One of the best treatments for my depression – would you believe – has been the company of a 10-kilo, 58cm shih tzu with minimal remaining teeth, a roving left eye and a wet little button nose.
Bipolar disorder has tampered with my moods all my adult life. I was diagnosed as a teenager, at which time I was also trying to vanish slowly with an eating disorder and spending most of my time watching reruns of Friends while I recovered from ME.
Now I’m in my thirties, I’m pleasantly medicated (I kiss my packet of anti-depressants every morning for the capacity they give me to live my life) and a little better prepared with a stash of coping strategies (talk therapy, walks outside, comfort food, a loving partner, phone calls with my parents, the sound of Yoga with Adrienne calling me her “sweet friend”).
But! Guess what! I can’t say how much this scruffy, smelly, sniffly little creature has helped me get through the past few years. My partner and I rescued a dog from Battersea Old Windsor, sure, but really? He rescued us. Bertie, now almost four years old, came to live with us in early 2018. My beloved and I had just moved in together, in North London. Not long after Bert unpacked his things, I found out that my precious antidepressants weren’t available in our new postcode and had to switch to a new type of tiny, helpful pill. It can be a distressing process, tapering down one dose, wading through a few weeks unmedicated and then testing out the side effects of something new. Withdrawal symptoms, for me, were mainly these little electrical-feeling zaps in my brain- very unpleasant! – and a significantly diminished will to live. Also, extreme fatigue, both physically and deep in the core of my being, if that makes sense. When you’re that down, it’s a gargantuan effort to even be awake, let alone shower and eat and talk and think and move and work.
My boyfriend cooked delicious meals, held me, told me it was going to alright and once, built me a tepee with a blanket and a ladder so I could be as cosy as possible. I talk to my parents on the phone every morning and they’re both mega cuties. My friends are familiar with my sadnesses and know how to support me, even if it’s just over Whatsapp. But, they all have professional obligations and lives to attend to… Bert, small shih tzu, does not. So, he simply stayed by my side, like a hairy little pilot fish. He lay across my chest when I was distressed, which is interesting because I would later learn, when I was in the process of writing an entire book about how good dogs are, that therapy dogs are trained to do exactly that to calm someone down during a panic attack. You could say dogs are the OG weighted blanket; their weight has a powerfully soothing effect on your nervous system.
Bert’s presence beside me as I waited for my pills to start working (and since, at other times of distress) was just tremendous. He also got me out of the house every morning because he demands his daily walk. Not even the most persuasive scientific study about the curative qualities of fresh air, green spaces, gentle movement and the sight of trees could convince me to voluntarily get out of pyjamas and out of the house during a bout of depression. A dog who needs a walk, however? Just let me get my jacket. He needs to be fed, too, and made to feel safe and loved. My borderline-obsessive tenderness for this little animal reminded me that I had the capacity to feel something as nice as love, at a time when I didn’t think I had easy access to any of my favourite emotions. Dogs have this sweet, incorrigible positivity, too. They live their lives with such hope, whether it’s for a treat or a pat or a walk. They wag their tails and seek out comfortable surfaces for naps and find the warmest, loveliest spot in every room. They greet people with such infectious excitement, tap dancing with paws on floorboards. Bert, in his gentle, doggy happiness, showed me how to rest properly but also reminded me that life can be kinda nice and that maybe it was worth sticking around to live it.
I have told a lot of people about the magical healing qualities of my dog. Anyone who’ll listen, if I’m honest. Turns out, I wasn’t to be satisfied with spreading the message about dog comfort by word of mouth, though. So, I pitched an idea to my agent and ended up writing 60,000 odd words on the mental health benefits of having a household hound. In preparation to write my book, Good Dog, I spoke to experts who confirmed my suspicions that dogs may be able to smell depression. They have sensationally effective noses and it’s quite possible, according to vets and canine behavioural experts, that they can sniff our increase in cortisol or maybe a sad little pheromone that we can’t smell with our vastly inferior snouts. Dogs also have a capacity to feel empathy for us, which is actually pretty remarkable in the animal kingdom. They also! Oh my god! Enhance the effects of antidepressant medication. Which is brilliant, because I’m extremely pro-medication and, as you may have gathered, quite fond of dogs.
So, Bert really is as emotionally intelligent and perceptive as I had long suspected and I am very lucky to have him. He is snoring surprisingly loudly next to me right now, where he can be found most of his life. I am constantly Googling things like “how to tell if your dog is happy” and “does my dog love me” and I’m pretty satisfied he is well compensated (with love, safety, food, cuddles, warmth, games, walks, healthcare and little bits of cheddar I “accidentally” drop on the kitchen floor) for his services as my emotional support dog.
My sweet darling dog, Bertie (AKA Bert, Bertrand, Herbert, Albert, Robert) is my smallest friend and my mightiest comfort when things get bad. Like periods of depression, anxiety, insomnia, myriad other health problems and oh, you know, the ever-present, rolling fear that comes with living through a global pandemic. Pretty sure other dog people know exactly what I mean. Let us protect them at all costs! LONG MAY WE CUDDLE.
Good Dog: Celebrating the dogs who change and sometimes even save our lives by Kate Leaver is out now with HarperCollins, £14.99.