if you will. They were my Lassie, pulling me from the well I was hopelessly trapped within.
They were unafraid to touch me. I was a cruel husband to my wife during my darkest times. I became so fixated on my inability to do anything right that I alienated her. We rarely had any physical contact. My dogs somehow pushed through my shield of pain forcing me touch them. Looking back, I had no idea how much I needed that. They are incredible creatures, never angry, always loyal and somehow unable to take no for an answer. I’d grudgingly relent to their advances and nearly always feel better for it.
Last week we lost one of the four. She escaped from the pen and just wiggled free of my grasp. We found her on the side of the road the next day. That story is here. It’s painful for me to rehash it but nonetheless important. I realized once she was gone just how much they have meant to my continued survival. I wanted to know more, to know that my story wasn’t unique. I wanted to know more about the ways pets help us cope daily with our struggles. I put it out there on Facebook to see what some friends thought. Here are a few of the responses:
They force you out of your own head. Mine refuse to be ignored. I can be having the worst day and they’ll demand my love… Who can think negative thoughts when an 80lb German shepherd is in your lap, shoving their nose into your neck, and licking your face?- Shanna Anderson
Mine keep me from going insane. Fighting depression sucks but my dogs make it easier. They love me unconditionally and they know when I need them more some days.- Nicole Freeland
I think it has a lot to do with their outlook on life. They have the ability to truly love unconditionally, no strings attached. They apply the KISS method in life.- Christopher Dunn
My dogs keep me laughing. All the earnest enthusiasm they can apply to the chasing of a ball is just absurd. The way the German Shepherd brings the ball, drops it by me and looks at me and then the ball like, “Look, I found something incredibly interesting, Just Incredible, Look!” Then all the super speed running that follows- Maryanne Belle
The health benefits of owning pets and more specifically dogs are widely documented. From lower blood pressure to reduced allergy sensitivity, canine ownership has been widely accepted as healthy for a number of reasons. There is currently research being conducted into the ability of dogs to sense the emotional needs of people they are around. Turns out, they have a place in their brain that enables them to identify emotion, even in humans.
For veterans, transitioning back into normal society can be problematic at best and lethal at worst. Many of these men and women struggle and suffer in silence, the warrior mentality keeping them from requesting help. Due in large part to their ability to sense our emotional needs, dogs have become valuable assets in helping veterans transition back into their lives. Whether it’s a timely lick when anxiety and stress start kicking in or a nuzzle when the nightmares hit, their value is undeniable. The VA is currently funding a study interested primarily in identifying whether emotional support dogs should be considered service animals in the eyes of the law as it relates to PTSD and veterans. For the difference between an emotional support dog and a service dog, see this link.
Studies have indicated that dogs can gauge everything from the trustworthiness of people to upcoming epileptic episodes. Given all of the benefits they bring into our lives, I think it’s fair to ask: Do they really need us as we believe or do we really need them. At least in my case, the answer is clear. Part of the reason I’m alive to write this is because my dogs loved me unconditionally and knew when I needed a hug. We may be down to three, but I need them no less now than I ever have before.
Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB/Flickr
For additional information, see the following links: