Help from my four-legged friends

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10 Dec 2012

Guest blog by Debbie Cleaveley 


Mental ill health. You never think it’s going to happen to you so when it does, it pulls your legs from under you and you fall into a blubbery heap of misery that feels totally, agonisingly alone and terrified. As a mental health nurse, it was never going to happen to me, I could look after myself; physician heal thy self and all that, but then it did and life went upside down.

What started as a bout of depression turned into a reoccurring fog of demonic gloom. The demons of depression picked away at any self confidence or self esteem to the point where existence seemed utterly pointless.

Help often comes from the most unexpected of sources and in my case, this particular type of help was furry, had four legs, a cute little face and an extremely waggy tail.

My psychiatrist planted the seed in my mind that a dog for support and companionship would be a good idea. I’m very blessed with loving family and friends, but sometimes the greatest will of love in the world cannot help reconnect mind, body and life when everything goes dark and foggy.

My initial reaction was to dismiss it. I live alone in a second floor flat with no garden. I work full time. I didn’t have the means to fund dog walkers or day care. It was not the right time to make changes. On and on the excuses flowed. My psychiatrist slowly shook her head. There would never be a good time, she reasoned and given the benefits of having a dog far outweighed doing nothing, what did I have to lose by trying?

So, we devised a cunning plan and presented my housing association and workplace with the perceived benefits of dog ownership and how the practicalities of this could be managed. My psychiatrist wrote supporting letters and in the meantime, I sounded out my new line manager at work. At this point, the South West London Recovery College, the first of its kind in the NHS in England and Wales, was in its earliest stage and I’d been lucky enough seconded over as a trainer. The idea of having a dog about seemed to fit with the ethos we had about doing things differently and creatively.

bonnie 31And so Bonnie, otherwise known as Mrs B, came into my life. Aged 3, she needed to be rehomed through no fault of her own and when I met her, it was love at first sight. The next two years together were wonderful. Getting out for walks helped me get fitter, lose weight and reengage with the community and nature around me. I started blogging about being a dog owner and have connected with dog owners all over the world. Mrs B unconditionally loved me for being me and provided endless love, fun, laughter, excitement, consolation and comfort. I reduced my antidepressants, and despite some difficult and challenging times, somehow kept afloat. I’ve not had a full blown crisis or breakdown for over 2 years now. Antidepressants, CBT, and the support of an excellent psychiatrist and GP have all played a part – but so has the love of loved ones, human and canine alike.

My life had to change but actually was positive decisions that I’d needed to make but had avoided doing so. Sometimes, I’d need to rely on help from others with dog sitting or minding while I did courses, sometimes, it meant having to be out in the cold, rain or snow when I’d rather not. But Mrs B enabled me to see the world through new eyes and learnt to love and be loved all over again.

Things do not go on forever and life can be cruel, senseless and unpredictable. This was illustrated vividly to me on a sunny July day when Mrs B, in hot pursuit of a squirrel, was tragically killed instantly in a hit and run accident.

I can’t and won’t try to describe how I felt. Suffice to say, it only took 24 hours for me to realise that I could not live without a dog. And so, Widget, a tiny 6 week Jack Russell pup became my new best friend. Having a puppy kept me going through those endless raw days of grief. She was completely dependent upon me for everything and giving up was not an option. She has reignited my delight in the world once more and whilst I miss Mrs B greatly, Widget continues the legacy of love and support.

The NHS is very good at being bad with imagination and bureaucracy.. To me there is a huge irony in NHS reasoning. Somehow it’s ok to get norovirus or be in a soulless hospital ward but it’s not ok for a well behaved supervised dog to visit or be around.  A dog is a cost effective source of unconditional love, support, acceptance and fun that encourages responsibility, exercise, self management and hope. Robust risk assessment and management of the possible health and safety risks is not beyond the sphere of expertise of mental health services – or certainly shouldn’t be. My trust has been flexible with a support dog that benefits not only me as an employee, but also many others including colleagues and students. So why can’t everywhere?

Sometimes, perhaps we need to acknowledge that medication and therapy are not always going to be enough and recovery and moving on involves more than care plans and compliance. Services need to practice what they preach about the benefits of wellbeing, choice and problem solving and if we cannot successfully role model such valuable skills with common sense and imagination, what message are we giving?  Mental health services cannot and should not dictate or replicate the ‘perfect’ lifestyle but should ensure that any sources of meaningful support and life are encouraged, supported when needed and valued. Furry therapists may be one of those ways forward.

WidgetThe benefits of pet ownership are great and there’s evidence out there to support the claims. Students at the college, many of whom have significant levels of disability or contact with services, have taken both of my dogs to their hearts. There have been a tiny minority of people who don’t like or are frightened of dogs and we’ve got measures in place to manage this safely when required. Individuals who wear a mask of sedated paranoia, or who struggle to communicate, lose their rigid masks and mumbled words when Widget starts to wag her tail at them. I was overwhelmed by the messages of sympathy and support from students after Mrs B died. The welcome that Widget has received has been equally remarkable.

I am extremely lucky to have a supportive set of colleagues, all of whom are dog lovers. Without this care and support, having a support dog would have been destined to fail and I am truly grateful for those around me who are willing to be flexible, caring and accepting of a tiny tearaway that tries to eat their sandwiches and paperwork. Both Mrs B and now Widget have been viewed as members of the team. The greatest compliment for a new or unusually furry team member is to be treated as part of the furniture, and both of my dogs have been just that.

Funnily colleagues will talk about past times when the occasional doctor or manager brought their dog to work. The benefits of this are always acknowledged then there is a world weary sigh of how things used to be. I don’t remember a particularly golden age in the past and certainly do not hanker back to the days of high dose neuroleptics and people having little or no say in their care, but if despite that we were still able to have common sense and humanity in those days by recognising the huge benefit that a dog can have by simply being there, then I’m all in favour of some retro thinking.

I leave the final word to one of my students who, upon watching Widget chasing a ball, turned to me and said “That’s the great thing about dogs. You can never feel sad or depressed when there’s one around”.


Debbie Cleaveley BA (hons) RMN is a recovery practitioner trainer and user of mental health services. Her views in this article are purely personal and are not representational nor necessarily those of her employer.

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