Science

Dog Walking Makes Us Happy: What It’s Like to Have an Emotional Support Animal

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Transcript:

A new study claims that the main reason people walk their dogs is because it makes them and their dogs happy. As a person who has a dog, this surprised me. The main reason I walk my dog is because if I don’t, he will literally shit all over the carpet. This will make both me and my dog very unhappy — me because I have to clean it up, and my dog because he has to deal with me angrily not giving him snuggles for up to 30 minutes after the incident in question.

The study was qualitative, meaning that it had few participants (only about a dozen dog-owning families) but was very in-depth, using interviews with each subject to look at the perceived benefits of walking a dog. The researchers found that people weren’t likely to take their dogs on walks due to keeping up their own (human) physical fitness, though that is a secondary benefit. People were more likely to want to go on walks because it makes the dog happy, and in return that makes the human happy.

I wasn’t originally going to do a video about this, as I read it over and it seemed there was nothing particularly ground-breaking about it. But the I took Indy for a walk, and while on that walk I decided to make a slightly more personal video.

This is Indy. I got him 8 months ago when he was just a tiny furball. It was January, I had just gone through a painful breakup in which my ex stole my cats, and I was living on my own for the first time in years. Oh, and a random guy was making YouTube videos talking about murdering me. Yeah, that was a fun time.

I get extremely attached to animals, and I already have anxiety and depression, so I was in a pretty bad state. I went to my psychiatrist and got an increase in my SSRI, escitalopram. I also described what I was going through and asked her if she thought an emotional support dog would be a good idea for me. I felt like I needed an animal in my life but I couldn’t bring myself to “replace” the cats I was still mourning. Plus, I’ve always wanted my own dog, ever since I was a kid, and a dog would help me feel a bit safer in the event that a random man from YouTube showed up to kill me.

The psychiatrist agreed that a dog could probably help me out. So, a few weeks later, I happened across a woman who had a puppy she couldn’t keep. The puppy was living in a car and she didn’t want to give it to a shelter. She said he was a German shepherd and lab mix, which was exactly what I wanted: big, smart, cuddly, but intimidating.

Spoiler alert: Indy is almost definitely not several of those things. To make matters worse, when he was a puppy there were times when I hated his guts. Puppies are basically adorable machines that convert kibble and water into poop and pee, which they deposit everywhere. Everywhere! At all times of the day and night! I had to take him out for walks constantly in the hopes that he’d accidentally pee out there instead of on my bed. Walking him was a horrific chore, especially because it was a soggy, cold winter.

In the evening I’d be exhausted, and all I would want to do is lounge around in my underpants getting super high and/or drunk (remember, I was depressed). But I couldn’t do those things — I had to stay dressed and sober because every two hours I’d have to take this little shit machine outside. And then he wouldn’t pee, and wait until we got inside to do that, and I’d be up all night scrubbing the floor. For awhile I wondered what the point of an emotional support dog is when he makes you more anxious and keeps you from doing the things you do to relax.

But eventually I realized that the things I did to relax were ultimately unhealthy. It was harder to keep my bra on and drink water instead of wine, and it was harder to go outside for a walk instead of watching Netflix, but it was better for me. And if Indy hadn’t been there to force me to do those things, I would have been way worse off now.

But now Indy is the puppy equivalent of a tween, and he’s a good one. He no longer has accidents in the house. He rarely eats things he’s not supposed to, like napkins or USB cables. And he makes me smile pretty much every time I look at him. I mean, seriously, look at him. He’s the living embodiment of sunshine.

And he no longer needs walks every two hours, but he does manage to get both of us out the house at least five times a day for walks, runs, and games of fetch. And sure enough, yeah, it makes him happy and it makes me happy.

I didn’t get the big, smart dog I thought I wanted, but I did get the emotional support dog I needed.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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3 Comments

  1. September 8, 2017 at 10:25 pm —

    Your ex took your cats?
    That would be heartbreaking.

    Indy is obviously a beautiful, loving creature though and I hope he helps to heal the hurt somewhat.

  2. September 13, 2017 at 2:59 am —

    Glad to hear he has turned out to be the emotional support dog you need! As a fellow sufferer of depression, I empathize with the whole needing a push to get out and walk. I know it will make me feel better, but it’s still so difficult.
    Hope you can manage it well, and give your good dog a hug from my toddler please!

  3. September 13, 2017 at 2:59 am —

    Glad to hear he has turned out to be the emotional support dog you need! As a fellow sufferer of depression, I empathize with the whole needing a push to get out and walk. I know it will make me feel better, but it’s still so difficult.
    Hope you can manage it well, and give your good dog a hug from my toddler please!

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