Mental Health Awareness Week

guest blog by Lee Connor

Having spent all his life with GSDs, Rottweilers, Dachshunds and Boston Terriers, Lee has always been a lover of all things 'dog' and is a fierce advocate of the pedigree dog, dog health and welfare. A regular columnist for leading US magazine, Canine Chronicle, Lee also writes for canine publications worldwide including Dog World and Edition Dog, as well as currently writing for a number of wildlife and lifestyle magazines. Lee lives in South Devon.

These are certainly strange and unsettling times we’re currently living in. It’s like a giant finger has come down from the heavens and pressed the pause button on man’s frenetic activities. Everything has ground to a halt and this has certainly given many folk all around the globe breathing space and time for reflection; valuable time to stop and think about what is good and what is superfluous to living a happy and contented life.

However, although it’s certainly heartening to see so many posts on how many people are finally being able to hear birdsong for the first time, and how they are discovering wildlife on their doorsteps or are enjoying exploring the unpolluted night skies, this great ‘awakening’ has been tempered somewhat by the growing fear of the effects Covid-19 is having on our lives; businesses, employment, and of course, not being able to see friends and loved ones. These concerns touch us all and can, if we allow them to, completely overwhelm us. For many, the world at this time has become a much scarier, lonelier and more depressing place.

Churchill euphemistically called his periods of depression, his ‘black dog’. There were several moments in his life when he was so consumed with despair that he would literally take to his bed – unable to do anything. I can completely sympathise; it is a truly horrible condition and one that I too have suffered on a number of occasions. It’s so hard to put into words the all-engulfing emptiness and sheer hopelessness that one feels in those difficult times.

However, one sure-fire remedy that I’ve discovered successfully combats those unwelcome visits of the ‘black dog’ happens to be the demanding affections of my own two black (and white) dogs, my Boston Terriers, Lola and Pebbles!

The child-like and clownish activities of this tuxedoed pair are always guaranteed to put a smile on my face and, during this enforced lockdown, with the media heavily laden with stories of gloom and impending doom, this has never been more vital.

Far more reserved (and grown up) in their approach to life are my two Dachshund boys, Alfie and Otto, but one thing all four have in common is a love of being outside enjoying their walks. We are fortunate living down here in South Devon, with the beach at the end of the road and the vast expanse of Dartmoor just a short drive away. I’ve always loved walking with my dogs; even as a lad (back in North London), I valued the power of ‘walking with your dog’ as the ultimate stress-buster.

Which is why I was stunned to discover through Forthglade’s, Great Dog Walk Challenge campaign, that 93% of dog owners wished they were able to walk their dogs more often, and that most dog walks were over and done with in less than 20 minutes!

However, I think that recent events may well have changed the nation’s thoughts on the commonly held myth that ‘once around the block’ is more than enough.

I’ve certainly noticed, when I am out and about on our daily dog walks, that I am seeing a number of dogs (and their owners) that I have never seen before. The ‘once a day exercise period’ seems to have focused people’s minds to the joy of being outside in the fresh air…and this has extended to their dogs too. I am sure that a number of these people were regular car users and then, when forced to use their valuable exercise allowance, initially felt a little awkward walking the streets alone and coerced the family pet to join them. Just like the thousands who are noticing the beauty of nature for the very first time, there does seem to be a growing number of people who are finally engaging with their dogs, realising the multitude of benefits that apply to both owner and pet.

These benefits include maintaining a healthy weight, building muscle, supporting healthy joints, etc. But aside from these physical benefits, there’s the mental exercise to consider. A dog’s sense of smell is one of its most powerful senses - 100,000 times better than a human, I’ve read that a dog could detect the equivalent of half a teaspoonful of sugar in an Olympic-sized swimming pool!

Imagine how frustrating it would be to possess such a ‘super-sense’ but rarely be given the opportunity to use it? Think of all the delicious (and not so delicious) smells that will bombard your dog on even an average suburban walk. What a work-out!

And an array of health benefits is also in store for the human side of the dog walking duo too! Aside from the ones previously mentioned, and the recently much-touted benefits of simply being out in the sunshine and getting your necessary Vitamin D levels topped up, there is a wealth of benefits for your mental wellbeing.

Walking has been shown to release endorphins which of course improves mood, reducing stress and anxiety and simply spending time in the great outdoors - even if that’s just the local park - always has a positive effect on mental health.

I know from personal experience that when I’m feeling particularly stressed, when that oppressive feeling ‘that the walls are closing in on me’ starts to come on, simply by putting Pebbles on a lead and going for a walk…I will feel better. Walking with my dog allows me to work problems out in my head and when I finally return home, invariably the enormous problem that prompted me to leave the house has lessened in its gravity.

When the horrendous Coronavirus finally slips from the headlines and lessens its terrifying grip on the nation (as it will) I believe the mental health problems it provoked will be its far more enduring legacy. We will (if we ever want to have a healthy functioning society) eventually have to come back together and, once the danger is over, interact with one another again without fear. ITV has already recognised this and Ant & Dec recently launched their ‘Get Britain Talking’ campaign.

In time, I believe dog walkers could be the vanguard of this initiative to get Britain back to some form of normality - they will be the bridge back. I have had many brief and happy conversations with complete strangers (with them and their dog on one side of the street and me and my dog on the other) which has definitely helped ease the sense of isolation that so many have felt recently.

Ricky Gervais once said, ‘be the person your dog thinks you are…’ and that ‘dogs will save humanity’.

He can be a somewhat controversial character at times but, on this, he is spot on and I think, in the coming weeks, months…possibly years ahead, we will see the truth in this statement as we all finally get back on our feet.