How My Dog Improved My Mental Health

I was five years old when my family brought home our new puppy — a golden retriever who was exceptionally beautiful and sweet. (Not that I'm biased or anything.) Bonnie lived a long and happy life, but I cried for weeks when she died the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I was heartbroken because couldn't really remember what life was like before her; but more importantly, she had been there for me during the hardest times of my life and she was living proof that a dog can help with mental health. August 26 is National Dog Day, so I can't think of a better time to talk about the impact dogs have on our lives — especially those of us who have mental health issues such as depression, anxiety disorder, and PTSD.

After a bad day, coming home to a dog is often a comforting and amazing feeling. But, studies have shown that they provide way more than that — pets and service dogs provide tremendous support to individuals with anxiety and depression. As someone who has dealt with a number of mental health issues throughout my life, I can safely say that Bonnie helped me more than some therapists and medications. How can a furry friend improve our mental health when they, you know, can't even offer words of support? In my case, that's part of the reason Bonnie was such a source of comfort. She wasn't bred or trained to be an emotional support dog, but she could always sense when I was struggling.

Often, the advice that people give to friends and family members dealing with a mental illness is extremely well-intentioned — but it's not always helpful. And some (but certainly not all) people who don't understand depression or anxiety may chalk it up to a person being dramatic, lazy, or simply a negative individual who is no fun to be around. When you're in the depths of a mental illness, certain friends may walk away and it's a painful way to learn who your true friends are.

But Bonnie didn't care about any of that — she provided me with unconditional love on my worst days and I didn't have to explain to her why I was so down. And, honestly, it was the best thing in the world to be supported by someone who didn't require words. After countless therapy sessions and weeks spent in eating disorder treatment centers, I was pretty sick of talking about my problems ad nauseam.

Bonnie's mere presence was calming. She didn't ask questions, or offer empty words — she just settled down next to me, snuggled, and gave me kisses (I was the only one in the family who loved dog kisses). Golden retrievers are extremely calm animals, and her loving demeanor calmed me down, too. On the days when the outside world felt too overwhelming, I never felt alone or lonely because Bonnie's presence was more than good enough for me.

And, although she didn't force me to attend social situations that felt overwhelming , she did get me out of the house in a good way. Regardless of how miserable I felt, she still needed to be walked and spend time outside — and she absolutely loved swimming in the summer. Taking care of her benefited me and gave me a sense of purpose because I know that she relied on me, too.

On the days when I felt worthless and useless, it helped to know that I could at least do something right and keep Bonnie active and healthy. These activities helped me get out of my own head, something that I desperately needed. Therapists and even friends came and went — but she was my constant source of support for over a decade.

Bonnie died in August 2006, a few weeks before it was time to head back to college. I'd had a rough freshman year — after a major eating disorder relapse, I spent most of the summer at a residential treatment center. Every time I called home, the first thing I asked my mom was how Bonnie was doing. She tried to gently warn me that she was "getting old" and "slowing down." I remained in denial until I got home and saw how quickly she'd deteriorated over the past few months.

She didn't want to eat (which was unheard of for Bonnie) and she couldn't climb the stairs, which she hated because she desperately wanted to be as close to us as possible at all times. I spent more than a few nights sleeping on the downstairs hardwood floors with her, because I finally accepted that she didn't have much time left and I didn't want to waste a second.

We had to put her to sleep shortly after I got home — I think she'd been ready to die for a while, but I believe that she waited until I came home and she saw that I was OK. I know this may sound a little far-fetched, but dogs are deeply attuned to humans and the last time she'd seen me, I was at one of the lowest points of my life.

Nearly a decade after Bonnie's death, I still think of her everyday and I still tear up often — although not as much as I used to. The pain and grief that came after I lost my best friend are hard to put into words. As Bonnie's veterinarian told me after she was put to sleep, "she represents your entire life." And she did — so much had happened over 14 years and she'd been right there with me every step of the way. I never worried about her judging me or walking away, and she'd loved and supported through the best and worst times of my life.

I haven't owned a dog since — mainly because the logistics of owning a large dog in a big city make me feel as though I wouldn't be able to give a dog the amazing life it deserves. After I first lost Bonnie, I never wanted to own another dog again because I couldn't imagine reliving the pain of watching another pet die. But, now that I've had time to heal and reflect, I wouldn't change a thing — the grief of losing her was tremendous, but I wouldn't trade 14 years of her unconditional love for anything.

Images: Caitlin Flynn (4)