Life Lessons From A Beagle: Pets And Your Mental Health
What Rhymes With Beagle?
One of my favorite poems, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver, opens with the lines:
As a first-time dog owner, I was taken aback by just how much my beagle and I had in common. We often forget that we (humans) belong to the animal world, technological progress notwithstanding. And as animals, we are to some extent, governed by these deep instincts, probably more than we would like to admit, even to ourselves. Getting to know Copper, a 1.5-year-old beagle, has led me to some surprising discoveries. I want to share them here because in many parts of the world, cohabiting with an animal is still considered dirty and the idea of pet therapy and emotional support animals hasn’t quite caught on.
The Link Between Welcomed Pets & Mental Health Stigma
The best revelations always seem totally obvious ex-post, so I don’t want to claim that I’m the first to document the personal benefits of having a beagle. But if I were to draw a Venn diagram of the places I’ve been where dogs are considered a nasty nuisance and the places with the most overt stigma towards mental health, the two circles would overlap almost completely. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence: hostile attitudes towards both pets and therapists seem to stem from the same disavowal of our intrinsic need for connection.
In fact, until I met Copper, I was quite wary of dogs. A few mean strays had clouded my opinion early on, and the aggressively friendly ones I’d met since didn’t exactly reverse my opinion. I also don’t want to suggest that Copper is an emotional support animal. He may still grow to be one, but for now, I think we’re about equally anxious. It’s one of the many things we have in common.
My Beagle, My Self
5 life lessons I’ve learned from Copper, my Beagle:
- Hunger is an instinct
Finding food and eating it is something we’re naturally hardwired to do. Observing Copper’s enthusiasm for meals and treats, as well as the occasional stalks of grass is like watching a master of intuitive eating. Even if he gets into ill-advised food, like cheese, and gets sick afterward, he does not seem to beat himself up about it.
His capacity to tear through packaging to get to snacks has led me to be more mindful of not leaving food lying around. Storing snacks on a shelf, away in the pantry, means I have to be mindful and intentional about eating them. I still eat them, but only when I want to. Animals are masters of intuitive eating and better models for it than most humans.
- We were made to move
One of the things I’d read about beagles before Copper arrived was that they shed a lot and need to be exercised, otherwise they have a tendency to gain weight. My first thought? “Hey, me too!” My days now feel incomplete without at least one long walk with Copper every day. It’s not particularly strenuous, but the combination of movement, fresh air, and sunlight has done more for me in the last few months than the antidepressants I’d been taking for nearly two years.
Science and Thoreau agree that independent of a canine companion, a walk outdoors can have a transformative effect on body and mind. If you can maintain a daily regimen of going for a morning walk, more power to you! But my experience has been that walkers get looked at funny (why aren’t you running?). I’d spend too much time fretting about what to wear, anticipating stares and/or catcalls, and prepping playlists and podcasts so I could drown out the din of the city.
But in the face of a whining dog standing by the door, threatening to do his business on the floor, these concerns simply evaporate. It’s so much easier to justify prioritizing his need to attend to nature’s call over my need to not attract attention. Yes, I’ve left the house in pajamas and a robe at 5 am because I’m still not a morning person. I just no longer care for the opinions of those whose tails don’t wag enthusiastically when I enter the room.
- When in doubt, take a nap
- Packs and boundaries
Copper follows a precise protocol when it comes to making new friends. If he recognizes the scent of a dog from our walks around the neighborhood, he will greet them by baying loudly while pulling on his leash to be allowed to go up to them. If the other dog (and their owner) consents and he is allowed to approach, he practices radical vulnerability by literally lying on his back and inviting the other dog to do their worst. No alpha male posturing for this highly evolved being!
Once the other dog has done their sniffing, then Copper takes his turn. He uses his keen nose to learn about his new friend, and his tail to invite them for an exciting squirrel-chasing adventure. If he encounters a new dog whose scent he does not already recognize, he either ignores them completely or adds some barks to his initial greeting.
I can only presume he’s communicating his boundaries before inviting them to sniff his butt. Humans sometimes mistake him for a shy or scared dog, but that’s just part of his shtick. Confident of his quick reflexes and ability to launch a high-speed escape if the encounter goes sour, Copper models the Taoist principle of wu
- There’s only one way to change behavior
Whether or not having a dog can be compared to having a child is apparently a topic of great debate on the internet. But then again, what isn’t a topic of debate on the internet? Having no prior experience with either, I surprised myself by my reactions to Copper’s dog owner act of rebellious destructiveness. Left unsupervised, Copper has torn into snacks, mail, magazines, cushions, and (so far) two shoes. He’s also working on de-fringing the living room rug.
My reaction to each discovery of the damage has been to say something that I swear I last heard one or the other parent say more than twenty years ago. I don’t know if yelling at your dog in Tamil will get you in trouble with PETA, but it’s crossed my mind that I’m engaging in a sort of psychological animal testing. My only defense is that the sample size would disqualify experimental classification, a technicality at best.
That said, I can confidently report that being scolded has not become any more effective at deterring bad behavior than it was in 1990. The only thing that works, and has probably ever worked, is repetition, structure, and positive reinforcement. Gotta go, it’s time for my treat!
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