Should you get a dog to help your depressed teenager?
Help your teenager

Should you get a dog to help your depressed teenager?

Should you get a dog to help your depressed teenager? Good question. I think it depends on how you, dear parent, are feeling. Here are a few critical questions I think you should ask yourself before you commit.

It was my daughter’s therapist who recommended we get a dog.

To be honest, it felt like more than a recommendation. An order. Get a dog before the school year begins. My husband was open to the idea. My mom, too, was all for it.

“You like dogs,” she said.

Though no one dared to say it out loud, I got the underlying message: A dog might give my very depressed daughter a reason to want to live.

Dogs are good for our health

It’s true. I did the research.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), playing with dogs can raise oxytocin levels, which decreases blood pressure and heart rate and lowers stress, anger and depression.

Petting a dog can boost our immune system by raising immunoglobulin A, the antibodies found in our lungs, stomach, liver and intestines.

Dogs bring microbiomes into our homes, which can improve our gut function, changing how bacteria in our gut metabolizes neurotransmitters that have an impact on our mood.

Furthermore, dogs, as they need to be walked, help facilitate positive behaviours like exercise, social interaction and daily routine. They provide unconditional love, companionship, and a sense of responsibility for someone other than one’s self.

They also make work and mess, and may bring with them a whole new set of problems. So, before commit give some thought to a few critical questions.

Do you want a dog?

Before you agree to get a dog, ask yourself this fundamental question: Do you, parent of depressed teenager and possibly other kids, want a dog?

I know it’s hard to put yourself first when your child’s health is at stake, but your mental health matters, too. You can’t provide the support your teenager needs if you’re barely hanging on.

When we got our dog, a very cute, black lab puppy, I felt like I was already drowning in other people’s needs. The last thing I needed or wanted was another dependent. I got the dog out of guilt.

In return, I got a puppy with sharp little teeth who shed a lot, tracked muddy paw prints through my already messy house, and battled my then nine-year-old son for a higher rank in the pack.

And yes, I did get the odd smile out of my daughter every now and then, but it wasn’t enough. For a long while, I hated that dog. I resented it and everyone who insisted the dog was a good idea.

Maybe you’re in a better place. I hope so. If you are, then by all means, move on to question two.

Do you have time for a dog?

Right now, with the spring weather and everyone stuck at home or working remotely due to COVID-19, it’s easy to make room for a dog in your life.

Walks are welcome diversions, and legitimate ones if your movements are restricted by lockdowns. An early morning walk, before school or work, on a dark, cold or wet winter morning is decidedly less pleasant.

Dogs are long-term commitments, so be sure to think ahead to next year and the next fifteen years.

Who will take care of the dog when school starts up again? What happens during the summer if your child goes away to camp or has a full-time job? Where does the dog go when they head off to university?

Also, think through what happens if your teenager’s health declines. Or if maybe, they’re overestimating their capabilities when they insist they’ll take care of the dog.

Severely depressed teens do not walk dogs. At least not in my experience.

Similarly, what happens when your teen starts feeling better? They’re a teenager after all. There’s a very good chance they’ll have better things to do.

Will they want to come home after school to let the dog out or get up Saturday morning after the Friday night party? Who’s filling in when they’re out?

Can you afford a dog?

My daughter did weekly therapy for years. My health insurance covered just over a month of sessions. Costs add up, so make sure you give due consideration to your finances before adding a dog to the mix. Especially now with our uncertain economy.

Whether you’re adopting an older dog or a taking on a new puppy, budget not only for food and training and cute toys and colourful leashes, but also for pet insurance or unexpected vet bills.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but you should also consider what happens if your dog gets sick or injured. Can you handle the added stress, emotional and financial, of a sick dog and a consequently devastated teenager with mental health challenges?

Likewise, consider what happens if your teenager has a crisis. Do you have backup for the dog if you find yourself unexpectedly in emergency or unable to leave your house?

It might be a good idea to have a dog walker on hand or better, a friend or relative who can step in for free if you need to step out.

Will you adopt a dog or buy from a breeder?

If you’re still on board with the dog idea, start thinking about what kind of dog will work best for your family. Most adoption sites like the Humane Society and PetFinder have “Find My Match” surveys you can take to help narrow your search.  

If you’ve never owned a dog, definitely do your research, especially if you’re planning on getting a puppy. Puppies are like babies, so ask yourself this: do you want another baby? 

Having raised a demented chocolate lab from eight weeks old to the ripe old age of nearly 17, I decided that for my second dog, I wanted an older, adopted dog. A kind, mellow middle-aged rescue who in turn would rescue my family.

My daughter and I hit up our local shelter for weeks and trolled adopt-a-dog sites, sharing adorable pictures of animals in need of their forever home. For a while, it was fun. Mostly because she was talking to me.

The problem, I soon discovered, is that a lot of shelter dogs had health or behavioural problems, requiring extra care or training.

I, too, had problems. I didn’t want or need more. The good dogs, the healthy, well-adjusted ones, went like hotcakes.

After a couple months of repeatedly dashing the hopes of my already hopeless daughter, my husband and I decided enough. We put a fat deposit down with a reputable breeder, bought a dog crate, a bright red collar, and chew toys.

Will you be disappointed if the dog doesn’t cure your teen’s depression?

Our dog, Tom Tomson, is an Olympic athlete of a dog with more love to give than any living, breathing thing in this world. He’s a great dog, but he did not cure my daughter’s depression.

Am I disappointed? No way. Would I do it over again? I think I would.

Though the dog brought with him a whole host of problems, he’s filled the void in our lives. When my daughter stopped allowing any physical contact, Tom stepped in, gladly accepting whatever physical affection he could get. And when we were all spinning off in our own orbit of stress and grief, he kept us tethered. He’s consistent and predictable in our very unpredictable world.

And unlike the rest of us, Tom lets everything go. In an instant. He’s a true expert in mindfulness. Like my own little Yogi, he’s here to remind me that every new day is just that. A fresh start that starts on a high, regardless of the weather, the hour, or what happened the night before.

So, should you get a dog to help your depressed teenager? I think you’re asking the wrong question. Instead, ask yourself if you want a dog? If you do, and you can afford the time and expense and emotional investment, not just now, but long into the future, go for it! Dogs really are good for our mental health.

Further Reading:

Call Crisis Services Canada if you are thinking about suicide or worried about a loved one. It’s available 24/7 by phone and 4pm to 12am ET by text. Call 1-1833-456-4566 or text 45645.