On dogs, PTSD, and being an artist with issues.

This is not a ‘new art’ entry. Though… okay, alright then, here’s something I’m working on:

Zentas the Mini-Dragon- by Ravenari

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Now for the actual entry.

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In one camp (CAMP 1), you have many mental health officials and organisations release studies that say things like: Cats and dogs markedly reduce the stress of those with mental illness, and provide a sense of responsibility that can sometimes save a person’s life. Sometimes, the only thing that helps a suicidal person get out of bed in the morning, is feeding their dog.

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And then in the other camp (CAMP 2), you have many dog training officials and organisations release information that say things like: Cats and dogs benefit best when they’re raised in a stable and consistent environment. Remember that dogs need socialising, and to try and minimise tension, stress and fear around them, because dogs can pick up on this and it can create behavioural problems.

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And then in my camp, you have a conscientious, but mentally ill person who wants very dearly to have a dog in her life, but knows very much that my mental illness would on occasion create atmospheres that may stress a dog out.

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Now what there doesn’t seem to be is another camp of specialist dog trainers (or professionals in general) that have read both the scientific studies on ‘rescue people’ (i.e. humans with mental illness who would benefit from the presence of dogs), and dog happiness (i.e. dogs who would benefit from the presence of a more calm environment), and create dog/human positive-reinforcement training techniques designed for the mentally ill.

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I know some trainers out there exist like this, but in Western Australia, you can’t even find trainers to specialise in helping you train a professional therapy dog, let alone step in and offer as much understanding reassurance to the human as to the dog. Now I hope I’m wrong in this, but the divide between the initial camp 1 and camp 2 is quite large.

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What to do? I don’t know. Unfortunately, my illness has gotten in the way of me having a dog once before, and with no trainers to help me through my very specific issues, I’ve had to put getting a dog on the backburner. But my heart is open for a dog, I love dogs, I love being around them, I love spending time with them, I research training techniques (I’ve clicker trained my cats, particularly Maybe, who thinks it’s the best thing ever), I research dog breeds, I research dog genetics, I watch Youtube videos of dogs that I enjoy, and more than that, I contact breeders to ask them questions about their breeds.

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I think a lot of people don’t overthink things as much as I do. People want to do the best for their dogs, sort of, but many don’t buy books, or research training, or figure out a lot of things regarding their dog before they get it. Many people learn ‘the hard way.’ And many people still get it mostly right by happy accident. But I’m not ‘many people,’ I am a person with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a dissociative disorder. I have nightmares at night, and can shriek and flail and be very frightened – which rules out very protective breeds. I have to be responsible and do a lot of research.

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And I have to try not to scare the crap out of myself, which is very easy because you know… all the stuff I just mentioned above.

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There’s no easy answers for me. I am, in a word, a stresshead. Being in the presence of animals does significantly relax me, and my cats are – according to our vet – happy, friendly, well-socialised cats that are sweet-natured. In their presence I can go from ‘ZOMG LIFE IS HARD’ too ‘aw, pretty furry animal, do you want to do some training? Let’s play!’

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But enough about that, I want to know where the meet is between camp 1 and camp 2. Where are the trainers and psychologists meeting together to make pets work for people with mental illnesses in ways that are both humane for the pets, AND humane for the people? If we can spend so much time rescuing dogs and cats (I am a big believer in rescue dogs and cats), surely we can spend as much time rescuing the people that need so much help to make it through the day. And surely, considering that both people in camp 1 and camp 2 tend to care about living beings, there is room for a niche to develop? A niche of ‘people who help people with mental illness have pets.’

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We have a growing number of ‘people who help people with physical disabilities have pets,’ but – at least where I am – there doesn’t seem to be much of the ‘helping people with mental illness have pets.’

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That’s a sad thing, because clearly there are benefits to be had all round if the situation was managed safely and ethically. And on a very personal (and probably selfish) level, I find it is yet another of the things I am impacted by, in terms of having these illnesses. Something as straightforward as expanding our family – that millions of people do – is not straightforward here. It is not straightforward, but in a more supportive and nurturing environment; it could be easier.

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It could even be healing.

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I see many futures for myself. Too many. In a world where one of my debilitating symptoms was being certain I wouldn’t live out the year (every year), starting to overcome that has presented a world of overwhelming possibilities. But in one of those futures, I take the time to get a dog. It is a journey of trial and error, but with research, there is love and happiness too. And maybe one day, I can help there to be more professionals who can help people with mental illness have successful relationships with their canines; especially those people with mental illness who are conditioned by their disorders to lack confidence in themselves and their abilities. It is often those people who most need the animals who aren’t prone to overthinking. Who do just often enjoy the simple pleasures of life.

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Of course, in yet another future I see myself as a professional space-travelling chocolatier. So…you know. O.O

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16 thoughts on “On dogs, PTSD, and being an artist with issues.

  1. To me dogs are enormously forgiving and adaptable. What they care about really is this: you love them and let them love you. They get some exercise and enough food. End of story and in that order. If you gift a dog with those things Raven they are better off already than a sadly high percentage of dogs out there. I think you’d be a great dog mom

  2. I never had a dog so I’m not really qualified to speak on this, but it’s my belief that all this is enormously overthinking the matter. You don’t scientifically decide on the favorable conditions for a living thing anymore than you can create a scientifically-controlled environment to bring up children in an ideal way. Doesn’t happen! The relationships between people, and those between people and their animal companions, are a deep mystery and completely unpredictable. I have no doubt at all that were you to get a dog, once the bond between you is established the conditions will mean very very little, no matter what any overthinking dog “professional” may want to tell you. Rescue some poor puppy in need of love and both of you will be the better for it, I’m sure.

