Feeling blue? Suffering from a creative block or need some direction in your life? Before you start to dole out large sums of money to a life coach or counsellor – wait. I can recommend a therapist who is gentle, undemanding and never has a waiting list. Her unique sessions consist of some daily exercise, preferably in beautiful countryside, an invitation to give and accept love, and a requirement that you have a sense of humour. Who is this wonder-worker, I hear you ask? None other than your dog, of course! Whether you are susceptible to bouts of depression, are lonely, bereaved or simply exhausted the Canine Cure can remedy your unhappiness within hours, sometimes even minutes – and all for free! Your dog can become your counsellor, gym instructor, tourist guide, creative muse and social secretary all rolled into one lovable package!
According to Helpguide.org, a website designed to help readers resolve health challenges, studies have shown that dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression, that they have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and that heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without. Owning a dog, says Helpguide.org, fulfils the basic human need to touch. My own experience bears this out. Stroking and cuddling my dogs has enabled me to realise that dark days do pass. In addition, they’ve taught me that a brisk walk will cure a multitude of ills and that being able to laugh is a benefit in itself.
Not so long ago when I was living in South Africa and working as a teacher in an international school, I suffered a series of health problems. Within a few weeks, I was burnt out. My resources were entirely depleted and I was unable to cope with even the most mundane of tasks. I lost my
sense of humour and my way in life and was forced to resign from my job. With time on my hands, the only thing I was capable of doing was to take our two dogs on long walks. I would drive a little way from the small town in which we lived to an expanse of what the South Africans call the ‘veld’ – a grassy hillside surrounded by sandstone ‘kopjies’, which are small, flat-topped hills. As soon as I opened the boot, Scout and Sukie would leap out of my old Ford estate and bound off up the hillside with enthusiasm. Their sheer joy in being able to run freely in the countryside was enough to lift my spirits immediately. The sky was always a cloudless blue and the russet-gold of the sandstone cliffs against it was little short of awe-inspiring. There on that hillside, with only the high-pitched hum of cicadas and the distant sound of someone chipping away at the sandstone high above me, my recovery began. Blonde Sukie would bound fearlessly ahead, seeking out interesting smells and pushing her snout into rabbits’ holes, whilst jet-black Scout limped along behind her in his rather ungainly fashion, thoroughly enjoying his own exploration of the landscape around him.
Heartbreakingly, we were unable to take our beloved Labradors with us when we left Africa for our next destination, so we had to find them another home. We found a lovely family, but I was devastated. Just before we left, I once more walked the route that I had trodden with them each day. Never had I felt so alone. However, although that walk was full of despair, it was mixed with the poignant sense of being humbled, if that doesn’t sound too gushing, that I once had the privilege of my dogs’ company. That hillside will now always be a precious place of special memories. In my mind’s eye, I still see my dogs leaping from the car and zooming off on an exploratory mission. Their phantom counterparts return to me every so often with wide, doggy grins of pure bliss.
Vanessa Engles recently produced and directed a moving and quirky documentary for BBC2 called ‘Walking with Dogs’, about people who walk their dogs on Hampstead Heath in North London. It
was fascinating to eavesdrop on little snippets of the lives of dogs and their owners as their paths criss-crossed the Heath. As Engles discovered, many dogs had helped to turn their owners’ lives around. Sometimes a dog had been acquired with this very intention, as in the case of a bereaved couple who bought a dog as a distraction after the tragic death of their son in a paragliding accident. Others, such as an ex-con recently released from prison after serving time for GBH, had come by their dogs unexpectedly and had been astounded by the extent to which their lives had improved. Without exception, these owners were to be found walking their dogs every day on the Heath, whatever the weather.
Back in the UK, I decided after a while that I needed to counteract the ache I still felt for Scout and Sukie. Zara, a five year old brown Labrador bitch, hitherto used for breeding purposes, came to me in 2008. She had had a litter every year for four years and as she frolicked like a puppy on the beach near our new home in Northumberland, it was as if she was saying “Yes! I’ve got my life back! Now all we have to do is to see to you!’’ Little by little, with Zara’s help, the daily walks on our beautiful deserted beaches have enabled me to come to terms with leaving my two previous dogs. I love the fact that walking Zara simultaneously stimulates my creativity and tones up my muscles. Being naturally lazy, it wouldn’t take much for me to opt out of a daily walk – driving rain or cold wind, for instance. However, the minute my daughter has disappeared off to school at around 8.30 a.m., I sense Zara’s gently pleading eyes turning my way and hear the soft thump of her tail as she tells me that it’s time. I cannot disappoint her. And so we go – always. It is a satisfyingly grounding feeling to know that there is no option. As a result, I have marched along windswept, hail-blasted and snow-fringed beaches here in Northumberland, swaddled in kagoul, waterproof trousers and hood. And I have never been happier. Mere ‘fair-weather’
walkers don’t stand a chance of experiencing the high that comes with such a hike. It is delightful to meet other dog-walkers, too. There is an immediate bond generated by our dogs’ social rituals which means that conversations with strangers are begun with ease. OK, so your exchange may start with something along the lines of “Down, Lulu! Oh, I am sorry – all over your white trousers,” or “Max, WILL you give her ball back? So sorry, but he thinks every ball on the beach is his,” but will no doubt progress in time to more. Zara is responsible for at least two good friendships which originally started with ‘doggy chat’. In addition, these walks have also enabled me to enjoy much-needed reflective time and promoted a new sense of physical and spiritual well-being. All the while, my chocolate-coloured companion has trotted by my side, looking up occasionally to check that she has my approval before racing away to submerge herself in the foamy shallows of the waves or to chase seagulls far out to sea. Admittedly, this particular therapist has her drawbacks; a penchant for wallowing in the muddiest, foul-smelling puddles or eating unspeakably disgusting things being two of them. But, hey, nobody’s perfect and you just have to laugh. Laughter is a great healer and dogs definitely encourage us to giggle in their therapeutic sessions!
So, whatever your particular ailment, free therapy is available – at the end of a lead!
However, I’m aware that I’m probably preaching to the converted. If you’re reading this article then you almost certainly own a dog. But how about spreading the good news?
by Sally Pumford