This International Dog Day, let's celebrate what dogs do for our mental health

By Hayley Smith, Fundraiser (Trusts and Foundations) at Kidscape

I count myself as incredibly lucky to have been born into a “dog family”.

My parents had already had our rescue dog, Nero, for seven years before I came along, and so I truly grew up with him. Nero was my loyal and non-judgemental best friend; I struggled to make human friends at primary school, and unfortunately experienced bullying throughout. Nero was amazing at sensing my emotions, and was always there for me. I never felt lonely when Nero was around. Luckily, he lived a long life, but I was still heartbroken when he passed away when I was 10 years old.

We didn’t have a family dog after that, but I always knew I would adopt a dog of my own someday. After living in a string of apartments where pets weren’t allowed, in our new home three years ago, my husband and I decided the time had come to take the plunge.

There was never a question in our minds that we would adopt a dog rather than buying. Firstly, there’s no way we could ever have afforded the thousands of pounds a friend of mine was quoted for a puppy, and my beloved Nero had been a stray, so it had always been important to me.

I will never forget the first time I locked eyes with our amazing dog, Melo. I had dutifully filled out an adoption application form for a rescue centre, and sat through a gruelling interview where the centre’s boss grilled me to make sure my doggy intentions were good. After seemingly passing the test, she took me around the huge shelter and introduced me to my “matches”. After meeting several adorable pups of all shapes and sizes, she had to nip into the infirmary to deal with an issue. I followed behind, and that’s when I saw him; a tiny thing with the daintiest paws and waggiest tail I’d ever seen, staring at me and willing me to go over and pet him. And that was it. Game over.

The first few weeks were consumed with figuring out a routine that best suited the three of us, looking at him adoringly, and working out what his various whines and whimpers meant (he’s quite a vocal dog but, thankfully, doesn’t bark much). Slowly but surely, we realised that he, and we, were all settled, and we were officially a happy pack.

Depression and anxiety have unfortunately been a part of my life since I was a child. I have received amazing support over the years and medication really helps me, but having Melo around is, without a doubt, a natural stress reliever! Interacting with dogs has been shown to trigger the release of oxytocin and endorphins (hormones that induce feelings of happiness and relaxation), and lower cortisol levels, which reduce stress and anxiety. During some of my lower points over the last couple of years, even the simple act of needing to take Melo out for walks, or making sure I’m taking time out of my working day to play with him or give him a little cuddle, has been enough to improve my overall mood.

Melo surprises us in the best ways, and makes us smile every single day. It is important to remember that he is a dog, not a miracle worker; but the holistic positive impact he has had on my mental health is undeniable.

The three of us (Melo included) continued to visit the shelter regularly as we volunteered to walk some of the as-yet unadopted dogs. This is how we ended up adopting our second dog, Aisha! Aisha is a much older dog and has some health complications, so having two dogs has brought some extra challenges. But given that dogs are such social animals, Melo and Aisha’s interactions with each other can be a delightful source of entertainment. Without a doubt, our house is a more cheerful, mood-boosting place just because they are in it.


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