    • I think it’s easy to call speculation overthinking; and certainly some of this is overthinking, but I also think it’s vastly irresponsible to not take into account dog breeds and potential impacts on surrounding animals (i.e. our two rescue cats), including the fellow human I live with who experiences allergies to short-haired dogs.

      There is no ‘ideal way,’ certainly. I know it will be a journey of trial and error. But to not attempt to minimise the risk of harm or hurt to an animal (whether it be ourselves or another), when this is in our power to do, is incredibly irresponsible, and why we have so many animals in shelters in the first place. People not thinking through that ‘pet store purchase’ is a symptom of not thinking about the conditions appropriate. Not all dogs are built the same, nor all humans. I could never meet the exercise requirements of a well-bred setter or Australian cattle dog, and a small terrier would very likely not meet my requirements either.

  3. I wrote you a big, long reply, and either it got eaten, or it’s being moderated so I can’t see it was posted!

    Incase my comment is lost in space, I said ima professional dog trainer, with simular conditions to what you suffer. In my life, the dogs are a HUGE help, and I also gave some sugestions on finding the right indivual dog through simple reaction tests), and asked what breed(s) you were looking inso, while also suggesting a few.

    Feel free to email me πŸ™‚

  4. darn, it was eaten and is lost in cyberspace 😦

    If you send me your email, I’ll do my best to rewrite what I’d said earlier. At least in an email I’ll have a saved draft, unlike the comment which simply went POOF! I’m posting from a smartphone which can be a huge PITA when it comes to errors and such.

  5. I apologize for not having fabulous advice about bring the gap, but I honestly think that you would be a great dog mommy. Like Sal says, dogs are incredibly forgiving. Every day is a fresh start. The fact that you have done so much research proves that you would be a very conscientious companion. You’ll find ways to make it work for you and the canine. πŸ™‚

    • The advice is out there, it’s just a matter of looking and researching, though I’ll still probably find a positive-reinforcement trainer at least to help me with the dog; it’s just all the local ones I’ve met in person tend to be quite brash, forceful individuals with people; and possess less patience for us than our canine counterparts.

      Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll all be like that!

  6. I don’t think you’re overthinking it.

    I initially held the view that Annie would help me out of my depression – and she did, in a sense, by giving me companionship – but the idea that she alone could make me want to get out of bed was too much to ask, I think. I don’t know if that’s because I was depressed more than average, or because other aspects of my living situation (& physical disability) discouraged me from doing a lot of activities I could otherwise have managed.

    There is also the possibility that I hadn’t hit rock bottom, at that point, so I wasn’t able to step outside of myself to see what was happening. I think it made me feel worse, when I knew she wasn’t in good health and couldn’t help her. Of course, she never stopped loving me.

    It seems to me that dogs in particular are very forgiving; they support us when we’re unable to support ourselves, perhaps in the hope that, when we come back from a dark place, we will show them the same kindness. It makes sense that a dog could be the catalyst for a relationship like that.

    I remember reading that a fair bit of research has been done involving people with PTSD (many of them Iraq war veterans) and their response to therapy dogs, or “psychiatric service dogs.” Don’t give up the search. Dogs are wonderful, and will change your life.

    • I think it’s awesome that research has been done with PTSD + war vets. I haven’t really seen a great deal of Australian focus on those who aren’t war vets, and we sometimes have different issues to deal with; but at least it’s a growing body of research that’s starting to get some more weight and focus to it.

      I won’t give up. I can’t. The search has lasted 2 years now, I don’t think it’s going to stop any time soon.

  7. I think you would be a fabulous at keeping a dog. They are remarkably adaptable, and can thrive in many situations.. I have seen dogs that were happy and loving to their folk even when it was traumatic and even violent in the household. Some dogs are just.. kind of oblivious, and take everything that happens with a happy wag.. some dogs are much more sensitive, and do what they can to try to mediate and mitigate tense situations. I’ve seen many dogs who take better care of a person than a child’s parent..

    Anyway.. i am not good with words. i just woke up. But i think you’d be an exceptional dog person… you put so much love and thought into caring for your cats. My only concern is that.. perhaps you would doubt your abilities, and also your dogs ability to adapt, a little too much.. and not be able to let the experience of having a dog help -you- as much as it could. There will undoubtedly be challenges, and a bit of a learning curve.. and only you can tell when you’re ready to try having a dog again. But i am rooting for you, and i think this idea is a wonderful one..

    It would be epic if there was a program to help mentally ill people and dogs get together and help each other.

    I used to have a dream of doing something similar, myself.

    • I very much doubt my abilities. And unfortunately, this happening before + PTSD trigger + no support, has lead to me not coping with a young dog before; so I do know that I can find it crushing initially, when I’m not used to my routine being broken. I think I would need to shore up my support a great deal more.

  8. I was thinking that puppies are kinda hard to deal with for anyone–and that maybe you might like a slightly older dog.

    • This is certainly true; however – we have a dog aggressive cat (bengal cross) who on the recommendation of a vet, would be more likely to be compatible with a puppy, than an older dog coming into her territory. Having experienced the breadth of her dog aggression with an older dog before; we will be going with a puppy! But it wasn’t a decision we came to lightly. If Maybe wasn’t in this house, we’d likely have an older rescue dog, or re-homed breeder’s dog by now.

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