Week 25 of Working on Us: Thankful and Grateful

Working on Us is a wonderful series over on Beckie’s Mental Mess, where each week has a new prompt meant to get people talking about mental health topics. Check out the original prompt for week 25 and click around to find participants of previous weeks’ topics!

This week, the prompt is loose; just write about something you’re thankful/grateful for.

I joke with my family that my life basically revolves around the dog park, and although it’s funny, it’s also kind of true. I adopted Stella when I was in a really tough place, mentally, and her sweetness, affection, and persistence are what have gotten me out of bed and outside over the last year.

black dog with pointy ears laying in grass between person's outstretched bare legs

When I think about how grateful I am to have Stella, I also think about my family’s support and patience, and how willing they were to care for her when I was in the hospital. I’m thankful for the people I meet at the dog park, and the sense of community and routine I’ve found there. I think about the resources I have to be able to provide for Stella, and the fact that my body allows me to walk, run, and play with her.

IMG_4092black dog with pointed ears panting while lying in shade next to concrete structure

When I think about how grateful I am to call Stella mine, it ripples out to every aspect of my life with her. I think that’s a powerful quality of giving thanks; you cannot be thankful for one thing without also being thankful for what contributes to it and leads to it.

I’m also incredibly thankful for what comes from my responsibility for and love of Stella. I’m thankful for long walks with frequent sniff stops and short walks around the block. She gives me stories to tell and reasons to get out of my comfort zone. I’m grateful that she makes me laugh every day.

IMG_4489black dog biting stream of water from sprinkler

I’m thankful that she is instantly joyful when I buy her toys, but is also amused with a simple piece of cardboard. I’m thankful that I can tell when she’s tired because one ear flops over.


I’m thankful for my pup because she makes my life more joyful, she connects me to other people, and she demands that I take care of her and in so doing, myself. I hope that everyone had a lovely Thanksgiving, and if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope that you had a great week filled with all of the people, pets, and things you’re thankful for all year long.


Two Black Dogs

A short drive up a dirt road after a long drive up a canyon, there is a cabin in the woods. Inside, there is a sleeping dog–wearing her coat of all-black fur, resting on her side, one upright ear has flopped over. She has sniffed every inch of this cabin since we arrived yesterday afternoon. Her job complete for now, she allows herself a brief intermission to do what puppies do– nap soundly and sweetly.

I am sitting in an armchair near the sleeping dog. I came to the cabin for a short reprieve, to escape the relentless tide of life’s obligations. Most of them, I left behind. But one, I can’t seem to shake. A black dog followed me up here, and not the one at my feet. It goes where I go, does what I do. It can be menacing and imposing, or familiar and safe. This black dog is of my brain’s own creation, made from worry and sadness and guilt. It was set in motion before I knew of its existence. It came from faulty neurotransmitters, genetic predispositions, and the fickle imaginings of chance.

The black dog at my feet jolts awake — a noise on the stairs. It is only the cabin creaking, so she returns to her slumber. We both settle into the peaceful sounds of the woods. A duck laughs on the pond. Swallows swoop and chirp over the water, plucking mosquitos from the sky. A gurgling brook feeds the pond, and its sound is a balm to a worn-out mind. But a balm cannot evict the black dog of depression. It howls its objection, then herds me back to bed, nipping my heels with fatigue and foggy thoughts. As I sink into sleep, I know that soon, my other black dog will come to wake me. She will breathe on my face and wag her tail. She will tell me that it’s time to get up, time to go out, time to take in the sounds and smells of this short reprieve in the woods.


Creature Comforts: Pets and Mental Health


There’s nothing better than a cozy evening spent snuggled up with your dog or cat, right? Pets come with lots of responsibilities, but also with plenty of benefits for our health. I know how it weighs out for me- strongly positive. My dog has been an enormous help in my recovery from depression, and she also helps me regulate my nervous system when Sensory Processing Disorder gets in the way. But what does science say about pets and mental health?

Animal Assisted Therapy

I’m particularly interested in how pet ownership affects mental health and wellbeing, but perhaps it’s best to start with the research on therapeutic interventions. I’m guessing that it’s much easier to study the effects of human-animal interactions in the context of short visits than in the context of pet ownership for a few reasons.

  1. It’s more difficult to determine causality in cases of pet ownership. Are people with pets healthier, or are healthier people more likely to have pets?
  2. Many pet ownership studies rely on participants’ ability to report results over a long period of time, as opposed to short AAT sessions.
  3. AAT is implemented and monitored by professionals who keep detailed records.

Before I even read any articles, I was expecting to find that AAT is backed by a sizeable amount of evidence supporting the link between pets and mental health. After all, I’d seen those news stories about unconventional Emotional Support Animals, and those aren’t necessarily trained to perform a therapeutic role.

A 2017 review compiled data from 18 studies of AAT. In 15 of those studies, at least one positive effect was found, although the authors point out that most of the studies found no significant effect on treatment outcome. Overall, the review suggests that AAT, particularly dog assisted therapy, provides mild to moderate effects. Not bad, given how many variables are unavoidable when it comes to animal interactions.

Therapy dogs have been successfully used as part of treatments for elderly Alzheimer’s patients as well as in promoting social interactions in a long-stay psychiatric population.

