Self-care for parents

Depressed teenagers do not walk dogs

Depressed teenagers do not walk dogs. At least not in my experience. I thought you should know in case you were thinking about getting a dog to help improve your teenager’s depression.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t go ahead and do it. Dogs really are good for our mental health. I just think it’s important that as the parent, you enter into the experience with eyes wide open.

Getting a dog when your child is depressed, I discovered, is not an easy task. And even though I like dogs well enough and was an experienced dog owner, the process unleashed a whole torrent of emotion I didn’t see coming.

Tom, the black lab puppy, might look irresistible, but overwhelmed by other people's needs, he just looked like one more weight to carry to me.
As cute as Tom was, he didn’t cure or even change my daughter’s depression.

Do you need a dog?

It was my daughter’s therapist who recommended we get a dog about six or seven months into my daughter’s depression. She and my daughter had discussed it. They both felt it would help.

While I liked dogs well enough, I didn’t want or need a dog.

I had had a dog. A beautiful, demented chocolate lab who lived until she was nearly seventeen. I got her before I had kids. We had put her down about a year prior, and I didn’t feel ready for another dog.

Truth be told, I was drowning in other people’s needs. My daughter’s health, or absence of health, was pulling my insides out. We were spending a small fortune every month on therapy and I wasn’t sleeping. Frankly, just thinking about getting a dog made me want to scream.

Instead, what I wanted was to disappear, without drama or aftermath. I would start and end each day wishing it would all just stop. Not in a suicidal way, but in a magical ‘Poof! I’m gone’ sort of way. I definitely did not need a dog.

Getting a dog out of guilt

Regardless of what I wanted, my daughter and her therapist persisted. My husband was open to the idea. Maybe it would help.

The underlying thought, though no one dared say it out loud, was that a dog would give my daughter a reason to want to live.

Dogs, they argued, are good for depression. 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.

When I mentioned the idea to my mom, she, too, thought a dog might help. Dogs are good for people. They’re therapeutic, she said. You like dogs.

In my head, this sounded more like, ‘the only thing standing in the way of your daughter’s recovery is your own selfishness.’ Riddled with guilt, I agreed to get a dog.

Dogs are work

Despite the fact that the dog was very cute, I hated the dog. As much as you can hate a black lab puppy.

He might have softened my daughter’s heart, but he turned mine to stone. I was bitter and resentful of this one more ask of me, and everyone around me felt it. I admit, I was ugly.

Dogs are work. I knew this, of course, having owned a dog as an adult for seventeen years. Somehow I let my family convince me this time would be different. I would be off the hook. It was my daughter’s dog.

Be warned: No matter how much your teen tells you they’ll step up and do the work, assume they’re overestimating their capabilities.

Why? Because they’re depressed. Dogs do not fix this, at least not immediately. At least not in my experience.

Is getting your teenager to have a shower or go to school or come out of their room hard? Try getting them to walk the dog in the morning before school.

If social interactions cause anxiety for your child, sending them off to a dog park to make small talk with a bunch of strangers and a dog, who does embarrassing things like eat poop or steal other people’s toys, might be too much for them to handle.

And when they do feel better, guess what? They’ve got better things to do. You want to join a sports team? Great! Go for it. Don’t worry about the dog. You want to go out with friends after school. Awesome! I’ll walk the dog!

If you’re thinking about getting a dog, consider whether or not you want to be the dog’s primary caregiver. Are you up for walking the dog, feeding the dog, training the dog and going to get dog food at nine at night?

Can you handle the added stress, emotional and financial, of a sick or injured dog and a consequently devastated depressed teen? Will muddy paw prints and dog hair, in addition to your often not so tidy teenager, put you over the edge.

If that all sounds good to you, a dog might be just the thing.

Adopting a dog

I know what you’re thinking: You don’t have to get a puppy.

We actually tried to adopt a dog from one of the online dog sites. It seemed the appropriate thing to do. We’d find a kind, mellow middle-aged rescue dog who in turn would rescue us.

We sat down as a family to settle on our search criteria. We agreed on a mid-size dog — we were not a small dog family.

I wanted the dog to be leash-trained and manageable for the kids. The kids wanted the dog to be cute looking, or ugly enough to be cute. My husband wanted a well-bred puppy from a reputable breeder, but agreed to go along.

Then, my daughter and I trolled dog adoption sites looking for “the one.”It was fun at first. She talked to me, so that was new. I began to hope that maybe a dog really would fix our problems.

When we found one that met our criteria, I filled out a questionnaire and ticked the boxes: fenced yard, previous dog-owning experience, local vet. Yes, yes, yes. And then the kicker: Are there any behavioural problems that would be a deal breaker for you?

I answered honestly. I had enough behavioural problems, thank you very much. No, I wasn’t prepared to work with a positive-based trainer to cure my dog of aggressive or destructive behaviour. It was the wrong answer.

The selfless foster mom of the dog wrote back to tell me that all dogs had problems. If I wasn’t prepared to love the dog regardless, and do everything in my power to help it, maybe I wasn’t fit for dog ownership.

