How a dog can ward off the black dog of depression

At the start of his book on self-love, ‘I Heart Me’ Dr David Hamilton credits many of his insights in self-love to his dog Oscar; a two year old labrador. Oscar is sadly no longer with us, but in Oscar’s life, David said he made him laugh every day. Most dog owners will be nodding along with great enthusiasm, but there is more to the science of it as David Hamilton explains in his book ‘I Heart Me’.

There is the production of serotonin and dopamine; the brains’ own versions of morphine and heroin. These brain chemicals can be activated by smiling - even when we don’t feel like it. Dancing works - even when we’d rather not, and also doing silly walks. Now you have an excuse - it’s science!

I worked in theatre as a stage manager for many years. We have what we termed as ‘Doctor showbiz’, which was a term to explain that no matter how exhausted or ill you were feeling and no matter how little you felt like going on stage, once on stage Dr showbiz would click in and you would feel a whole lot better. It helped that I predominately worked on musicals, which were full of jazz hands and singing. Having read David’s book, I now see Dr showbiz was created by our own happy chemicals in the brain being activated by the body movement and face-grinning required for performance.

David Hamilton also says that standing in a power posture for as little as a minute can change how we feel about ourselves. A power posture is that iconic wonder woman pose, hands on hips with elbows bent. Experiments have taken place with people in mock job interviews.

Those who did the power pose before the interview would have got the job more often than those who didn't in the fake interview experiments, even though it was a blind experiment and the interviewer didn’t know who was who.

So what does all this have to do with dogs? Well, I’m coming to that.

It’s been a tough few weeks, . I decided to join a gym, as I know swimming laps of a pool and taking a few extra yoga classes are good for helping me to stay balanced emotionally. That was until I got there and remembered the horror of the female changing rooms. Getting changed as quickly as possible in an over-crowed room, I headed to the pool. On the way back I realised I had forgotten to take my towel and now I would have to drip to the locker. I grab my towel and headed to the shower to hear the yell of a very tall naked woman who had taken personal offence to the puddle of water I left behind, as if I had squatted and taken a widdle. An attempt at a public shaming is what happened next. I held my own explaining I was new to the gym, but I held back from guilting her with the ‘my step dad just died’ card. As David also points out in his book 'you never know what is going on in someone else's life, best not to judge!'

By the time I got home I was in a horrid funk. I lived in an unfriendly world, what was the point of anything. I pulled my wet gym gear out of my bag along with David Hamilton’s book, now with newly sodden edges.

Being greeted at the door by a dog no matter where you have been is the best thing ever. Kash, a nine year old Cavachon, grabbed a toy and tried to temp me with it. I’m not in the mood, but it’s not her fault, so I begin to play even though there really is nothing else I want to do other than go back to bed. Of course you can’t play with a dog, unless you are willing to get with it. They know when you’re not into it. So I fake it at first. When playing with a dog you find you have to make the noises, the face expressions and really care about getting that squeaky thing. All of which creates the Dr showbiz effect. It is acting after all! After two minutes, the woman at the gym had faded into a distant memory. This is living in the moment, and this is being alive.

I slung the swimming costume over the line in the garden and headed on out to the park with the dog and a ball. On the way I took the opportunity to smile at everyone and even took part in a little silly walk en route.

I’m not saying we should gloss over those deep and dark emotions that we all sadly have to face at some point in our lives, but I do believe the love of a good dog can protect us and ward off that black dog of depression. The love of a dog is truly transformational, and if you don’t have one I recommend Borrowmydoggy.com’.

Dr David Hamilton and myself will be appearing at the Alma Tavern theatre in Bristol with a show, which is a blend of self-help and comedy. It’s called ‘It’s all about me: the science and comedy of self-love’ and is on June 6th, followed by a workshop the next day ‘From self-love to Self-awesome’, all about stepping into your authentic greatness.