My Therapy Dog Changed My Life — And Views On Therapy

The topic of therapy has, for a long time, been shrouded with misconceptions about the people involved with it: It’s only for people with serious issues. People who go to therapy are weak. Therapists are only in it for the money. All of these points are false and have no evidence to support their validity—so why are we still afraid of therapy? And more importantly, why do we only talk about one form of it?  

It has long been said that dogs are a man’s best friend. They’re loyal, fun, and let’s face it, really stinkin’ adorable. But there’s a whole other world out there, a million possibilities for the role that dogs can play in our lives. We all know about guide dogs, but what about the invisible demons humans face? Can dogs help with those too?

I say yes, because when I was 16 my mom secretly bought me a therapy dog.

My dog is my baby. I spoil him rotten and have been known to have a FaceTime convo or two with him. He’s my best friend and one of the most important beings in my life. So how did I get him?

When I was 13 my dad died. My parents divorced when I was 8, and ever since then my dad had become my savior, in a sense. We had fun, he listened to me, and he understood me.  He made me feel safe at a time when my world was so precariously balanced on the thin line between child and adult.  And when he died, I didn’t think anyone else was capable of understanding me, so, I just stopped talking. I didn’t talk to my mom, friends, teachers; even the therapist my mom forced me to go to received nothing but silence.

Slowly, over the course of about three years, my silence was replaced by laughter, talk of cute boys and new shoes I just had to have. Discussions of my dad didn’t exist, nor did talk of my grief. It turned into a space of nothingness, and where I was silent, depression and anxiety took control. It was a time that was arguably worse than the silence. Because I talked, but never about what was really important.

Like many angsty teenagers, I believed that showing emotions was embarrassing and awkward and weird. I thought going to therapy meant I was crazy and no one would be my friend, so I avoided it. Lucky for me, my mom (as always) knew me better than that. She knew I had the potential for emotional intelligence, that I needed to come to terms with my dad’s death, that I needed someone to help me. She was worried about me. So, she got me Russell.

When I first got Russell, I was overwhelmed by how freaking adorable he was (seriously, cutest dog in the world, y’all). But then, slowly, we formed a more significant bond. He started to crave my presence more and more, and I started to miss him when I was at school or a friends’ house. We became dependent upon each other, and are to this day, but what I didn’t notice at the time was that as I got closer to Russell, my heart started to soften, a little bit at a time. I started to open up, not verbally, but by writing. I started journaling, scribbling my thoughts down, letting it out. I would cry, and Russell would sense my sadness and I’d fall asleep, salty tears drying on my cheeks as my dog curled up by my side, comforting me in a way I’ll be forever grateful for. And once I saw that he was helping, I realized that there were so many other people in my life who wanted to help, and who could. Russell brought me out of my depression and showed me that I could be me again.

Therapy dogs are just one form of coping with mental health. There’s actual therapy, medication, acupuncture, massage, even sports or physical exercise have been known to help with mental health. So why was I so against formal therapy at first? Because of that stigma, that I would be identified as crazy.

Well, if I’m crazy, then so are the 30 million other adults who reported having gone to therapy in the past two years, according to a “Psychology Today” survey. Getting Russell opened so many doors for my mental health and helped me heal in so many different ways. He showed me that it’s OK to not be OK, because one day, you will be.

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