Dogs and Mental Wellbeing: Ask a Therapist
Thanks to our friends at Spill, the all-in-one workplace mental health support through Slack, we had a chat with their therapist Graham, all about mental wellbeing and the part dogs can play. BorrowMyDoggy and Spill both work in the wellbeing space to help improve employee mental health, something many companies have started to take action on in the past few years. Proactivity is key to ensure the best for staff in both their personal and professional lives, especially now with reports of worsening mental health due to the Covid-19 pandemic. BorrowMyDoggy for Work provides help through an established community platform for employees based on the love of dogs, and Spill by an easy-access Slack integration giving employees access to a qualified therapist whenever needed.
So Graham, what does your job involve?
I work with people who are experiencing debilitating issues with their mental health. The work we do together is aimed at helping them to make positive and sustainable change.
Some of my time is spent working in my private practice in Kent, and some is spent working for Spill, who provide a comprehensive package of workplace mental-health support services all accessed through Slack.
Do you have a dog? If so, we’d love to know a little bit (or a lot!) about them.
I have a short-sighted 3 year old Labrador called Daisy.
Daisy was born with limited vision so, instead of taking a tennis ball out for her to chase across the heath in the mornings, I take a big bag with her favourite football which is now so perilously close to falling apart that it has become a source of some concern that it might one day disintegrate.
Daisy, like most dogs, arrived into an already busy and reasonably ordered family life, but soon upended that to become pretty much the focus of anything and everything that happens.
Daisy’s favourite things in life are eating, sleeping, and swimming, definitely in that order. She does not like roasting tins, brooms, swearing, or rice.
She has a lot of friends, chief amongst them my sister’s three lurchers who are the architects of her favourite game, which involves the lurchers chasing after squirrels in the park and Daisy doing her level best to keep up with them.
Daisy is a constant and much adored companion who is snoring loudly behind me.
As a therapist, what are the most common concerns you are being asked about at the moment?
The biggest issue that people are struggling with currently is anxiety which, in month fourteen of a global pandemic, is not terribly surprising.
People are worried about going back into offices, not going back into offices, not being able to go out for so long, and now being expected to go out when they really don’t want to but no longer feel as if they have an excuse.
Essentially it is causing a lot of people an enormous amount of anxiety being faced with the realisation that certainty, something we all value a great deal, does not actually exist and that all we really have is “now”.
I am also seeing a lot of related issues such as relationship breakdowns, bereavement, and the stress that arises from too much focus on work to the detriment of anything else, largely because there hasn’t really been anything else going on.
What effects do you feel lockdown has had on people’s mental wellbeing?
Being disconnected is one of the toughest things that most humans can experience. Even those of us that are happy in our own company get to the point where the absence of anyone else becomes painful.
I remember hearing an interview in the midst of lockdown with a man who’d lived through the war and he said that even in those dark days at least they were huddling in the air raid shelters together rather than being separated from the people they loved.
There is something deeply emotionally damaging about the severing of social connection.
In terms of the detrimental impact of lockdown I think it has created an enormous anxiety borne from a sense of isolation and from a realisation that nothing is guaranteed. Before Covid we could at least kid ourselves that we knew what was going to happen tomorrow, and now it’s not so easy.
Strangely enough, in my own work, I have found that the clients I had who were suffering from anxiety before lockdown began have in some ways fared the best because they have been emotionally preparing for just such a disaster in their heads for months and sometimes years. Added to that has been the relief of no expectation which has been like a breath of fresh air for many, especially those who feel they need to be a particular version of themselves in order to be valuable.
In this way it is the potential return to some sort of “normality” (whatever that is) that is causing anxiety. Having had a taste of what it’s like to create some sense of balance between work and life, people are stressed about letting it go.
It hasn’t been all bad though. Having more time at home has given people the opportunity to concentrate on things they might otherwise have let go. Our dogs have enjoyed it too, being able to go on longer and more frequent walks, and constantly pestering us for just one more biscuit.
Dogs have been an absolute blessing through lockdown, especially for those people who are parted from their support networks and the people they love.
Dogs are very good at doing emotional heavy lifting, even though they have no idea that they’re doing it.
