The undercover therapy dogs

I recently finished a marvelous book about depression — The Noonday Demon, by Andrew Solomon. I don’t personally struggle with depression, but I have friends and family members who do, and it was an insightful and thought-provoking perspective into this widespread and insidious illness.

Ladylike hand licks

As I was reading, I was struck by a particular thing, a dog-related thing. Solomon covers the history and various treatments of depression, but he also spends a large portion of time interviewing people who struggle with depression. In the midst of many of their dark stories, I was struck by one recurring factor. Several people said that, in down times, nothing could get them out of bed — except their pets. Their family members, their spouses, their jobs, even their children were not motivating or comforting, but their dogs and cats alone provided a measure of sanity and connection with reality.

Solomon doesn’t address this at all in the book, but the fact that it kept coming up obliquely — the sole comforts of a companion animal — in these anecdotes stood out to me.

Therapy dogs, obviously, do important and specific work, for which they have been extremely well trained. But what about the rest of the dogs, the ones that live in our homes and chew up our shoes? I posit there’s a reason that humankind keeps adopting dogs as household pets, even though there’s not a lot of cold, hard rationale not to (dogs are messy, expensive, troublesome, liabilities, parasites, etc.). It’s because dogs offer us an emotional bond that we can’t find in humans. I was so struck by the repeated mention of how these normal dogs, unlicensed non-therapy dogs, helped these people with depression, in quiet, ordinary ways.

In our own home, I think about the emotional bond that I’ve developed with Pyrrha and Eden. I love them both endlessly, but I feel differently about them and about their emotional strengths. Pyrrha is my nursemaid when I’m sick or down; she is very sensitive to my moods (and on the flip side can be very weighed down by them). Eden, however, is the buoyant class clown, bringing joy and energy into every situation. They are essential members of our family, and they are doing the good work of dogs: loving people in a way that they are uniquely equipped to do.

What do you think? Do you think your dogs do any “undercover” therapy work in your home?

How does your dog love you?

In moments of frustration with the dogs, there is always one thought that makes me slow down, pause, and smile. It is this: I think these animals really like ME.

And I think they like me because they express happiness in my presence and seek affection from me, even when food isn’t involved. This is why humans have always been coming back to dogs, I suppose (or how dogs became dogs in the first place): Dogs, perhaps more than any other animal, are drawn to people. And vice versa; we are an easily flattered species.

Weird dog
Pyrrha Louise.

I have never doubted Pyrrha’s love for me. She bonded intensely with me just a few weeks after we adopted her, this shy, terrified mess of a dog (and as a consequence, she has not really bonded with Guion at all; she still exhibits fear of him in certain moments). Pyrrha hid from me in corners of the house when we first brought her home, but gradually, she started to depend on me and then, to seek affection from me.

It is a special thing, to have a relationship with an animal who lights up when you enter the room. Some dogs (most golden retrievers I’ve ever met, for instance) do this with any person who is present, and so everyone feels good about themselves. But it is a different thing when you have a dog who only lights up for you, no one else. Generally speaking, Pyrrha’s attachment to me is a great weakness of hers; in my absence, she is never truly at ease (so say my husband and everyone who has ever watched her when I’m gone). But emotionally speaking, how can I not lap up this unconditional affection? How could I not reciprocate it?

Pyrrha is so gentle and sensitive; when she looks at me, I can’t help but assign more human emotions and thoughts to her. (Let’s be real, even the science-loving among us can’t resist the temptation to do this with our own dogs — at least to a degree.) I can just make eye contact with her from across the room and her tail wags. This doesn’t happen with anyone else. She likes to come up to me and bury her head in my chest and just stand there, immobile, soaking up the pets.

Portrait of a lady. #pyrrhagram

If we get a quiet moment on the sofa, Pyrrha will come sit next to me and put her head in my lap. This may not sound like a big deal to those of you with cuddly dogs, but this was HUGE when Pyrrha first did this. She does not enjoy being touched by people, and the day she first voluntarily put her head in my lap, I almost cried for joy.

