Since October 2013, my phone, my social media profiles, and even my lectures have been filled with images of my canine companion, Maya. It’s been eight months since we adopted her from a family in Merseyside who underestimated the challenge of having a newborn baby and a high-energy puppy, and it’s high time that I share – in a space of more than 140 characters – the impact my dog has had on me, my work, and my physical and mental health since Maya and her oversized ears arrived in our home.
The plan was always to look for my new animal friend during the summer, when I wasn’t teaching and could spend large periods of time working from home, settling in whichever canine I ended up choosing. Alas, I spotted Maya and her family’s plight just as the semester had started, and once I had visited her, there was no question: she would come home with me the next week. I had already used the services of a fabulous local dog walker and pet sitter before, for Pip the ginger cat and Lizzie the rabbit, and knew work wouldn’t be an issue with her brilliant help.
Maya was just over five months old when I took her home with me, and it was clear from the start that, while she had received some basic training, she was poorly exercised, anxious, extremely energetic, and highly intelligent. She settled in quickly, and it was no surprise that the endless fields and hills of the Peak District had everything to offer her previous backyard hadn’t. She became attached to me very quickly, but those first months were both wonderful and difficult. I was determined to do things right. To have a happy, balanced, obedient, loving dog. But to achieve this, she needed a happy and balanced owner, too, and this meant keeping my nerves under control, something I had only just started to manage. Predictably, at first Maya brought out a lot of my anxieties. What if I’m doing things wrong? What if I’m ruining this dog? Would she have been better off with someone else? Perhaps I’m just utterly incapable and not fit to own a dog like her, or any at all? I won’t lie: these worries got so bad that I spent hours crying in fear and despair whenever something didn’t quite go right, whenever she cowered under a chair in our obedience classes, whenever she wanted to dash after a car, and whenever she pulled on the leash on our walks (which she did a lot in those first weeks).
I knew I had to approach all this rationally if I wanted to help her, but in the beginning this was easier said than done. As an academic – and as any critically thinking person – the problem is that you question all those different dog training theories you encounter, but this was also a benefit. If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that you have to mix and match your methods to the personality of your dog as well as to your own, while remaining consistent with whatever approach you choose. Maya benefits much more from calm, quiet training and walking than she does from me constantly verbally enticing her to take a treat, for example. Like me, she thrives on calm, confident companionship. As for many anxious humans, constant chattering on doesn’t alleviate her fears of new places and new people. This means we’re quite a good match!
One core principle you can already see emerge, here, is that any issues I face with Maya – right from the beginning and probably through to the end – require me to do something that’s good for me, privately and professionally: stay calm, think rationally, try to identify the nature of the problem, and address the issue until it’s resolved, without giving up, and with my full attention. I know whatever she does is done with a rationale that makes sense to her, even if the behaviour that results from that rationale isn’t judged desirable by me. She only behaves in a certain way in a certain situation either because I have taught her to act this way (consciously or unconsciously), or because I haven’t taught her an alternative, better way to act in that given scenario. There’s a difficulty with this awareness, too, however, and that is the tendency to indulge in blaming yourself for every of your dog’s issues instead of learning from your mistakes and moving on (something dogs are very good at, by the way).
Turning from these more general issues to the finer, everyday details: what kind of impact has this little collie cross had on me? The physical and the mental are inherently connected here. I have no choice but to get out of bed, put on my trainers, and take her out. She’s a high-energy working breed, and she’ll swim, retrieve, walk, run until I stop, even if she’s exhausted. (This also means she requires others, i.e. me, to judge when enough is enough … anyone recognise that need from somewhere?) But no matter what kind of dog you have, they will need walking twice a day, and the impact this enforced exercise has is incredible, no matter if I walk or run. There’s no time to dwell on anything when I get up. My only questions are usually: What’s the weather? Where should we go? For how long? Do we take the ball, the frisbee, or neither? That’s an incredibly helpful way of reminding yourself that there is something other than work. Not a complex thought, but most of you know that sometimes it doesn’t feel that way! Having a dog shifts your priorities, especially when you have sole or near-sole responsibility for it. The simple act of walking outdoors has a measurable, proven impact on your physical as well as on your mental health. So gone, too, are the mornings where I get up and start to write or read without so much as getting dressed or having breakfast. It just doesn’t work that way anymore, because Maya needs taking care of first, and I like it that way.
Throughout the day and in the evenings, a similar rule applies. While Maya will happily lounge about and sleep all day while I do my work, there comes a point when I have to get off my chair and walk her again, no matter what I’m writing or reading, and that enforced break is a real boost to my wellbeing and my productivity, a motivator to literally step away from it all. But apart from the mental and physical benefits of walking or running and of being outdoors, there are other impacts on my mental health, too. It’s difficult to spend a day with Maya and not smile or laugh at least once an hour, be it because of the noises she makes when she dreams, the poses in which she falls asleep, or the ridiculous way in which she purposely places toys in awkward positions so she can wriggle on her back for minutes at end in futile attempts to get hold of the desired object.
Equally, there is the joy of teaching her tricks. Having your puppy give you a high five is priceless, as is the greeting you receive when you’ve been out for minutes, hours, or days. It’s a clichéed things to say, but it remains true: dogs don’t judge you. Maya isn’t interested in my work, in my outfit, my weight, or anything else by which humans may evaluate me. She doesn’t love me more because I finished that chapter or that pile of marking by the deadline. And if I feel like wallowing in that peer review for my rejected article, she still needs to go out, and her face still has the same excited, silly look when I lift the ball up in the air and ask: “Ready?” And she makes other people – strangers – happy too. They smile when they see her cool pose on the passenger’s seat of the car (now a thing of the past since we’ve got an estate). They laugh when she rolls over on command, eagerly anticipating my throwing the ball.
Ironically, it’s also only because of Maya that we have made great friends with our neighbours. When we met them and their French Bulldog, Henry, at a dog obedience class, it only occurred to me after several weeks, when I saw them on the trail by our house, that they were actually living across the road from us. We’ve never had neighbours with whom we could spend a Saturday night, so having the dogs as a motivator to socialise has resulted in meeting some very good friends, too.
Overall, then, having Maya is forcing me to constantly reflect on my own emotional and behavioural patterns, and she gives me that extra incentive to stay calm, active, and to live in there here and now rather than worrying excessively about the future or dwelling on the past. And because we’re so similar – nervy, energetic, loyal, loving, and anxious – I’m sure that things will only continue to get better for both of us as we manage to control the less desirable of those traits! High five!