Until 9 years ago I didn’t even know that pet therapy was a thing. I knew that I had always loved being around animals, yet never really took the time to acknowledge why that might be. It wasn’t until 2010 when I was struggling with an extremely bad bout of depression that my therapist at the time suggested I try pet therapy. Antidepressants and regular therapy sessions just weren’t cutting it for me anymore. Before fully understanding what this form of therapy might entail, I jumped at the word “pet”! Why hadn’t I considered the companionship of a four legged friend might actually be able to pull me out of my miserable slump? At this point I did what any impulsive 17 year old would do; I went puppy shopping!
The Day I Met My Best Friend
After countless hours scouring the internet, I was finally able to narrow down a breed. I searched anywhere and everywhere for someone selling a baby chihuahua (ahh “selling!” If only my teenage self had learned about adoption sooner #noregrets). There were very few options at the time, luckily for me I somehow managed to find a breeder in Edmonton selling a litter of 8 week old chihuahua puppies.
I’d casually brought up the idea to my grandpa who I was living with at the time. He made it very clear that he was not keen on the idea of new puppy and that I was to LOOK only (I took that as more of a suggestion). Less than one hour later I found myself being swarmed by the teeniest little fur balls I had ever seen! They were so little and full of energy that I contemplated going home with all 4.
I had my mind set on a boy dog and the breeder only had one left, where was he anyways? His sisters had instantly bombarded me and it took me a few minutes before spotting him. In the far corner of the room sat the most precious little baby rat just chewing away at a bone the size of his entire body. He was quiet and unphased that I had shown up. I tried getting his attention which lead to a slight curiosity before returning to his toy. I knew in my heart that he was the one. Shy and introverted just like me.
He cried the entire way home while I rehearsed the best way to deliver the news to my grandpa. Luckily for me, his docile temperament and adorable puppy eyes were enough to win him over! Who could say no to a face like that? After days of debating over the perfect puppy name, I decided to call him Boo. I didn’t know this back then, but Boo was about to teach me some very valuable life lessons.
Within a month of bringing home my handsome little bug my depression had completely disappeared. How crazy is that? I was forced to be responsible for someone other than myself which required a regimented schedule and a LOT of outdoor walks. If I wasn’t there to teach him and tend to his basic needs, nobody else was going to do it for me.
I looked forward to coming home at the end of my day because I knew that the two of us would get to run around and play as if we hadn’t seen each other in years! No one had ever been THAT excited to see me after a long day of work. I started to feel as though my life had purpose, which I’m sure most of you know can be next to impossible to acknowledge when you’re so severely depressed.
As time went on our bond only grew stronger. My friends grew use to the two of us coming over and always made sure to accomodate my plus one. Simply put, I was happy. No more battling the brain fog that emerged with each new antidepressant which was a HUGE deal for me at the time. I knew if I had a bad day or I was feeling overly emotional, Boo would be at home waiting to smother me with kisses and unconditional puppy love. Nothing compares to this level of connectedness. Absolutely nothing.
Boo Needs a Brother Right?
To this day, Boo is the most perfect dog any girl could ask for. He is calm tempered, obedient, and undoubtedly the best therapy dog I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. I don’t know where I would be today if it wasn’t for his natural ability to heal and protect me. Leaving him at home alone every day was really starting to get to me. The more I thought about it, the more confident I was that he needed a puppy friend to play with when I wasn’t able to be at home with him. He needed a brother!
At this point I was in my early twenties and I knew that I wanted to adopt rather than purchase a pup #adoptdontshop. Now living in my own apartment I was limited to small dog breeds due to the size restrictions set out by my property managers (all the more reason to adopt another chihuahua!). It took about 3-4 weeks before I stumbled across a posting on the Edmonton SPCA website. Small dogs are not very common to come by in shelters and I knew I had to act fast.
Early the next morning, I dragged Boo to the Humane Society and waited impatiently until they opened. Knowing full well the two of them would need to meet and warm up to each other had me feeling excited and anxious all at the same time! As any two dogs meeting for the first time, they were curious but equally hesitant. It most certainly wasn’t love at first sight (like I’d secretly hoped for) but they were comfortable sharing the same space. The meet and greet was a success and we were ready to bring home our newest member of the family! Welcome to the fam baby Tino.
I had finally curated the perfect little family and my life felt like it couldn’t possibly get any better. News flash! Having two dogs with polar opposite temperaments is a recipe for a full fledged mental break down. This was not what I had signed up for.
I Think My Anxiety has Anxiety
I’ll admit it was a tad bit optimistic to think that I could find another chihuahua that possessed the same qualities and attitude as Boo. Tino was the complete and total opposite in every single way. He was found on the streets at merely six months old and had developed a fear of everything! He was very vocal and extremely anxious, especially when left alone. To make matters worse, Boo wasn’t warming up to him in our space either. I couldn’t believe my eyes the day he nipped at Tino after he’d finally had enough of his shenanigans. Had I just made a horrible mistake?
My anxiety continued to worsen which only heightened Tino’s nerves too. I was reaching out to everyone I could while desperately trying to gain control of my new found living situation. It was exhausting and 100% mentally draining, but this was a decision that I had made all on my own and I knew deep down it was my responsibility to train both boys and create a harmonious environment for all of us. I refused to give up on Tino!
