The Value of a Dog in Coping with Depression
The lot on which my house sits is relatively level, but some days, as I walk from the driveway to the entrance, it feels like I’m trudging uphill with a weight on my shoulders. The figurative weight of a depressed spirt seems real enough, causing a slower-than-normal gait.
But the second I open the kitchen door, it happens.
Farley, My 10-year-old dachshund, greets me with a high-pitched whine of pure elation, his tail thumping loudly and rapidly against the counter, his short legs trying to climb up to me. He’s never satisfied with warm words or a pat on the head. No, the required ritual is for me to hoist him to my eye level, snuggle our heads together, kiss his cheeks, then allowing him to give my face a fresh (?) bath with his tongue.
If I don’t complete every phase of the ritual, he dogs my steps until I do. (I couldn’t resist the pun.)
For at least a few minutes, his greeting assuages my despair. I know without a doubt I’m loved and treasured.
How does a dog help with depression? Physical touch. Who doesn’t need to feel like he has been missed?
Therese Borchard, a mental health activist and author, reinforces the value of physical touch in a blog titled “6 Ways Dogs Help Ease Depression”:
“The healing power of touch is undisputed in the research. A 45-minute massage decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and optimizes the immune system by building white blood cells. Hugging floods our bodies with oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress and lowers blood pressure and heart rates. Touch can actually stop certain regions of the brain from responding to threat clues.”
Borchard cites this research in the context of extolling the value of physical touch with dogs. She concludes, “It’s no surprise that stroking a dog lowers blood pressure and heart rate and boosts levels of serotonin and dopamine” (chemicals that help control mood).
If I sit on the couch to read or watch TV, Farley springs from the floor to my side. If Wendell, our son’s dachshund, tries to squeeze in and join us, Farley snarls, letting Wendell know that I belong only to him.
When I stroll to the bathroom, Farley tags along and waits outside the door. When I go to the computer in my home office, Farley isn’t far behind. He jumps on the soft chair adjacent to the desk and waits.
How does a dog help with depression? Presence.
Even with folks around, despondency often spawns loneliness. Farley definitely makes it less likely that I feel lonely.
Renowned 19th-century evangelist Dwight L. Moody was poring over a book at his desk when his young son sauntered in and stood quietly for several minutes. Moody finally said, “Well, what do you want?”
If Farley could talk, he’d say the same thing Moody’s son said: “Nothing. I just want to be where you are.”
Is it any wonder that nursing home residents report feeling less lonely during and after a visit from a friendly dog?
Occasionally the long carpeted hallway in our house becomes a football field. I throw a rubber toy to the other end. Farley runs and snaps it up, then darts full speed back in my direction. But his intention isn’t to drop it at my feet. He knows I’ll try to tackle him before he can get by me. So he fakes left, then scoots right to get around me. Or he’ll try to jump over my legs as I’m sprawled on the floor. Or he’ll slow down to pretend he intends to give me the toy, then like a flash dashes around me when I’m least expecting it.
His antics cause an eruption of laughter in me, which my wife says is far too rare for me due to a tendency to take most things too seriously,
How can owning a dog ease depression? Laughter. It’s harder to succumb to the darkness when your dog eludes your grasp and runs for a touchdown.
When I take Farley for a walk, he keeps his eyes out for larger canines. If he sees a lab or German Shepherd walking with its owner, he snarls and streaks toward the large beast with all 20 pounds of his might. Though I’m not in any danger, he wants to make sure I’m safe. The larger the dog, the more aggressively I pull on the leash to keep him on our side of the road.
When my wife had major leg surgery and spent lots of time in a recliner, he shifted his loyalty to her because he sensed she was weakened. Her lap or a spot beside her on the arm of the large chair was his primary domain for weeks.
Ladies from our church regularly brought meals over, since my culinary skills are limited to canned soup (which I sometimes burn). When a guest would lean down and give Dolly a hug, Farley would growl and show his teeth, letting the Good Samaritan know that she had better not harm his mom.
How does a dog alleviate depression? Protection.
He guards the well-being of those he loves. God is my primary Protector against evil (2 Thess. 3:3), but I’m thankful for a small friend who’s willing to risk his life to keep me safe.
If you don’t have a dog, don’t make the decision to obtain one lightly. They’re more expensive to care for the older they get (like us). But after spending over a thousand dollars in recent months on allergy shots and arthritis treatments, Farley asked, “Daddy, am I worth it?”
My response was a resounding “Yes!”
I’m not saying that a dog will eclipse the need for sustaining truths from God’s Word, or counseling, or anti-depressants, or friendship in human form. But I am saying that the only way you’ll take Farley from me is to pry him from my cold, dead fingers.