I never realise just how tense my body is until I’m on the beach with my dog. I never realise just how loud my own voice is inside my head until I am on the beach with my dog. I don’t notice how jumbled up and anxious I am until I am on the beach with my dog.
Then, over a matter of a few minutes, my body relaxes, my conscious mind can tell my subconscious mind to back off for a while, and the anxiety dissolves out of my system entirely.
Today the sun is shining, it’s early on Sunday morning, and the tide is only halfway in. I live in Worthing, West Sussex, where the outgoing tide can leave a few hundred metres of sand. It’s so flat. This means that it also comes in pretty quickly too. So this morning, all the dog walkers are out, meandering along the wide strip of sand, pebble pools and rivulets of running water gleaming in the sunshine before the waves gobble it all up for another 12 hours, leaving us confined to the coastal path.
The beach is a brilliant place to exercise dogs because the tides bring new smells every time they cover the sand, so the dogs have to get to know it all over again every time they visit—great stimulation for a dog. And for me, too, as storms mean, the beach is in a constant state of flux, offering new sights every time I set foot on the sand.
Check for signs of depression in your dog: Dogs and Depression
I lived by the sea for over seven years before I was finally in a position to have a dog in my life full time. In the first six months since I got her, I have been to the beach more times than I ever visited in the preceding seven, and what having a dog has done for my mood is nothing short of remarkable.
Having a dog is like having a child in that it’s tough to work and extremely rewarding at the same time. Except that kids are allowed into most seaside cafes whereas we’re left out in the pouring rain, trying to lick froth off our coffees before the wind whips it away! A lovely exception being the Bluebird Cafe at Ferring, which welcomes well-behaved dogs and does a perfect bacon sandwich into the bargain.
Back to my brain. I suffer from depression. It’s under control most of the time, but I really need to look after myself to keep it that way. I have to sleep well, exercise, eat right and reduce my stress levels. All of which is hard to do. The hardest for me, though, is to keep myself in contact with family and friends. Not a problem when I’m fine, but when I’m going through a bad dose of depression, talking to people is the last thing I want to do.
Before I got a dog, I could happily not see or speak to anyone in particular for days. I wouldn’t answer the phone, would fob friends off with an excusatory text message and take to the sofa for days at a time. When I’m terrible, the anxiety and sense of worthlessness are so overwhelming that the mere thought of showering and dressing is just too much.
Since Nikita came to stay, I’ve had only one truly horrible weekend; I was grieving over something lost and feeling loneliness I hadn’t known in years. But I know that if I hadn’t had her, it would have been much worse and taken a lot longer to get over.
She had to be walked. I had to get out of the house and onto the beach. The sun shone, the sea sparkled, I felt like I wanted to curl up into a ball and disappear, that doesn’t change, but I do believe it passes more quickly because you’re outside. You realise that the world is still turning and that you belong in it, instead of just bricking yourself up, mentally speaking, and hiding from a world that actually quite likes you, even if you’re having a hard time liking yourself right now for no good reason. Even if you don’t engage in a long conversation, there are still the cursory hellos, and shy smiles with a fellow walker as your dog gets into a game of chase with theirs.
Nikita needs to be walked, mentally stimulated, played with and loved. In return, she plays with me, loves me back and keeps my head above water, psychologically speaking without even knowing it.
If you’re the type who suffers debilitating depression where you can’t get out of bed for long periods, I’d only have a dog if someone else can do the walking and looking after in the house too, because dogs are not our tool. They only work if the love and care are reciprocal.
But if you can afford it and don’t mind being tied down by the velvet ropes, they come with that much responsibility, and then I can only recommend a dog as a great thing to have in your life. They get you out of yourself when it’s the last thing you want but the very thing you need. They love you and need you to the point where, to them at least, you are the most important thing in the world. And as long as you can feel the same about them, that is a marriage made in mental health heaven.