World Dog Day: 'It's not that my depression is gone but my dogs help me carry on'
Our four-legged friends have the capacity to reduce anxiety and boost wellbeing
Dog-lovers know that owning a pooch is great for their physical health. A lower risk of heart disease, longer life expectancy and lower blood pressure are among the benefits linked with taking care of a four-legged friend - something that dog-lovers, who today are celebrating World Dog Day, don't need to be told.
However, the good news doesn't end there. An increasing amount of research carried out in recent years has shown that man's best friend can also enhance our mental and emotional well-being, particularly when it comes to helping with symptoms of depression and anxiety.
El Keegan was diagnosed with depression in 2009, while in her final year at college. She says that the routine her two dogs require has helped her to cope with her symptoms.
"The dogs keep me active as they have to be walked, fed and looked after every day, so they give a purpose to my days. I could be deep in my own thoughts and feeling really low and then I'll have the dogs running around and looking up at me and I just can't stay in it. They get me out of my head - it's amazing."
Owning two young dogs can be hard work, yet El says the companionship and happiness they have brought to her life is irreplaceable.
"There are days when they drive me mad - Fuji is always doing something wrong and I spend my time chasing her off golf courses or getting her back from my neighbours - yet, overall, they have made my life so full. I have days when I feel horrific and I feel in agony I am so low, and then I just look at their little faces and my heart bursts."
Although El says that depression will always be a part of her life, her dogs have ensured she experiences moments of happiness every day.
"When I wake up in the morning they are there to greet me and when I come home, there is this massive celebration, even if I have just gone to the shops for five minutes. It's the most uplifting feeling. It's not that my depression is gone or cured but they help me to carry on and give me these lovely high points each day. Getting them was the best thing I have ever done and I couldn't imagine life without them."
For Pamela Duggan, getting a dog was an unexpected decision that would change her life. Diagnosed with depression when she was 19, Pamela suffered a particularly bad episode when she turned 30.
"I was busy getting married and buying a house and I just didn't have time to deal with my depression. I ignored it to the extent that my body broke out in muscular twitches and I suffered from bad headaches and dizzy spells. I was referred to many different neurologists and doctors who told me I had been ignoring my mental health."
The idea to get a dog came about shortly after Pamela and her husband, Damien, got married. Having never owned a pet before, Pamela was understandably apprehensive. However, it was love at first sight and the couple have since adopted two more.
These days, Ollie, Pip and Dexter are a central part of Pamela's life and have even introduced her to a second career. "My full-time job is at Dublin City FM but in 2013, I began volunteering for the DSPCA. I now work there three afternoons a week, in the King of Paws Training Academy and I love it. My family think it's hilarious and would never have imagined that I would end up working with dogs, but it was as much of a surprise for me as it was for them.
"Getting a dog opened me up to a passion I never knew I had and to a community I would never have met."
On days when Pamela is not feeling great, she says her dogs can often sense it and are there to comfort her.
"I definitely notice a heightened attention in Ollie when I am not feeling great and there are certain things he does to try and tell me it's OK, like sit on my lap and lick me more."
As well as all the fresh air and exercise, Pamela says meeting other people is also a positive part of owning a dog.
"If I am walking the dogs and having a bad day and someone smiles at me and the dogs as they pass - that's enough to give me a bit of a boost in itself," she says.
The loss of a loved one led Liz O'Brien and her family to get a dog two years ago. Having resisted pleas from her two children over the years, Liz is glad that she eventually gave in. "I suffered with depression all my life but when I lost someone close to me in 2013, it got worse," she says. "I didn't want to get up and function and do the things I would normally do. Even the small things, like housework and gardening, were difficult and I started to wonder what it was all for.
"I had always put off getting a dog when the kids were younger but two years ago, my son brought me to the DSPCA to have a look and I knew we wouldn't come home empty-handed. We now have a dog called Vinnie and I look after my sister's dog, Darcy, too."
While Liz admits she was thrown in at the deep end with the majority of the doggie duties in the beginning, she says the responsibility helped her to face the day.
"It was like looking after a baby when we first got Vinnie. I was up in the middle of the night with him and I would ask myself many times what was I doing. I was the one feeding him and looking after him, as the kids were busy with school and college, but he was great for getting me out of the house every day."
According to Brenda D Rickard, chief executive of Irish Therapy Dogs, there is increasing science behind why owning a dog can be good for mental health.
"Recent studies have proven that canine companionship brings a number of health benefits. Playing with a dog can increase the production of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, both of which help to calm and relax us."
Since 2008, the Dublin-based charity has established a national network of volunteers who take their dogs to visit residences where the companionship of a dog is missing. More than 240 teams currently make weekly visits around Ireland and Brenda says there has been a positive response.
"Many people in our communities gain comfort from a four-legged friend. Stroking and holding a dog can soothe the most stressed of us and the companionship of a dog can offer comfort, help with anxiety and boost our mood, as well as easing a person's sense of isolation and loneliness."
Liz says her dogs have become treasured family members. "I don't know what I would have done without them. I've met other dog owners in the park who have had their own traumas and they say the same thing - the dogs helped them get out of it. They have changed my life."
For more information on dogs and mental health, go to www.irishtherapydogs.ie and www.dspca.ie.