In many ways, Pyrrha is a dog-shaped mirror of my own complicated, anxious self, and she’ll always be my first girl.

Baby girl
Eden Loretta!

And then we have Eden. Eden is more of a universalist with her love, which is one of the main reasons we adopted her. We wanted a puppy who thought everyone was a friend and ally, and we have that in Eden in spades. (She distinguishes herself as a shepherd, however, in that her family comes first, and she doesn’t think every single human being is her instant BFF).

We’ve had her for a little over a month, so I’m not sure if she’s necessarily bonded to us yet, but I feel like she does like us. She likes to hurtle her body at you when you walk in the door (something that we’re working on), and when she does manage to sit, her body is trembling in anticipation of human affection. When Eden is over-excited about greeting us in the morning, she likes to nip at our hair and clothes, which is not my favorite expression of love, and so we’re working on that too.

Guess she's allowed on the chairs. #ediebaby #germanshepherd

Eden isn’t much into tail wagging, at least for me. I think she might like Guion more, which is OK with me, because I already have 100% of the other dog’s affection. Guion gets ample tail wags when he comes home. Eden’s method of showing me that she cares are the quieter moments in the morning, when I’m getting ready for work, and she saunters into the bathroom and then leans up against my legs, or lays down and puts her sweet little head on my feet. How can you not pause and think, Surely, makeup can wait. Surely, this is why we keep these crazy animals around.

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! How do your dogs seek affection from you? How do you think they show you love?

Weird, funny dog

Such a weird, funny dog. #dogsitting
Roland.

Roland specifically, but you know Pyrrha fits that category too.

We’ve had a nice week dog-sitting this chap, and I know Pyrrha will be sad to see him go on Sunday night.

He has been a very easy keeper, and I think I may also have to prevent my husband from trying to keep him. Guion and Roland have become very attached to each other! Roland gives him a grand greeting every time Guion walks in a room, and if Guion dares leave the house, Roland whines and wails and mourns. Last night, when Guion left, Roland cried and cried, and then jumped up on the couch and laid with his head on the windowsill in the most heartbreaking and forlorn fashion. Naturally, Guion is basking in the love and attention from a dog who is uniquely focused on YOU (something that he has truthfully never received from Pyrrha, who acts like I’m the Only Person in the Universe). It’s a powerful thing, feeling that dog love… And isn’t it funny how quickly dogs can form attachments? It’s always heartwarming.

What do your weekends have in store for you? I’m looking forward to reading, weeding, and taking the pups on long walks before Rols goes home!

Let me in, dude. #rolandMore photos from our week with Roland (which was, as you can see, very leisurely):

Waiting for Guion to come back. #rightathome #dogsitting
Waiting for Guion to come home.

What? #doghouse #dogcrazy

Dog napping. #dogcrazy

Floor time.

Guion's devoted sous chef. #doghouse
Guion’s devoted sous chef.

All the sleepy pups. #germanshepherd #gsd

Loving dogs through the years

I was trawling through old photos the other day and realized there were a handful of people documenting my inherent magnetism toward dogs throughout my young life… These photos begin around 2007 and span up until the present. Somehow, it was heartwarming to remember that my deep love for dogs has not wavered over time.

2007. Not even sure whose dog this was, but I found him at a party and decided to make him my friend.
Christmas 2007. In a field with Marley, my cousin's lab, who is also featured on my "About" page.
Summer 2008. With my aunt and uncle's dog, Sadie. Cute but stupid! She looks so happy here.
Possibly 2008? That's baby Dublin there!
September 2010. Found a sweet, old dog on the road near the cabin where we were staying.
October 2011. With Bo on a hike.
And just for good measure: The only cat I've ever loved, Kitteh, my roommate in Denver, summer 2009.