When I moved into my townhome a year ago, my landlord mentioned that I could have a pet without paying a deposit or extra fees if it was an Emotional Support Animal. She knew I was a therapist, which I guess is why she told me.
A few months later I asked my own therapist what she thought about me having a therapy dog.
“I think it’ll change your life,” she said. She had a sealed letter waiting for me at her office the following week.
Over the next six months, I bandied about the idea of getting a new dog. It’s a big decision, so I wanted to think about it before I made a commitment. I have a habit of acting impulsively.
I kept putting it off. I work a lot — that was the excuse I gave people. I’m on staff full-time at a psychiatric hospital and I also see clients in private practice one day a week. I didn’t like the idea of having a dog holed up in a crate for 10 hours a day.
I had a few other nonsense reservations as well. I’m mildly allergic to doggy dander. Picking up dog poop is a hassle. Dog hair gets everywhere. Meanwhile, I battled loneliness and fought off depression, as if those were the lesser of two evils.
But it eventually occurred to me that the actual reason I hadn’t leapt at the opportunity to get an emotional support animal was that my last dog had died about three years before, and I still wasn’t entirely over it.
Death is hard. Even if it’s a dog. Especially if it’s a dog.
Heidi — my previous companion — was The World’s Best Dog. She was amazing. I could have left a fully-cooked turkey on the floor for an entire day and she wouldn’t go near it. Man, that dog was awesome.
I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of loss over the years, but Heidi’s death was the last straw. I vowed that I would never have another dog again. She had been my fourth. I figured that was enough.
I figured wrong.
“My dog is better than me. He knows me and does not judge me.”— Author Unknown
I mentioned that I’m a therapist, and if you caught that you might be thinking — how could you not know about the benefits of having an emotional support animal? And the answer is that I did. Of course I did. It’s just far more easy to help other people than it is to help yourself, so I continued to tread water and put off what I knew for sure would actually be helpful.
I don’t say that with pride. And don’t think for a second that all therapists have their stuff together. Many of them do, sure. But plenty of accountants go bankrupt. Plenty of doctors smoke. And plenty of therapists fail to take their own advice.
Fortunately, my friends and co-workers are all therapists, and they kept hassling me to just get the damn dog already, and finally I caved in to peer pressure and off to the local humane society I went.
Turns out, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
There’s a few things you should know about the process involved with procuring an emotional support animal.
I will list the complicated array of steps in order as follows:
- There is no process. Emotional support animals are not regulated in the United States.
- It’s literally no different that getting a regular old pet.
- It doesn’t have to be a dog. I know this one girl who has a pig. I know another one who has a ferret named Sylvia.
- Just go get one, for Christ’s sake. Don’t be me.
So I’m at the humane society, and they take me into this corridor with dog cages on either side, and all the dogs are going bananas except for this one little black and white rat-terrier-mix-thing with a waggy tail who looked on me with soulful, quizzical eyes.
When it comes to romantic relationships, the concept of “love at first sight” is hotly debated. But when it comes to dogs, I think we can all agree that it’s a real thing. And so it was when Daisy and I locked eyes.
They let me take her out to this fenced off area where we walked around a bit so she could do her business and get some play-time in. At first, I wasn’t quite sure that she was into me the way I was into her, but oh-my-god that face. I cast my insecurity aside and committed to her right then and there.
Her name is Daisy, and she is 8 years old. I came to find out she has an interesting backstory. Apparently, she was part of a program at a local prison where the inmates trained her to do basic commands like sit and stay.
The humane society assured me that Daisy herself does not have a criminal record, but as a result of her service she had just been kinda languishing away at various placements over the past several years. In fact, she had been a guest of my local humane society for almost 11 months. That, to me, was unacceptable.
And as I, too, had been languishing away for years, I saw her as a kindred spirit. I asked her if she’d like to live with me and she agreed. I wrote a check for 250 dollars (you know, to bond her out of dog-jail) and in return I got a few bags of Science Diet and a copy of her vet records. Driving back to my townhome, Daisy sat up straight in the back seat of my car like she was Douglass MacArthur triumphantly returning to The Philippines.
Our first leash-walk was to the property manager’s office, where I handed them a copy of her license, vaccination records, and the “prescription” my therapist had written me. No deposit needed, no extra fees incurred.
And that was that. Daisy was now a street-legal, bona fide emotional support animal.
“Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made.”— Roger A. Caras
Daisy has been my bro since about the first week of April, which is important to note in that it was the early days of COVID. If you’ll recall, toilet paper was scarce, half the country had just been furloughed, and everyone was on edge. If ever there was a time to enlist the services of an Emotional Support Animal, this was that time.
