Friday, December 15, 2017

The Benefits of Having an Emotional Support Dog

When You Are Sick They Are There for You

I was diagnosed with schizophrenia over 12 years ago, when I turned 40. I had persecution paranoia, severe anxiety and was hearing and following voices. I also had delusions that were very beautiful and although brief in duration, they gave me great insight into what seemed to be a very spiritual world. It took a few months, but the right medications were found for me which turned down the volume on the voices I was hearing. I was relieved that the evil voices were gone, but saddened that those that seemed good were also gone. The one thing I learned early on in my illness, however, was that all the voices lied, regardless of my interpretations. This was hard to believe for one as trusting as I.

During this period, I had two miniature pinscher dogs that were my constant companions. Although they could not help with the voices I heard, they did comfort me and give me a reason to get up in the morning and deal with the day. I would jog with them in the morning and that helped with the anxiety, and when I was hearing frightening scenarios at night, they knew I was distressed and in fear and would curl up beside me as I laid in bed with fast beating heart and rapid breathing. 

Both dogs have since passed away, but last year I was blessed to get another dog—a miniature pinscher/chihuahua mix puppy that I named Elsa. She is a constant source of joy for me as she gives me an outlet to release some of the love I have inside. And she feels the same towards me and follows me around wherever I go. There is something about having a dog that benefits me. 

It has been found that Oxytocin, a powerful hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain, increases when we stare into the eyes of our dog. Oxytocin, also called the love hormone, creates a bonding loop between dog and human; its release into defined regions of the brain affects emotional, cognitive, and social behaviors. That is why so many people say they feel better after spending time with their dog. This bonding loop also holds true for cats, but to a lesser degree. 

“It’s an incredible finding that suggests that dogs have hijacked the human bonding system,” says Brian Hare, an expert on canine cognition at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  Hare says the discovery might lead to a better understanding of why service dogs are so helpful for people with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

But Elsa is not a service dog; she is an emotional support dog. Emotional support dogs assist people who suffer from a wide range of mental illnesses. They perform no specific tasks but rather provide comfort, support and emotional stability in the forms of affection and companionship. 

All this information aside, what does this mean for me in terms of my dog? Well, when I am in distress, she runs to my side and gives me kisses, and when I am feeling depressed or anxious, she simply stays near me and reminds me that there is a life form who cares. She gives me a reason to go out for long walks which helps keep me healthy, both in body and mind. She is my mood stabilizer as I can hug her when needed and I always get back a loving response. 
Having a dog gets me out of the house and enables me to socialize with people in my neighborhood. Even when I feel like isolating, people will approach and ask about her; or, if they have a dog too, our dogs will socialize while we humans chat a bit. People walking dogs just seem more approachable. 

At home, I am never alone. So, when I clean and cook or am reading a book or playing piano, she is near to me, watching my every move and keeping me company. She helps ground me in reality as she does not let my thoughts wander too far off track. If they do, she nudges me with her nose and lets me know that it is time to do something else.   

There is great responsibility in caring for a dog, however. Illness or injury can affect her life in which case I must be prepared to obtain veterinary care. Recently, she had a growth appear on her leg and I was very worried, but had to make a decision to forego the vet and treat with a topical agent that was recommended to me as the growth was thought to be bacterial in nature. Fortunately, this did the trick and her leg got better. But not all things can be treated this way and one must be prepared to pay for vet care. 

One should write down the pros and cons of having a dog before getting one. And then, once a decision is reached, if a dog is desired, find one with the right energy level to match your lifestyle. Elsa has a good deal of energy in her so I must exercise her well during the day. This entails long walks and play time and training time. She is a perfect match for me because I wanted a dog to exercise with as well as having a companion. 

Dogs are not cuddle toys to make one feel better. They have needs and feelings just like any living being and should be respected. It is a privilege to have a dog, which is not something to take for granted. 

I care for, love and respect my dog and in turn I am given an abundance of love and support from her. She is there for me 24/7 and is in tune to my many states. My dog is central to my emotional well-being as a person who lives with a severe form of mental illness. While Elsa cannot eliminate symptoms when they arise, she can help alleviate the power they have over me. This small loving dog gives me the support I need to face my daily challenges and move forward with my life. 

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