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Having a pet has long been an important component of maintaining my mental health. From a very young age I had a profound empathy and respect for animals. As a very shy and quiet child, I found an unspoken deep connection to them.The day my first dog, a Westie named Snowflake, passed away, I may as well have been lost at sea. She meant everything to me. She was with me from the ages of 11-25. I felt I had lost my closest friend and confidante who had supported me throughout those formative years. Had a bad day at school? Snowflake was always there to give comfort and lighten the mood. She helped bring me out of my shell and boldly explore the world more confidently through my days as a socially awkward youth. The grief and depression I experienced from losing her deeply affected me for a long time. I cried myself to sleep for many long nights. I can still picture her now and start to feel emotions well up. I loved her more than I loved most humans. About 8 months after her passing I became acutely aware that I couldn’t imagine a life moving forward without a dog (at least not a happy one). That’s when I found Mouse. She was a stray picked up in Louisiana alongside her brother at a high-kill shelter. She and her brother were lucky enough to be chosen by the Rat Terrier Rescue to cross the border and find a new life in Canada. It is unclear if she ever had a previous owner. I suspect she was possibly the result of a backyard breeder who dumped the puppies. A mystery I’ll never know.
I’m not entirely sure why Mouse caught my attention over all the other dogs on the rescue websites. Actually, that’s not true, she has cute spots and a face that reminds me of a breed that has been widely ostracized and also banned in many countries. That really hit my empathy hard and I knew without a doubt I had to rescue. Having worked at the Toronto Humane Society for two summers while in University for vocal music meant I got a first hand glimpse of what it’s like for the animals. I had loved and cared for so many sweet souls in need that it was a challenge not to bring them all home. Yes, rescue dogs can have challenges and obstacles to overcome, but i think any dog can have a behaviour issue if not afforded the proper guidance and training. The same goes with health issues. If you think purchasing a dog through another source will ensure optimal health, that’s not guaranteed. Any dog could potentially come down with health challenges regardless of where they come from. It pains me to know when people have opted to chose a dog or puppy from a non rescue or shelter source knowing how many abandoned animals are languishing or being prematurely put to death without having had a happy home to call their own. That’s not to say that any shelter dog will be the right fit for your family, but with a littleTLC, knowledge and dedicated work, a dog that matches your energy and lifestyle can have the opportunity to flourish.
It’s extraordinary how acutely a pet can benefit mental health. They help maintain a daily routine especially if you live alone. They are always there to greet you and give their affections. Petting them gives both humans and the pet endorphins and relaxes the heart rate. Dogs in particular encourage a more active, social, and healthy lifestyle. They have proven helpful at boosting human lives in so many different ways. Aside from their abilities at physically helping people and completing important jobs, dogs are pros at providing emotional support. From the average person to those suffering from ptsd or other anxiety disorders, they are acutely aware when humans are in distress and in need of comfort.
Though it’s true that dogs offer a lot of help providing mental support to humans, sometimes they need just as much help. My knowledge of handling psychologically traumatized dogs came from many different sources. Some things came intuitively and some through observation of trainer friends as well as hands on training with the shelter dogs at the Toronto Humane Society. At one point I discovered the practices of Cesar Millan (yes, I know he is a very controversial person in the dog training world) through the show “DogWhisperer”. Watching his show gave me the take away that any dog can be rehabilitated no matter their psychological issues or where they’ve come from. I firmly believe that of both dogs and humans and that they each have the power to emotionally heal one another. Mouse has a lot of anxiety and trauma-based fear when she came to me. She was frequently terrified of my roommate’s laugh, her leash, most men, sewer grates on the street- a lot of things. On top of that, she was diagnosed with heartworm about 5 months in due to a false negative test upon entry to the country. That meant a cocktail of medications/injections and strict crate rest/limited to no exercise for about a year. Though I had worries I would lose my new pet, I didn’t let that deter me from working my hardest to keep Mouse’s young brain active even if her body couldn’t. I used positive reinforcement to gain her trust and respect over time. She was hungry to please and I had lots of treats and praise to give. She turned out to be naturally very smart and so it was very easy to move through hundreds of different commands and help her gain confidence. Though she still does occasionally get a little intimidated by some men, I remind her that there is nothing to fear by remaining calm and making sure she gets treats from the ‘scary’ person.