I did not handle it well. Nor did my daughter, who felt I’d sabotaged the whole operation on purpose. She started responding to dog ads on her own using my name. I didn’t handle that well either.

Getting a dog from a shelter

Not to be defeated, we hit the local animal shelter only to encounter a new set of problems. The cute dogs without a hisotry of aggression or expensive health issues went like hotcakes.

Every weekend for weeks, we’d visit the shelter, searching for our dog. One prospect was still being treated for medical issues. Another was pending adoption. We found two we loved, but they went only as a pair. Could we get two dogs? Absolutely not.

Week after week, we’d go home empty handed and my daughter would retreat to her room for the rest of the day.

I began to think that repeatedly dashing the hopes of someone who is already hopeless was not a good idea.

Getting a dog from a breeder

In the end, my husband called a breeder who had a litter of black lab puppies due in a couple months. We put down a hefty deposit on a male dog, bought a dog crate, and reconnected with our old dog walker.

The kids named the dog Tom Thomson, an ode to their camp life and the late painter, one of my daughter’s favourites. He was beautiful, born and bred from champion field dogs, an olympic athlete of a dog with plenty of potential.

He was also an idiot, much like my old dog. Which makes me think that as a family we create big, messy family dogs that sleep on the couch and track mud on the floors and lick your face. Nurture vs nature.

We picked him up when the kids were away at camp. For three weeks, childless for a change, my husband and I took turns getting up in the middle of the night to take the puppy out to pee, tossing in bed while the dog whined for its litter mates.

The problem with puppies

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you should know that a puppy will only add to the chaos. And not in a good way.

In the months that followed, there were so many lessons to be learned: how to heel, sit and wait. How to not jump up on the counter, jump on our aging parents, bite the kids, or pull threads out of our rugs.

Holding my daughter and husband to their word, I left the dog training to them. I would follow the protocol, but I would not rush home from work to take the dog to puppy school.

I also refused for a time to walk the dog, despite being the only morning person in the family. Tom pulled constantly on the leash. I didn’t have the patience for it. So while my husband casually ate his breakfast and read the paper, the dog would expend his tremendous amount of energy annoying everyone.

Mornings were marked by grumbles about having to let the dog in and out repeatedly, and people freaking out when the dog snatched their breakfast from the table. I started walking around the house in the mornings plugged into my iPad and Netflix. I told you I was ugly.

Then, for several months, the dog no longer a small puppy, set out to establish himself as alpha dog over my son, the youngest in our litter. It was a brand new problem for our problem-filled home.

What’s more, the dog did nothing to cure my daughter’s depression. In fact, her mental health barely changed.

Dogs can fill a void

Much to my surprise, the dog healed me more than my daughter.

Though he had every reason to love me less than the others, or ignore me altogether, he didn’t. He simply waited for me. And when I finally got to a place where I could see him for what he was, he was all in. Immediately and unconditionally.

For a time, he was the lynchpin of our family. The only connective tissue between us, patiently holding the space while we drifted into our own orbits and welcoming each of us back into the fold with unrestrained enthusiasm.

Maybe petting him did raise my oxytocin levels, but more than that, I think he filled the void my daughter left when she started refusing physical contact. While I couldn’t touch, let alone hug, my daughter for a couple years, Tom couldn’t get enough love.

Somehow, he got into the habit of cuddling with me every night on the couch. He’d force his way in, climbing across my son or husband to sit beside me and press his head into my chest. As if he knew what I needed.

Dogs can encourage exercise

Eventually, I started walking the dog, more out of necessity rather than choice.

My husband’s work took him out of town regularly. My son was too small to manage the dog on his own, and it took a full day, on good days, for my daughter to work up to walking the dog.

In an effort to tire out the dog, I started going further afield for our walks to an off-leash park by the lake or trekking through ravines. I’d go for an hour or more, listen to podcasts or music or the wind and water. It was the escape I’d been craving.

Dogs can promote family bonding

In those days, we didn’t do much as a family. My daughter most often declined family outings, family dinners, family anything. But a family walk with the dog was harder to resist s it was by far the dog’s most favourite thing in the world.

To extend our time together, I searched out hiking routes and discovered a beautiful off-leash park with mature trees, acres of wide walking paths covered in pine needles, and a pond in the middle.

Tom learned to swim there, one rainy day, coaxed and cheered on by the whole family. My husband and I held hands and the kids talked to one another. For a brief moment in time, it seemed like we might all survive this thing called depression.

Dogs are experts in mindfulness

Unlike the rest of us, Tom doesn’t hold grudges or store up injustices. He lets everything go. A true expert in mindfulness, open and honest, and pure of thought.

He’s also reassuringly consistent and predictable in what has been a very unpredictable world.

Like my own little Yogi, he’s here to remind me that every new day is just that. A fresh start. A chance to try again. It doesn’t matter if the sun’s shining or the skies are teaming with rain, he reminds me that I, too, can experience joy today, if I allow it.

And if I’m not in a head space to listen to him and accept his teachings, he backs off. He’s not offended or angry. It’s as if he knows without doubt that tomorrow will be better.

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