“The Dog Who Taught Me How to Chill”


In September 2016 – my birthday month – I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder by my primary physician. After prescribing the relevant medication, he remarked, rather wryly, that “you might also want to get a husband or a dog. Depending on the quality of either, that might significantly help with the anxiety.” Finding a husband was clearly a more difficult proposition, not to mention being more labor-intensive and psychologically challenging. So, I took the easier option and went to the local animal shelter with my son and adopted a rambunctious 1 ½ year old Bichon Frise we named Jackson. Little did I know at that time how much this creature would positively change the arc of my anxiety-fraught psychodynamics.

Jackson taught me lessons about living and getting my priorities right which the numerous psychological texts I poured over didn’t quite hammer home. In my case, I learned, with my puppy’s help, to look anxiety in the face and say “you don’t live here anymore.” The first lesson I probably grasped was to TAKE IT SLOW. Normally, I was always running and rushing around, stressed out with a laundry list of at least 20 things I felt needed doing every day. There were times when I was hyperventilating, caught in a pattern of endlessly checking my emails (there were hundreds), my cell phone messages and struggling to meet the demands of three part-time jobs. A friend actually told me that I looked like a trainwreck. but even that did not succeed in getting me off the tracks of interminably continuing a path of high-intensity living.  

Jackson, on the other hand, illustrated the notion that there is NO SHAME IN REST. Watching him take constant naps and falling into a peaceful sleep made me realize that rest equals self-care. Following his lead, I realized that slowing down makes you more mindful. Taking him on a walk made me focus on just that – like him, I suddenly began to really look at my surroundings, to notice the flowers in bloom, the overarching boughs of trees, the song of a bird, the shadows on a building.

Focusing on Jackson also gave me a reason to stop giving in to distractions. A therapist friend mentioned how critical it is to live in the now and rejoice in the moment you are in. Someone named Robert Falcon Scott said “the dog lives for the day, the hour, even the moment.” I noticed that when I hung out with Jackson, I felt happier, less anxious and my mind seemed more translucently clear. As I began to notice things in a much more intimate and carefully close way, I found myself letting go of constantly having agendas and scripts in my head telling me what to immediately do. I watched my beautiful dog simply surrender to life, running around in a natural scape sniffing plants, throwing himself excitedly into the air, rolling in a mud puddle, animatedly greeting other dogs, frolicking as though he hadn’t a care in the world. I gained another lesson from observing him: MAKE TIME FOR PLAY. I began to schedule playtimes for myself which Jackson shared, of course getting cuddles when he could.

By his example, Jackson also taught me that IT IS ALWAYS A GOOD IDEA TO GO OUTSIDE. Even if we only walked around the block, I came home feeling more relaxed and happier than when we started. I walked slower, no longer a slave to the frenetic pace that had always been some sort of commandment in my head. When I came across an article on thehopkinsmedicine.org website, I couldn’t help but agree with its thesis that dogs help with anxiety and depression. There was, of course, a comment about unconditional love and how dogs teach us that as well. Being with Jackson made me understand that to him I was totally lovable whether I was overweight, unemployed, moody or grumpy. Jackson’s was a love without reservation. I saw a quote in my reading travels by Thich Nhat Hanh that “peace and calm are contagious.” I had never heard of him, but he sure had that right. Looking at Jackson, I understood that dogs don’t regret the past or ruminate about the future – they can just BE. I’m trying to follow suit.

Research has shown that simply petting a dog lowers the stress hormone cortisol. Giving Jackson a hug assures me that is true. “To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace” an author named Milan Kundera wrote. My dog has taught me to chill and, by doing so, keep the anxiety at bay.


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