Health: A dog is for life – and can enrich your wellbeing

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Dogs bring boundless joy and can also help mental health, says Abi Jackson.

We often refer to dogs as being part of the family, but that doesn’t fully do them justice - they’re a unique, unwaveringly wonderful, part of the family.

The power of man’s (and woman’s) best friend to boost our mood should not be underestimated, and they can be a lifeline for people experiencing serious depression – an illness currently in the spotlight following Robin Williams’ death.

“The research evidence is pretty clear that pets in general, and in particular dogs, seem to work in a number of ways to be helpful to human health,” says Samaritans trustee Steve Platt.

“One is their involvement in therapeutic activity, whether that’s helping children with autism or people with dementia. They also seem very sensitive to ill-health in others and can help alert in situations like epileptic seizures or even cancer, being able to detect them at an early stage. And there have been many examples where dogs help people with depression, and the elderly. They can have a profound effect.”

This is at the heart of new book, My Dog, My Friend: Heart-Warming Tales Of Canine Companionship From Celebrities And Other Extraordinary People, which includes personal tales of the roles beloved pooches have played.

Esther Rantzen talks about the joy a string of cherished mutts have brought over the years, from perking her up after a stressful day to helping through the dark days of grief following the death of her husband, Desmond, in 2000.

This book – supported by Samaritans with author donations going to the charity – is a reminder that owning a pooch can make a difference to your social life too.

“Dogs are a fantastic aid for socialisation,” says Platt, who has written the book’s foreword.

“They encourage people to get out, and they also attract attention and help you get into conversation with others.

“They help structure the day, too. We all need structure and one of the problems that arises for people who are lonely, or living in isolation, is the collapse of structure which can have severe consequences.”

Robin Williams had a history of depression and his suicide earlier this month is a reminder that mental illness really can impact anybody.

“I’ve been reading some of the comments made about Robin Williams’ death and I’ve been struck by how much ignorance there is, and how many callous and insensitive remarks have been made,” says Platt.

“Comments along the lines of, ‘He should have pulled himself together and realised he had everything’.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. Depression is very widespread and it would be a mistake to think anybody is immune.

“There are many kinds of treatments that can really help people though,” Platt stresses. “But we’ve got to intervene in time to give those treatments a chance.”

* My Dog, My Friend, compiled by Jacki Gordon, is published by Hubble & Hattie, priced £14.99. Available September 4.

Call Samaritans on 08457 909 090.

Middleton Park, Leeds.

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