What kind of activities do you recommend to those who are having mental wellbeing concerns?
I have a little checklist that I go through with most people that includes eating properly, getting enough sleep, doing something nice for yourself every single day even if it's really simple (having a bath, enjoying a good cup of coffee, spending half an hour reading a book, or chatting to a friend), and making sure you get outside for some exercise, even if it's just a walk.
Obviously, having a dog is a great help for that last one because most dogs are not only always up for a walk but also creatures of habit that know when it’s time to go out, whether you want to or not.
Connection is also really important.
Although we haven’t been able to see people in person staying connected in other ways either through calling people up or saying “hi” to them in the park when your respective dogs are sniffing around one another is sometimes the only conversation some of us have had in the day.
One of the benefits of an organisation like Spill is that there’s always someone there to talk to and when we are struggling with our mental health our instinct is often to disconnect, when in fact what we need most is the opposite.
Do you see a place for dogs in improving mental wellbeing?
They are so unremittingly forgiving and loving without placing any condition on their love so they are a constant reminder that we are worth something, that we matter regardless of what we are doing.
In addition dogs are the masters of living in the moment, something that humans often struggle to do. We spend our lives time-traveling back into the past and ruminating, then thinking about a future that hasn’t happened worrying about what might befall us, whereas our dogs only care about what is going on right now.
“Are we eating?”
“Are we walking?”
“Are we playing?”
That’s all there is for them and, if none of these is going on, they’ll go to sleep. They don’t seem to think about what happened ten minutes ago or what’s happening in an hour. It’s such a positive way to live and while we need therapy, meditation and mindfulness to help us anchor ourselves in the moment our dogs do it perfectly naturally.
There’s lots of research on the emotional benefits of dogs.
What benefits can companionship (whether human or canine) have for people?
One of the longest studies of human happiness in the world (The Harvard Study of Human Development) has found that connection through companionship is the single biggest factor in determining whether or not we have a happy, healthy and longer life.
The more deep connections we have the better we fare and these findings are repeated again and again.
Funnily enough, the companionship of a dog is often a factor that increases the likelihood of companionship with other humans because, when you’re walking a dog, people are more likely to talk to you, especially if they also have a dog.
There’s also something disarming about dogs because they provide a focus for a greeting with someone that doesn’t make any particular requirement of you as an individual. So, in that sense, they are stress relievers both in terms of helping you to connect and avoiding any anxiety about who you need to be in that connection.
In addition, dogs are lovely to look at and even better to stroke (although it’s best to check that they share this feeling before sticking your hand out).
What benefits can increased engagement in the community have on people, (e.g. via dog borrowing)?
There have been so many little stories I’ve heard in the past months about people, either furloughed or having tragically lost their jobs, who decided to take a different path and do something in the community.
Often these decisions have changed people’s lives as they’ve met new people that they may have seen around but never spoke to, and created for themselves a sense of belonging and purpose through helping other community members.
For many it has changed their lives for the better in a way that has caused them to decide never to go back to their old ways of living.
It’s easy for us to think about things only changing when groups or governments change them but the reality is that things only change with individuals one person at a time.
There are multiple benefits in being able to help someone walk or look after their dog. It helps the owner feel that their beloved dog is taken care of, it helps create a few hours of joy for someone who may love to be around dogs but can’t for whatever reason have one of their own, and it connects the dog with a new person which is great fun for the dog.
Daisy is generally so pleased to meet new people that she’ll happily play ball with them and refuse to bring it back to me.
Dogs are catalysts in this way, a sort of canine “LinkedIn” where we find deeper and broader connections with people we initially met through our dogs.
What benefits can more walking have on people (e.g. dog walking)?
Walking is already a great way of keeping your heart and lungs healthy, reducing blood pressure, and increasing overall fitness and stamina.
In terms of mental health, walking in nature reduces stress, and can improve our self-perception through having time to contemplate and consider rather than jumping to damaging conclusions about the things going on in our lives.
Dog walking maximises these benefits and creates some additional ones firstly because you’re much more likely to actually go out when you have a dog.
