Irish Setter Discovers Cure for Depression

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Elton John and Arthur, one of his many dogs

Who’ll walk me down to church when I’m 60 years of age
When the ragged dog they gave me has been ten years in the grave?
Sixty Years On—Bernie Taupin © 1969 Dick James Music Ltd.

Easy answer– get a new dog.

And no, an Irish setter did not discover a cure for depression.  It was a golden retriever.  Goldens are a lot smarter than setters.  Everyone knows that.  

One of my top ten ways to cope with depression is to get a dog or cat.  I’ve owned a dog since I was 12, although my first dog was an Irish setter, which must have been the dumbest dog ever.  Undaunted by my first experience, I learned that having a dog can be a life saver when I adopted Margaret.  You don’t have to take my word for it. My personal experience is backed by scientific studies that indicate that dogs help relieve depression.

There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face. ~Ben Williams

In an article called 6 Ways Pets Relieve Depression, Therese Borchard  says that, for one thing, pets are a welcome relief from cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of therapy that relies on the power of positive thinking.  That’s fine as long as your depression is not caused by faulty synapses in the brain.  Cognitive behavioral therapy may work for some, but give me my meds, please.

And give me a dog to keep me company.  As Borchard says, pets offer a soothing presence.  Ever notice how dogs keep you company when you are sick?  Perhaps it’s just because they like to take naps on a soft bed or couch, but we all know dogs are social animals.  As I write this sitting cross-legged on my bed, Mickey, our young terrier mix, has joined me. Just watching him now relaxes me.  In fact, he makes me want to take a nap.

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Mickey “Mouse”, our terrier mix transplanted from a shelter in Los Angeles.

Several of the ways dogs help relieve depression center on the fact that dogs require a certain amount of work, which results in the owner seeking society. Dogs must be walked.  Walking a dog keeps the owner from becoming socially withdrawn.  Take your dog to the park for a walk and what happens?  Other walkers, some with dogs, some without, invariably stop to admire and pet your dog.  That gets the owners talking.

My mother, who is a classic misanthrope, walks every day in the county park near her apartment.  Although she no longer has a dog, she knows every dog on her route. So even though she doesn’t even own a dog, dogs keep her from being so socially withdrawn.  According to another article, “owning a dog [provides] opportunities for mood-raising socialization.”

When a person stops to pet a dog, studies indicate that the person’s blood pressure and heart rate are reduced.  At the same time, pets promote touch.  Who can resist petting a dog? According to Borchard’s article, a study at the University of Virginia showed that holding hands can reduce the stress-related activity on the hypothalamus region of the brain.  In other words, pets relieve stress.  That’s a fancy way of saying the same thing- pets make us feel better!

The best part is that dogs work faster than drugs.  The stress-reducing effects that dogs produce only take 5 to 24 minutes of “pleasantly interacting with the dog.”

Having to take care of a pet also provides a welcome distraction.  Nothing seems worse than to dwell on your own dark feelings.  They feed on themselves and make you feel even worse.  When you own a dog, you have to focus on the dog instead of yourself.  Besides walking dogs, you have to feed them, groom them and take them to the vet. Dogs take you out of your head.

Dog walking also forces owners to remain physically active, another strategy to relieve depression.

My favorite thing about pets, especially dogs, is that they provide unconditional love and acceptance.  Who runs to the door to greet you when you come from work?  Your teenage kids?  Hardly.  No matter how long you’ve been gone, even if it’s just been a few minutes, they are so HAPPY to see you again!

Long before science weighed in, writers have known the value of a good dog.  I’ve gathered a few of my favorite quotes on this blog at   “Happiness is a Warm Puppy”.

If you still need some convincing, consider this. One study looked at people aged 60 and older, some living with a pet, and others without.  The research found people living without a pet were four times mores likely to become clinically depressed.

It’s just a couple of days before Christmas. You still have time to go to your local SPCA and adopt a pet for yourself or for someone you love who suffers from depression.

Finally, if you can’t adopt a dog, reading about them helps also.  There’s Marley and Me, of course, but there are other choices out there.  Some of my favorite dog stories include:

  • James Herriot’s Dog Stories.  Wonderful collection of his dog stories from his other books such as All Creatures Great and Small.  Frankly, I love the cow stories the best.
  • Following Atticus, by Tom Ryan.  This is an amazing true story about a fat man and a tiny dog who climb all 48 peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, in the winter, twice.  If you like hiking or dogs, or both, you will love this book.
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.   Instead of hiking, this dog and his master are into car racing.  The story is told from the dog’s perspective.  This one will make you cry, so be prepared.  Plus, you gotta love a dog named Enzo.
  • Merle’s Door:  Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, by Tom Kerasote.  This one is different from the rest.  Like Marley and Me, it’s a true story, but not sappy.  The author explores not only his relationship with his dog, but man’s relationship with dogs throughout history.  He also explores the history of dogs themselves.   A great read, especially if you fancy yourself a individualist, or wish you could be one.

What are your favorite dog-related books?  Please share them in the comments.  And please share this blog.  I’d love to increase my readership, and I need your help to do it.  If you like this blog, please spread the word!

Merry Christmas!

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