Yet despite all the craziness and the unease, and throughout all the civil unrest and economic turmoil and the divisive Trump tweets, my mental and physical health actually started improving.
I figured I would eventually see some benefit to having Daisy in my life, but the speed at which those benefits came was shocking. And we’re not talking small things. We’re talking life-changing things.
Here are five of them:
1. My back stopped hurting almost immediately.
I have dealt with chronic back pain for the bulk of 25 years. As is the case with many men, I carry my stress in my lower back, the intensity of which waxes or wanes depending on the highs and lows of my career, financial status, and/or relationship pursuits.
Over the past few years, muscle spasms in my back have routinely roused me from bed in the middle of the night, which is a real treat. My muscles stay twisted and angry, so going back to sleep is a pipe dream, and as a result I am constantly sleep-deprived.
But Daisy sleeps on the bed now, and about two weeks after she moved in I woke up one morning and realized that my back pain was gone. I don’t mean that my pain had been reduced. I don’t mean that it eased off. I mean that it vanished. Totally gone.
2. I sleep better. Like, a lot better.
Before Daisy, I was averaging 5 hours a night. That is god-awful. With that level of sleep deprivation, it’s usually not a good idea to drive a car. As a result, most days felt like I was walking underwater.
But Daisy sleeps on the bed now, and I don’t feel so alone, and so now I average about 7 hours. That’s heaven for me. It’s quality sleep, too.
Daisy likes to spoon, and she sleeps so heavily that sometimes I check her pulse just to make sure she’s okay. So I sleep more now because it would be rude to wake her up, right? Her little paws twitch when she dreams and it’s like oh my god where has this dog been all my life?
Perhaps sleep comes easier of you have someone else in the bed whose sleep-hygiene is above reproach.
3. My depression is effectively gone.
I had my depression pretty well-managed before Daisy came along (I’ve dealt with that monster for almost three decades), so I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing clinical depression. I also participate in therapy, get exercise, and take medication. If you deal with depression, you should probably be doing those things, too.
But depression has a way of lingering, like a house-guest who has overstayed his welcome. No matter what you do, it’s always there in some way. And yet Daisy seems to have shown it the door. My anxiety took a hike as well.
4. My girlfriend and I are doing a lot better, too.
I have an odd relationship with my girlfriend. We’ve been on-again, off-again for two years, and because she’s a single mom who works a lot and lives an hour away, we only see each other about once a month. This dynamic is a constant source of frustration.
I miss her. All the time. And it’s irksome that we don’t get to see each other much, which in the past translated into fighting about stupid stuff.
But now that Daisy is around, it takes the edge off. Daisy has a way of keeping me balanced, though I can’t really explain how. As a result, my girlfriend and I haven’t argued in months.
I suppose it’s that I have someone else to focus on, someone to ladle on affection. Daisy likes to lay on the couch with me an binge-watch Netflix. And sometimes that’s all you need.
5. I’m losing weight and eating healthier.
Exercise has always been a critical part of my self-care, but Daisy has helped me up the ante in terms of duration and frequency. After relaxing in my home all day, she’s quite insistent that I throw on my sneakers and take her for a walk after I get home from work.
As she gives me the stink-eye if I say no, I acquiesce more often that not.
I am fortunate to have a huge community park just a mile from where I live, so we throw on her little dog-harness and walk about 4 miles a day.
I also started learning to cook healthy stuff, too. I am guilty of letting Daisy nibble on people-food from time to time (have you seen that face?), so I figured I might as well make sure she’s not eating junk.
It’s amazing how much better we take care of ourselves when we have someone in our lives to answer to.
“To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.”— Aldous Huxley
Research is somewhat lacking about the benefits of emotional support animals. For every article that promotes their benefits, the are two that question their efficacy. Still, my weight is down, my depression has waned, I’m sleeping better and my back pain is gone. So I’m not sure I give a damn what the research says or doesn’t say.
And my reservations about getting a dog were a red herring, by the way. I come home for lunch so Daisy gets to stretch her legs; she doesn’t stay in dog-jail for more than a few hours. She’s hypoallergenic and fairly clean and her poop isn’t all that gross.
But even if it was, it would be a small price to pay.
If you’ve been considering getting an Emotional Support Animal, I suggest you have a conversation with your doctor. Depending on your needs, a trained service animal might be more appropriate. It might even be a good idea to see a licensed therapist while you’re at it.
And if you already have an Emotional Support Animal, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.
As for me an Daisy, we’re doing just fine. In fact, it’s time to stop writing and go for a nice long walk outside. It’s a beautiful day.