Me with Boomer, my first dog friend, circa 1993
When I was around a year old, my parents went away to the cottage with my mom’s siblings. There, I got to spend a week away with my first ever dog BFF – my aunt and uncle’s dog. After that, my poor parent’s realized what they were dealing with.
I was dog obsessed from the moment I knew what a dog was, apparently. I spent the entire vacation following around that lab mix named Boomer you see in the picture above. I rolled on the floor with him. I tried to eat his food. I needed to be near him at all times.
When we got home from that vacation, my parents said I looked around the house for him. I pointed to a picture of polar bears we had on the wall above our sofa and longingly said over and over again “Boom! Boom!”
My parents knew right there what I was – a dog lover. Except, they were not. At all.
Now, my parents do love animals – just not really enough to have them in their home. Dogs are amazing creatures but I will say, they are SO much work and they’re messy and smelly and their hair gets everywhere. If you don’t LOVE dogs, that can definitely be annoying – and even if you do love dogs, that can still be annoying sometimes.
If you’ve read any of my other posts, you will know that aside from being a dog-lover from birth, I was also anxious from birth. I have not known another way of being. I have always had panic attacks, always been anxious (classified as a ‘worry wart’ before anyone knew what was wrong with me), always been this way right from birth.
And somehow, being around dogs consistently made me feel like a normal person. Dogs were not just a fun, cute thing to play with when I was bored. They were medicinal. Anytime I was around a dog, I would be at ease – if only for a moment. And that was not something I felt very often as a child.
For 12 years I begged my parents at every chance possible to get us a family dog. Whenever a friend or a family member bought or adopted a dog, I used that as a fodder. “But see! JENNIFER HAS A DOG! WHY CAN’T WE HAVE A DOG?”
This wasn’t just a feeling of, “Oh, I want a puppy! So cute!” This was years and years of tears and longing. I knew what I wanted, and I knew how it could help me – even if I wasn’t really able to put that into words yet.
One day when I was 12 years old, I was sitting on my bed, crying, and my mom asked me what was wrong. I told her how much I wanted a dog. She gave me the same answer she always had, “You can get a dog when you move out.”
But this time she also added, “You know, if you want a dog so badly, you should just pray about it.”
I know that sounds ridiculous, and depending on your own religious beliefs you can interpret what happened next however you want. But from that day on, I did pray about it. Every day for a year. I wrote down each prayer in a journal. And I didn’t tell my parents about it.
And then, right before my 13th birthday, I found out that the day had finally come. My parents changed their mind. I wouldn’t have to wait until I was 25 and moved out. We were getting a puppy that summer.
On June 11th, 2005, we brought home our chocolate lab Toby. And my life literally changed forever.
Toby, the day we brought him home – loving even the most awkward version of me
In 2005, my emetophobia-related eating disorder and mental health were at its absolute worst. I was severely underweight, bullied at school for being “bulimic” (if they only knew, lol), and going through all the other normal crap that happens when you are 13 and going through puberty.
But after we got Toby, something changed. I was calmer. I felt happier. I had a reason to go outside – and to have enough energy to go outside. Within a few months, I was eating better, and knew that no matter what happened at school, I had my best bud waiting for me at home.
(Side note: Toby passed away on September 5th, 2018 at 13.5 years old. He was a good boy – the best boy, and I will never forget what that crazy dog did for me)
Many people thought I would “grow out” of my dog loving ways. But I never did – never once. I knew that when I moved out on my own, I would need to have dogs. Forever.
And so I do. I have Max the mutt, who is now 2.5 years old, and we brought home Olive, our 9 week old German Shorthaired Pointer, last Tuesday.
Dogs to me today are still what they were back when I was two years old and loved Boomer, and eight, when I begged my parents for a dog, and 13, when we brought Toby home. They are loving, amazing, creatures that are truly therapeutic for me.
And I am not alone.
Research shows that when we pet a dog (or cat), not only is the feel-good chemical (also known as the “love hormone”) oxytocin released (the same one we feel when hugging a loved one), but our levels of the stress hormone cortisol dips. Oxytocin promotes attachment and is thus a foundational element of relationships. For someone struggling with anxiety and depression, this kind of attachment with a dog has the possibility of taking them outside the hopelessness of their anxious or depressed state, and perhaps allowing them to see new hope in a connection with a sweet canine.
You can learn more about how dogs and cats can help with anxiety at these links:
So now, I am a 26-year-old who still struggles with all the same anxiety disorders I did when I was a child, but who has a much better handle on things – partially due to all the amazing dogs I have had the pleasure of knowing.
Me and Max on a hike this past summer