Mental Health Awareness Week and our dogs

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Walk your dogs in nature to improve mental health

Mental Health Awareness Week

This week, in the UK, is Mental Health Awareness week.

According to the Mental Health Foundation the week is about about raising awareness of mental health and mental health problems and inspiring action to promote the message of good mental health for all.

This year the focus for the week is on stress:

“Research has shown that two thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes, and stress is a key factor in this.
By tackling stress, we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and, in some instances, self-harm and suicide.”

Do you ever feel stressed? How do you manage it? Apparently a certain amount of stress is necessary, even good. Its HOW we manage our stress that seems to be important to our health.

Mental Health and Our Dogs

What does this mean to our dogs?

In February this year the Center for Canine Behaviour Studies published the findings from their Animal Owner Interactions Study . The research article is Associations between owner personality and psychological status and the prevalence of canine behavior problems

The study looks at the link between owner personality, canine behaviour and choice of training method. The original aim of the study was to build on previous studies that have linked owners’ personality and psychological status with the prevalence and/or severity of their dogs’ behavior problems.  This study was looking to ascertain if it was the choice of training methods that affected dog behaviour.  The researchers found only weak evidence to support the hypothesis that the relationships between owner personality and dog behaviour were mediated via the owners’ use of punitive training methods. They did show a connection between human personality traits and their dogs’ behaviours. Of the range of human personality traits looked at, 'emotional stability' of the owner positively correlated with the largest number of behaviour traits in dogs, effecting 13 of the 18 dog behavioural traits.

In other words, the more emotionally stable the owner identified themselves as, the less of the behaviour traits were shown by their dogs.

From the study, in the main conclusions:

"The study ... detected significant associations between four of the `Big Five' owner personality traits and the prevalence of some canine behaviour problems, but found little evidence to support the hypothesis that style of training mediates these effects.

All statistically significant associations between owner psychological variables, attitudes to training, and dog mini C-BARQ scores.

Personal Experience

Mental Health is important to everyone, but like a lot of things we can take it for granted. Until we have problems.

Up until 7 years ago I never really thought about mental health. I was just busy getting on with what I had to do. But then, along with many others before me, I became one of these statistics. I went off sick from my full-time job.  My GP signed me off with stress.

Why?

On the face of it, I wasn’t in a very stressful job. Unlike previous positions in my career, Hospitals were not relying on me to keep the IT services running. I wasn’t responsible for a network of 100s of PCs supporting doctors and nurses.

But I wasn't happy about the job I was in.  And I couldn't see how to get out of it.

I had been unhappy for a while. I had been self-medicating for some time.  I'm referring to those glasses of wine in the evening that were helping me get up the next day! I had come to realise that they were also preventing me from making changes in my life. So I had stopped drinking. A week later I couldn’t stop crying.

It seemed I could no longer cope with the simplest of things. It was embarrassing, bursting into tears in public. I was totally panicked at the thought of  meeting people, even friends. As I tried to deal with this I worried about the role model I was giving to my daughters. I was so used to 'coping' that I judged this as totally unacceptable behaviour

7 years on its clear to me that just ‘coping’ was at the root of my problem.

A few months into my sick leave I started to attend a person-centred counsellor. During one session he asked me how I felt. It seems strange to recall it now, but at the time I I had no idea how to answer. It was as if he was speaking in another language. I did not have the concept of ‘how I feel’. I had somehow switched that sensing ability off. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. How many of us stop attending to our own feelings as a way of coping with things that we don’t like and that we can’t control?  Its a way of dealing with the ‘stuff’ around us. It turned out that my way of dealing with stuff was now causing me problems.

I had been shown what happened if I didn’t pay attention to how I felt. The feelings had got stronger and had almost incapacitated me from what had been 'normal' life.  Now I was FORCED to notice how I was feeling. As I did so, I noticed how the dogs were behaving. I have written a number of posts about this which might be of interest when thinking about your own circumstances.

A few experiences with my hound are described in Your dog, your emotions   Posts like Why does a dog chew what it chews?  Why does your dog hump you?  and Why does a dog retrieve what it retrieves?  are some of the other posts that link to my feelings to my dogs' behaviour.

How our emotions show in our dogs

Dogs are good for our health we are told. We are told 'Get out in nature and walk with your dog.  It will reduce stress'.  Stroke a dog and you will release oxytocin in you and your dog, which will make you both feel good.    But our relationship with our dogs can also be a source of stress.  A walk in nature with our dog might not be so good if we're worried about them chasing wildlife, for example. Or if they are reactive when meeting other dogs. And those sorts of situations are common for many of us.

The situations with our dogs that cause us stress can actually be telling us something about our own mental health.  If our dog is reactive when it meets another dog we can ask ourselves, how do we feel when we meet someone else?  Are we totally calm with it, or does it create some tension in ourselves?  When our dog doesn't come back when called, how does it make us feel?

If you are someone who lives with dogs and are frustrated by their behaviour, you might find that your relationship with them is being affected by how you feel.  If possible, try and connect with your own feelings when they are doing something that pushes your buttons.  I have a self-help resource here that you can try out.

If you have a dog that gets excited when you are getting ready to go for a walk, you can try this simple exercise to demonstrate what I am talking about.  Maybe your dog rushes around the house while you're trying to get their lead on, or they pull you out of the door as soon as you do.  Next time you're getting ready for a walk and there is chaos in the house, try this:

  • Stop what you are doing, stand still
  • Breath. Notice your breathing
  • Check your body for tension.
  • Breath that tension out.
  • Drop your shoulders. Relax your hands. Wherever you are holding the tension, let it go.
  • Notice how you feel.
  • Let go of any judgemental thoughts - like 'I'm not doing this right', 'why won't he just sit still', 'I haven't got time for this' Let them go
  • Try and get a sense of slowing down and accepting whatever is going on around you
  • Notice how your dog (or dogs) respond

If you managed to have a go, well done!

Did their excitement calm down? It might only be slight. It might have been only for a nanosecond. But if you see any change at all, you are seeing proof of how your emotions are affecting your dog’s behaviour.

Congratulate yourself! Know that in that moment, you have positively worked with your mental health and taken a step towards reducing your stress! If you only do that for 30 seconds before you take your dog for a walk, on the occasions that you remember, or have time, it will help both you and your dog.

If you give it a go let us know how you get on in the comment section below.

Happy Mental Health!

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