Dogs and mental health: A man’s best friend or man’s best foe? - Humantold

Dogs and mental health: A man’s best friend or man’s best foe?

Brianna Halasa, MHC-LP November 30, 2022

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we endearingly refer to our dogs as “a man’s best friend.”

I question this saying for two reasons: not only is it highly patriarchal, but also, is that how you let your best friend treat you? I don’t know about you, but if my human best friend required me to pay for their food, rent and medical expenses in exchange for their love, I would consider that a highly manipulative friendship, no? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

Let me tell you what this “best friend” of mine did just today. My “best friend” woke up with a swollen and gunk-filled right eye. I sound uncompassionate, but she inflicted this upon herself. It’s probably from her rubbing her head through some filth on our daily jaunts to either Central or Riverside Parks. I say this, because she has been known to roll around in dead animal carcasses, which Google reported to me is an evolutionary behavior that stems from ancient wolves who would rub themselves with other scents to mask theirs. This would allow them to be more unassuming while they hunted for prey. Logically, I understand this, but when I saw my miniature labradoodle rubbing herself in a decaying rat carcass in Riverside Park, all logic flew out the window. My daily meditation practice? No evidence of it existed whatsoever as I ran, arms flailing, in her direction commanding her to “LEAVE IT!” I mean, let’s be real – what prey does she think she will be hunting in New York City unless she is thinking of her one cup of holistic dog food that she is served in the morning and evening? So, all of this is to say that after a $183 vet visit at 9:00 a.m., and a diagnosis of conjunctivitis, who knows where it originated. 

Sadly, that was the easy part. The hard part began as I tried to hold her head still while putting the three-part antibiotic treatment into her eye. There was a lot of coaxing with treats and an animal who looked utterly betrayed by my invasion of her personal space. “I’m trying to help you!” I purred, but the look of horror in her eyes indicated disbelief. 

We had a few solid hours of calm until I took her for a walk in the deathtrap that is known as Riverside Park. Sure, we’ve had our fair share of nice, peaceful walks in this park, but it only takes one walk to offset the rest. As we were just leaving the park unscathed, I noticed from the corner of my eye that my dog, quiet as a whisper, had snuck something into her mouth. One lick of the lips and I realized she was up to no good. 

Instinctively, I reached into her mouth to grab it. You don’t realize how many half-eaten chicken bones are on the street until you have an animal. I am convinced that when I see her mouth twitch or her legs kick in her sleep she is dreaming of the very moment when I finally let her snatch and gobble up a half-eaten fried chicken bone off the sidewalk. 

So, with my hand halfway in her mouth, I realized I made a grave mistake. This is what I get for taking my eyes off her for a millisecond. I cursed myself. In her mouth was not the chicken bone I anticipated. It was globular, mushy. Then came the smell. I didn’t need to take my hand out to realize what it was. With my clean hand, I finagled my bag off my shoulders, grabbed the Purell that was easily accessible for this very moment, and doused my feces-covered hand. 

Is it human feces? Is it animal feces? I’m sad to report that it was the former. No amount of Purell does the trick. Luckily I also had a sanitizing wipe in my bag, which greatly helped rub off the filth but did not eliminate the stench. We finally made it to my apartment, where no amount of soap and water would eradicate the foulness. I am unhappy to report that I am typing this with my hands thoroughly washed – I’m talking way more than the CDC-recommended 20 seconds, but rather five times through, dried and doused with Purell in between – and my hands still stink. My dog, on the other hand, is sleeping peacefully on my bed. I’d like to re-emphasize that all this happened just today. Don’t even get me started on the situation that prompted me to write this blog post. 

Now, you might be thinking: Brianna, dearest, might you invest in dog training? To which I would sarcastically respond, “Training? Never heard of it!” Emphasis on sarcasm. We have been to three different months-long group training classes and numerous individual training classes. They help, but just like I see with many of my clients in the therapy room, change takes time. Dogs and clients have a mind of their own. And let’s be real, if I saw a hundred-dollar bill (or in dog terms, a chicken bone) on the sidewalk, I would be lunging at it too!  

I laugh at my early-pandemic self, like all other pandemic puppy owners, thinking it was the perfect time to get a puppy! They’re supposed to help with mental health, right? She’ll be a good distraction, take my mind off everything. Well, the truth of it is that there is no “quick fix” to the anxiety stemming from an imploding world. My anxiety about life shifted to anxiety about my dog. Sometimes it oscillated. Sometimes it compounded. It’s always easier to hope that an external source can fix the deep-seated dysfunction that lingers, waiting to be addressed. 

I’m too harsh though. My dog has improved my mental hygiene, but not in the way I anticipated. She made me realize that I cannot throw my problems onto her. I need to continue putting in the uncomfortable work to change and improve myself, just as I expect my puppy to change her maladaptive behaviors in her training classes. We’re in this together, in a way.

She’s also helped me stay more present. Sure, I can endlessly worry about my dog sneaking something off the street and whether it will make her sick all over my hardwood floor (best case scenario) or carpet, couch, or bed (worst case scenario, all of which have happened). But right now, at this moment, she is fine. That’s all I can focus on. The present moment. I’ll deal with the rest as it comes. 

Furthermore, our long walks have allowed me to get rid of some of my excess anxious energy through movement. They also force me to engage with more of the world. Getting 10,000 steps a day? Easy. The bare minimum. My small talk skills have improved a hundredfold, as well, as I wait for my dog to finish sniffing other dogs’ behinds. I’ve even made a few dog mom friends, and we have playdates. My pup forces my ambivert self to engage with others in a way I didn’t before. And she staves off loneliness since I have full conversations with her (don’t judge). She’s my encouragement to get out of bed in the morning – gotta walk the dog! And it sure helps at night when she nestles into my side and peers up at me with her honey-colored puppy dog eyes. All the day’s troubles evaporate. 

Dammit, my dog is my very best friend. 

Related Blogs

The Rising Cost Of Living: Why Has Self-Care Become A Luxury? 

Aubrey Dillane, MHC-LP April 11, 2024 Read More

Thriving in the City: Managing Noise and Busyness in NYC

Brianna Campbell, MHC-LP April 4, 2024 Read More

Navigating Drinking Culture in New York City

Lizzie O’Leary, MHC-LP, MSEd March 28, 2024 Read More

Overcoming Dating Struggles in New York City

Kirk Pineda March 21, 2024 Read More

Join Our Community: