Dogs are well established in their role as 'man’s best friend', acting as incredible companions and bringing an immense amount of joy to anyone who decides to bring one into their family. As someone living with an anxiety related disorder, however, I feel it is time that we recognise that their abilities run even deeper than many would first assume, writes model and dog lover Kirstie Brittain.
I have suffered on and off with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for five or so years, with it flaring up at times when my anxiety levels are uncontrollable. From as young as I can remember I have loved animals, especially dogs. Yet never having one growing up meant it was not all that often that I came into contact with them.
Where I made a connection between the impact a dog could have on someone’s mental health and state of mind, therefore, was a few months ago when I started to volunteer at The Mayhew Animal Home, giving my Wednesday afternoons to spend time socialising with the dogs in the kennels.
The beginning of my volunteering happened to coincide with the beginning of my exam period and other personal stressful situations that I was experiencing at the time and because of the heightened stress, my OCD was becoming a more and more prominent aspect of my life. At times felt like it was entirely taking over.
What surprised me was the impact that spending three or four hours with the dogs had on me: being able to take the time away from the madness of day-to-day life and entirely slow down.
Sitting cuddling with a dog, with no other distractions, had a noticeable difference on my mental state. I would leave the kennels feeling far more relaxed than I had when I walked in, feeling genuinely calmer with my thoughts being more manageable.
Dogs are amazing animals, and the psychological benefits of interacting with them are hugely underplayed, I believe. They offer totally unconditional love and emotional support, being incredibly intuitive animals.
They sense when something is wrong without you needing to explain and to someone suffering with a mental health condition, talking and explaining can be tiring, embarrassing, and quite honestly scary. Being able to receive comfort and love without having to go into detail is (to me) an amazing thing.
Photo Credit: Bonnie Baker/The Mayhew Animal Home
What I've also learnt through my time volunteering is that aside from the benefits you can experience directly through bonding with a dog, there are also therapy dogs trained to benefit individuals of all ages in various situations.
The Mayhew Animal Home run an extremely successful pet therapy programme, TheraPaws, whereby assessed dogs are taken to socialise with older people suffering with dementia and to palliative care centres.
The dogs have a noticeable impact on those that they visit, providing social interaction and emotional stimulation of which those people may not receive otherwise, and I see this as a genuine testament to the psychological impact a dog can have on someone.
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And yet, besides this and a few other locally run pet therapy systems, the UK does not have a service dog system existing on anywhere near the same scale as that of the United States where there is a scheme that has assisted and aided thousands, with life changing outcomes. The funding and the interest simply is not there yet.
Perhaps this is a wider reflection of the stigma and lack of interest that seems prevalent in society surrounding anxiety related disorders (and mental health in general).
Lola, pictured above, is a TheraPaws participant
Be it through the establishment of an actual service dog system to benefit those suffering from anxiety related disorders, or simply giving greater recognition to the incredible roles dogs can perform for people like myself, I think collectively we can, and need to, maximise the benefits of such an intuitive animal.
Dogs have the ability to entirely change someone’s life, whether that person does or does not have an anxiety related disorder. But for those that do, a dog can make the world that seems incredibly difficult and daunting to manage sometimes, just that bit easier. Therefore, what is clear to me is that speaking from first-hand experience, the interaction and stimulation that a dog can provide is unparalleled in its impact at calming, relaxing, and simply taking your mind off something difficult or troubling.
Hopefully, the future holds room to expand on those pet therapy systems already in place and establish even more to aid the lives of those dealing with disorders that can, at times, be crippling.