The shelter had made me aware of Tino’s behavioural problems prior to me bringing him home. I knew that he had previously been abused and would require extra training in order to gain his confidence back. Did I know it would be THIS difficult? Absolutely not. But nobody gave up on me when I was struggling with my traumas and I wasn’t about to abandon or neglect the newest member of my family. Consistency was a major factor in Tino’s recovery. We took baby steps each and every day until his anxiety began to lessen.
Looking back at his progress over the years blows my mind! He is a completely different dog than the one I brought home six years ago. Yes, he still has mild to moderate anxiety (just like his mom) but his overall demeanour and energy has completely changed. Boo and him are inseparable and do everything together like the long lost brothers that they are. If there’s one thing Tino has taught me, it is patience. And being their mother is the most rewarding feeling in the entire world. I am one proud puppy mamma!
5 Reasons to Invest in a 4 Legged Friend
If you’re feeling skeptical or unsure that Pet Therapy is the best option for you, OR alternatively if you’re dabbling with the idea but not 100% committed, keep scrolling.
Nothing forces you to grow up faster than realizing you’re solely responsible for the life of another living being. Not only do you have to prioritize your pets safety, but you also have to make sure that you’re able to provide for them financially. And let me tell you, puppies are VERY expensive!
From vet bills to dog food it can feel as if you’re constantly investing money into your furry little friend. Building yourself an emergency blanket for unexpected hospital visits is an absolute must! I can’t tell you how many times my boys have eatin something that’s wound up costing me a pretty penny (Boo has a thing for rat poison and has managed to sniff it out on more than one occasion). Silly Boo.
Priorities shift and it’s almost as if your subconscious mind forces you to turn your attention outwards. You’ll notice you naturally start making overall healthier choices because you’re not the only one directly affected by your decisions anymore.
If you typically wouldn’t describe yourself as a morning person and the thought of spending your weekends sleeping in gives you something pleasant to look forward to throughout the week, think again. You get up when your pup wakes up unless you enjoy the lingering smell of dog poop…personally not a huge fan.
Implementing a regular feeding schedule is super important for your pets overall health! Making sure they are fed at the same time each morning and at night (or within an hour of their regular schedule) enforces a healthy routine for both you and your furry friend. I imagine it would be similar to waking up and tending to your children first and foremost.
It took me a while to rejig my social life around my pups needs but eventually it became second nature. Going out with friends after work meant stopping at home beforehand to feed and take them outside. Not only were they happy to see me, but I was able to take care of things around the house and usually feed myself before going out for the night #winwin.
Hands down my absolute favourite part about my boys is their innate ability to sense when I need their love and support. When I’m on the verge of a full blown mental breakdown or I’m sobbing uncontrollably, they are right by my side consoling me and licking away my tears. Warm puppy kisses fix everything! Ok, well almost everything.
On the contrary, YOU are your pets entire world. Everything they’ve grown to know and love is a direct reflection of your nurturing, protection, and guidance. Just as we need them when times are hard, they equally rely on our love to gain a sense of purpose and belonging. They are full of so much unconditional love and only wish to receive the same in return.
Sometimes all we need is to feel wanted. Sometimes all we want is to feel love.
Provide Comfort and Eases Anxiety
Research shows that interacting with a furry companion can increase levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain. This allows you to feel calm and at ease in the presence of your fur baby and temporarily forget about everyday stressors. In other words, it’s a healthy way to distract yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed or burnt out.
At the end of each day I usually take about 5-10 minutes of one-on-one time with my dogs. Petting them, rubbing their tummy, giving them kisses etc. This physical contact allows me to reconnect with them as I start winding down for bed. As someone whose dealt with the ins and outs of insomnia throughout my entire life, this ritual helps to shut off my brain and calm my anxious, racing thoughts.
Dogs in particular communicate using energy. I find it amusing that each of my boys have managed to embody opposing sides of my bipolar. Boo is my lazy, unmotivated personality (depressive) and Tino is hyperactive, anxious, and completely neurotic (manic) personality. They feed off of others energy and are extremely intuitive animals!
Forces You to Get Outside
On those days when you’re seriously struggling to get out of bed and can’t fathom the thought of anything other than pulling the covers over your head and shutting out the world, you simply don’t have a choice. Your pet needs you and you’re begrudgingly forced to get up and go outside!
During the colder months of the year this task might appear daunting, but I promise you it’s a blessing in disguise. Breathing in fresh air and allowing your senses to orient to your environment is a major mood enhancer. Often times we are aware of the positive effect nature has on our emotional wellbeing and yet there is nothing forcing us to utilize it as a coping mechanism. Your pups got you covered in this department!
If you’ve tried other forms of therapy and aren’t 100% happy with your results, pet therapy might be the perfect fit for you. At the end of the day it is a huge responsibility and I understand that it’s not for everyone. For me personally, the results have heavily outweighed alternative treatments which I why I encourage anyone struggling with their mental health to invest in a four legged friend! I can’t imagine a life without my boys.