So, if AAT is mildly or moderately effective in short “doses”, how does near-constant interaction with animals affect us? I’m wary of extrapolating too far because pet ownership is certainly not just a scaling-up of petting a therapy dog at your university’s library during finals. There’s a lot more to it; perhaps the responsibility, stress and frustration when a pet misbehaves, and of course, the emotional pain of losing a beloved companion outweigh the benefits of interacting with animals.

My Roommate is a Quadruped

Did y’all see that Reddit thread about how weird it would sound if we called our pets “roommates”?


My roommate ate every Lactaid pill out of my mother’s purse and left all the wrappers on the floor. The other day, I walked into the kitchen to find my roommate standing on the table, eating jam right out of the jar. I know someone whose roommate ate crayons and then pooped rainbows for a week.

Pet owners share their lives with their pets; not just their time and energy, but their homes, too. Many people consider their pet as part of their family, and I can see why (and not just because I’m one of those people). Anecdotally, I can understand why pets and mental health benefits are often linked in our minds.

Social Support

A qualitative study of people with mental health conditions, conducted in 2016, had participants map out their social support networks in three concentric circles, the innermost circle being the most important. 25 of the 54 participants were pet owners, and the majority of them placed their pets in the innermost circle. The researchers identified several common ways in which participants reported benefits from owning pets.

  • Establishing routines
  • Distraction from symptoms (e.g. hallucinations, suicidal ideation)
  • Sense of certainty that pets would reliably provide support
  • Caring for pets gave participants a sense of meaning
  • Reducing the stigma of mental illness through pets’ unconditional acceptance of owners
This meme will one day be horribly outdated, but that day is not today.

Another study with a similar design had me grinning from ear to ear- some of the transcripts of participants talking about their pets are delightful. Although this study focused more on chronic physical illnesses, I noticed some relevant parallels. The authors describe the apparent infantilization of pets and hypothesize that it provides a sense of reciprocity that chronic illness sufferers may not have in their human relationships. Those with chronic illness- physical or mental- often report feeling like a burden on others. Doting on a pet, it seems, alleviates some of those feelings and makes the pet owner feel needed.

Soothing or Stressful?

Everyone feels distressed from time to time. Petting an animal can help calm someone in distress by reducing blood pressure and reactions to mental stress. One study, hilariously called “Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership,” experimentally found that pets were able to keep their owners from dwelling on negativity caused by social rejection.

For people with Sensory Processing Disorder, pets can provide a myriad of soothing sensory benefits. They offer tactile feedback in the form of fur, feathers, wool, etc., and the extra snuggly ones can provide deep pressure (depending on how heavy they are). Indirectly, pets provide proprioceptive and vestibular input simply by requiring interaction- walking, feeding, bathing, and training them. Pets tend to have less complex, more predictable social cues, which may make them less stressful to interact with than humans, especially for people who are easily overwhelmed.

Some of the Drawbacks

On the other hand, pets are their own entities with their own agendas. They don’t always do what we want them to. For instance, my dog barking at me while I try to drink my coffee in the morning is definitely NOT soothing. There are distinct disadvantages to owning a pet when you’re affected by SPD and/or mental illness. They can be messy and loud (unless you like those things- then add that to the advantages list), and sometimes they get in your personal space when you don’t want to be touched.

The Intersection of Pets and Mental Health for Me

Despite the frustrations and occasional discomfort, I’ve found pet ownership to be immensely helpful and rewarding. My dog reminds me to get outside and walk, to look up from my computer every once in a while (she’s being quiet…too quiet), and to enjoy all the little pleasures- long naps, eating with gusto, and rolling in smelly things.

Wait- not that last one. Don’t do that.

Depression and Dogs: A Creature of Trust

CW: mentions of suicide

When I brought Stella home from the shelter, she was skittish and timid.  It must have been such an abrupt transition for her; she has an address and a phone number hanging from her collar, and just like that, she has a home. I hope that she grows even more confident in her new life here, but it strikes me that what I’m asking of her is difficult for me to do as well. Every day, I try to teach her and guide her. I set boundaries and offer affection. I want her to feel secure as a part of my pack, and I want her to trust me.

And yet, sometimes when I look at her, I feel as though I’ve made a terrible mistake. At first, it was hard to pinpoint why, but I think it’s because she makes the door that is suicide close a little more. I’m feeling a lot better these days, but it’s reassuring to have my plan as an option. I simply don’t trust that this improvement in my depression will last. That’s not to say that the other sources and objects of love in my life aren’t enough to keep me here. They are why I’m alive right now, after all. But welcoming another creature into my heart only ties me more securely to life. She deserves happiness and security as much as I do. How can I ask her to trust that I’ll be there for her when I don’t even trust that I’ll be here for her whole life? I like to keep my options open, and it’s terrifying to willingly let one go. So I try to focus on the wonderful parts of having a new friend.


Her personality comes out more and more each day, and each night, she sleeps a little closer to me. She loves belly rubs more than anything else, and will fall asleep on her back, legs askew. She’s afraid of lots of things, but she’ll walk toward them if you go with her. She wags her tail in a wide arc that’s more than 180 degrees, and the sound of her paws on the floor makes me smile every time. Sometimes at night, her round, puppy tummy goes up and down in time with the crickets, and I wonder if she likes the rhythm or if she and the crickets share a wild, natural pacemaker. And then her breathing breaks, and she sighs deeply, content to lie next to her human.
I think we both need time to build trust in order to get to where we want to be. I’m willing to wait.