My own dog will go straight to the door wagging her tail after breakfast as if to say, “Come on, it’s time for a walk.”
By the way, that wagging tail itself is such a tonic. Whatever mood we find ourselves in to be accompanied on our walk with a creature so full of happiness and exuberance is absolutely infectious.
The other great thing about walking a dog is that you see more of your surroundings. Daisy’s insistence on standing and sniffing everything she walks past (my sister calls it “reading her wee-mails”) means that I inevitably spend a lot more time than I otherwise would standing around looking at trees, noticing the blossom and listening to the birds. It’s a form of natural mindfulness because dogs drag us into the present moment, the only part of life we have any control over.
Dogs are such good walking companions because they are a constant steadying presence but they are not great conversationalists and so it is an opportunity to be alone with our thoughts and, in my experience, a lot of people find their own thoughts quite difficult to tolerate and so, in that way, dogs are also helping us to confront aspects of ourselves that we may sometimes prefer to ignore.
So dogs are actually a bit like therapists. No wonder we get on so well.
Oh, and one more thing. Coming home after a walk with a dog is such a joy. Not only do you feel as if you’ve really earned a cup of tea and a biscuit but the dog will probably be quite happy to curl up beside you by way of a thank you and who on earth doesn't feel better when they have a dog lying in the crook of their arm?
What are the benefits of a routine (e.g. regular dog walk or arranged time spent caring for a dog)?
In the pandemic, routine went out of the window. At first this seemed to many of us like a gift but most of us are creatures of habit and started to struggle without it.
Some of my clients had to reintroduce a commute of some sort so that they could get their mind into gear even if that just meant going out and walking around the block.
It is striking a balance between routine and flexibility that serves us best. Having some markers in the day that orientate us, but not being a slave to routine to such an extent that we generate unnecessary anxiety by trying to keep to it.
This is another way in which dogs are so helpful because they provide points in the day where certain things need to be done. Around these necessities they’re totally flexible but woe betide you if you don’t walk them or feed them. They remind us of the obligation and responsibility we have which is essential for good mental health.
When we take care of a dog, we are reminding ourselves of the ability to create positivity and gratitude in our own lives rather than waiting for someone else to provide it.
We become stuck in mental-health issues when we adopt the position of “victim” waiting to be rescued, and so serving the needs of a dog, is a wonderful way of reminding ourselves that giving love is the very best way of feeling love.
How do you see dogs fitting in with returns to offices?
I’m worried about it.
After the huge surge in demand for dogs through 2020 indications are that rescue homes are now beginning to fill up and that owners returning to offices have either not properly understood the implications of having a dog or are struggling to find ways of keeping their beloved pets happy when they are not home.
Quite apart from the anxiety this is likely to cause for the dogs, it threatens to create anxiety in owners who are desperate to care properly for their dogs but cannot find a way to balance the needs of their work and home lives.
Dogs are pack animals and like to be with either other dogs or with people.
I read a report recently about the upturn in demand for things like self-feeding dog bowls, and security cameras that show you what your dog is doing but none of this will ever replace the joy that a dog gets from companionship, or being outside and playing in a park a couple of times a day.
I realise that I’m very fortunate to have a job that enables me to work at home a lot of the time and so Daisy is rarely left alone but I do think it is the responsibility of a dog owner to make sure their dog is getting the exercise and care that it needs.
I think this is probably where an organisation like BorrowMyDoggy is so valuable because not everyone can afford to put their dog in day care and I imagine that a lot of dog walkers are absolutely snowed under at the moment.
Putting a dog owner who can’t be at home in touch with someone who loves dogs but, for whatever reason, can’t have one of their own feels like a big win for everyone, especially the dog.
It would be lovely to think that one the upsides of such an awful year will have been that more dogs have homes and that more people can share in the joy that they bring, either through being the owners or sharing in their care.
Thanks Graham for your fantastic insight into mental wellbeing, and the role dogs can play. Check out https://www.spill.chat/ for more information on Spill’s great service for businesses and BorrowMyDoggy for Work https://treats.borrowmydoggy.com/work/ to learn more about how your organisation can take advantage of our happy teams, powered by pups initiative.