I have something of a menagerie at home – cat, sheep, lambs (for a while), hens, chicks – and so when I started talking about getting a dog, eyebrows were raised. ‘Haven’t you got enough on your plate?’ and ‘have you thought this through’ were levied at me.
It’s fair to say I don’t do anything without MASSIVELY over-researching it first. Indeed, making a mercy dash to Dunelm this morning to buy a new kettle as ours had just packed up triggered all kinds of tension as I wasn’t able to conduct my usual weeks of trawling Amazon/John Lewis/Which? reviews beforehand! Anyway, I did massively over-research getting a dog before I made the commitment. And the thing that kept coming up in various guises whilst doing that research was how good dogs are in supporting good mental health.
I haven’t shouted about it (who does), but let’s just say I take a keen interest in mental health issues. Keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s, stress, being constantly available, a competitive society which places huge (often unrealistic) expectations on us and juggling time pressures all take their toll on mental wellbeing. Sometimes, there just aren’t enough hours in the day, are there? You flop in to bed and wonder where the day actually went. What did you actually achieve that really meant something? Or was it just another day of getting by?
Since turning 40, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about contentment and what being happy really means. Granted, to some, working all hours to have that designer wardrobe and the brand-new car on the drive may bring happiness. And if that’s you, good luck to you. I’m not sure 100% that’s me though and so I’ve spent a long time analysing what I’d like to achieve in life. Whilst the dreams of rock stardom or being a Blue Peter presenter may be fading, the theme that keeps cropping up is to simply not let life pass me by. To not get caught in that rut of existing instead of living. Because that’s a one-way route to poor mental and physical health. Trust me.
Anyway, back to dogs. Research shows that having a dog brings feelings of happiness and contentment and increases mental well-being and that’s one reason why I wanted to have one. But they also encourage good physical health too. Fido will, after all, need walking regularly. So, after ridiculous amounts of research and endless family should we/shouldn’t we conversations, we gave a home to Stanley, the cocker spaniel pup. And from the very first day, life has never been the same!
Let’s make no bones about it: having a puppy is hard work. Really hard work. At times, I thought it was harder than having a baby – at least with a baby, its crap stays contained in a nappy and you can put a dummy in its mouth to stop it crying! It’s a total shock: and, I confess, in about week four, I had a wobble and began to wonder if, rather than bringing positive things to my life, this pup was just another thing for me to have to look after/deal with each day.
But, slowly slowly, day-by-day, a bond began to grow. I looked forward to seeing him as much as he did me. To walk in the house and have a living being who is ALWAYS pleased to see you is enough to lift even the hardest of hearts or the most bleak of moods. And over the course of the (almost) year that we’ve had him, Stanley has formed an indelible paw-print on all our lives. He has his own relationship with each of us: with the kids, he’s a sympathetic ear or a play mate, with my other half, he’s a pal that sits up with him after I’ve gone to bed, the pair of them side-by-side on the sofa, keeping each other company. He’s brought a new dynamic to our house; we take him to the beach as a family or we play in the garden with him chasing the kids on their bikes and then when we come in, he curls up for cuddles.
But for me, the bond has been profound. I can’t believe how much I love him – even
when he’s chased the cat for the umpteenth time, or jumped muddy paws up my freshly-washed jeans. But it’s the effect he’s had on my well-being that has most surprised me.
Physically, all the walks pay dividends in terms of burning calories and getting that heart rate up. Today, we’ve done 5km on the cliff paths and burned over 300 calories. Multiply that several times over and that’s a whole lot of cake you can eat!
But it’s the effect he’s had on my overall sense of feeling well that’s most surprising. Sun, rain, sleet or wind, he and I are out there, pounding the fields, lanes and beaches. Stanley running free, taking delight in the smells, sights and sounds around him. And maybe that’s it – because he notices these things, you can’t help but do so yourself. I’ve practised a bit of meditation and mindfulness, but having a dog teaches it in its simplest form – getting out there in nature, noticing the seasons, the weather, the plants and changes going on around you. Saying hello to fellow dog-walkers – even if only passing the time of day, it’s nice feeling part of a community. Being present in the moment, enjoying the fresh air and taking pleasure from the joy that Stanley finds in walking with me.
And at home, if I’ve had a tough day, it’s hard to remain uptight when a happy furry face and a waggy tail greets me when I turn the key in the door. And he and I have some great conversations – I tell him my woes and those big brown eyes look lovingly at me and he listens patiently. More often than not, just that act of getting whatever it is off my chest makes me feel better – who needs therapy, eh?! Indeed, I’m writing this and Stanley’s curled up asleep at my feet after our long walk. His snuffles and snores remind me he’s there, loyally keeping me company. What a love!
I know I have a tendency to sound evangelical. I expound the #goodlife and have written previously about the quest to ‘have it all’. But that comes from having endured the experience of not feeling so great, and in struggling to come to terms with what I want out of life as against what is expected of us. Having Stanley has unlocked a rich seam of contentment and clarified several things for me.
At heart, I guess we’re all looking for love, friendship and health. Whilst we might not be able to find all those things with fellow humans, dogs offer them in bucket-loads and they’re a wonderful antidote to our frenetic, pressured lives. Through my hours of walking with Stanley, I’ve seen double-rainbows, the wind farms of France across the water from my home in Jersey and hawks catching their prey. But as well as really noticing the amazing world around me, I’ve cogitated on things, putting the world to rights either alone or during a good chin-wag when joined by a fellow dog-walker. And I feel great! I feel content. I feel, dare I say it, HAPPY!
I met up with a friend that I hadn’t seen for a good while the other week and, quite unexpectedly he said something that stuck with me, “you’re someone that’s comfortable in your own skin”. And you know what? For the first time, maybe that’s right. I don’t know why that should now be the case and it might be a combination of things – my age, my finding some balance in work/family/health, giving up alcohol, sleeping well etc. But absolutely definitely, without question, one of the things that has contributed to that is Stanley. Stanley the wonder-pup, so much more than just a dog.