Two years later, I was going through a challenging time with a relationship that was proving to be very toxic to my emotional well-being. Mouse was instrumental in keeping me grounded and helped me slowly move forward. She knew I was hurting and she was there to comfort me as I had comforted her through her fearful stages. I had falleninto a deep depression. My heart and soul were being repeatedly crushed and I didn’t know how to fix it. Mouse got me out of bed everyday even if I didn’t always want to. She made sure to remind me that we both needed exercise to improve our mental health. I knew Mouse loved other dogs and nothing made me happier than to ultimately see Mouse fulfilled. That’s when I decided to get her a brother and myself a happy distraction from the grief andd epression.
Along came Haku. He is a tri-pawd rescue from Korea. Haku, while instantly less reserved and with a happy-go-lucky attitude, has his own challenges. It is unknown what caused him to lose his limb, but it seems likely he might’ve been hit by a car as a small puppy. He had surgery to remove his shoulder and the stump that he clumsily kept falling on and re-injuring after his arrival to Canada. His disability only limits the amount of time he can walk before he’s too tired, but otherwise lives the life of a normal dog, albeit a little less gracefully. His added presence and ever bountiful silly smile improved my life instantaneously. While he had an over-exuberant puppy tendency to nibble too hard on human appendages, he brought a lot of joy and excitement to the mix. He cannot be more opposing in personality and appearance to Mouse. I chose him despite his obvious disability because I knew a disabled dog would likely be passed up more readily than any other. I was informed that for reasons I don’t understand, that he would most certainly never have been adopted in his home country of South Korea due to his missing limb. He’s a beautiful dog with the most cheerful temperament. What’s not to love?
Fast forward another couple of years as we entered the pandemic around March of 2020. My life had become very stressful once again as I had had to quit my job the previous year due to the fact that the toxic person I had been struggling over was a co-worker that reminded me over and over again of how much they had harmed me emotionally. I had developed a strong anxiety associated with them. That fact aside, the company had also decided to cut my pay but keep the same responsibilities. I constantly missed aspects of my my old job and especially my good friends/ co-workers even though I’d found a new one that treated me well. My basement apartment had begun flooding in every which way and the landlord took far too long to start to address it or take anything seriously. I decided we needed to move out and my roommate/ best friend agreed, but also decided it was the right time for them to move in with his partner. All in one swoop I was to lose my home, my job and the ability to see any of my friends. I called my parents in tears feeling as though I had nowhere left to go.
I made the decision to move in with my parents because I didn’t think I’d be able to afford an apartment on my own nor find a roommate that might be a fit for me and my two dogs in such short notice at the outset of a pandemic.
I recall experiencing anxiety being at my day job at a coffee shop in the days leading up to the first lockdown. A regular customer disclosed to another staff member that they had just returned from travelling abroad despite public health’s recommendations to self isolate for 14 days upon return from travel. Another family brought in their toddler who proceeded to touch everything in sight whilst placing their newborn infant directly on an unsanitized table.
While the days passed, by my mind went back to old memories on repeat, but not necessarily helpful ones. I sunk back into my depressive state and felt unable to accomplish much on any given day. My previously bright and burgeoning career path in aerial (circus) and theatre were abruptly extinguished. My other once held passion for specialty coffee and latte art was also similarly severed. Once I was officially laid off it didn’t feel particularly safe to look for another workplace in the same vein. Besides, what workplace is going to hire more staff after everything is intentionally downsizing the amount of people in contact with one another?
The only thing that has remained consistent in my now barren non-existent schedule ismy dogs. They help to elevate my mental health amidst mandated social isolation and consequent separation from my support network. They continue to bring me out of the house, they don’t judge me or tell me that my life choices are wrong. They calm me down and remind me that there is something good in the world. That we can afford to appreciate the small and simple things, That we’re fortunate to have each other in this broken, crazy world.