Sheila got a new Labrador mix from the animal shelter where she lives in Georgia. The dog is black. She named him Yogi.
I asked if she named him after the famous New York Yankees catcher, Yogi Berra, but she said no. Sheila named him in honor of all those who practice yoga.
Well, I would like to humbly submit that she make her dog’s middle name “Berra” in honor of the late national treasure: the scrappy catcher from Saint Louis, who dropped out in eighth grade to support his family; who served on a gunboat during the Normandy invasions and was awarded a Purple Heart; who went on to play in more World Series games than any player in Major League history.
“Never heard of him,” said Sheila.
Anyway, the reason Sheila got Yogi was because her therapist recommended it. Sheila is single, 54-years-old, she does yoga, eats right, goes to church, and each morning she makes healthy smoothies that taste like lawn clippings. In short, she has a nice life.
And Sheila is clinically depressed.
The reasons aren’t important. Because the truth is, you can’t control how you feel. Nobody can. The idea that we can control anything in the world is laughable. We are but vehicles, riding on the Interstate of Existence. And stuff happens. Stuff like COVID.
You can do all the right things on the Divine Freeway of Life, follow all the rules, use your turn signals, and still get T-boned by a guy who is busy texting while driving. Next thing you know, your mental health is a wreck.
That might be an oversimplified example, but it’s not my example. That anecdote was given to me by Sheila’s doctor, who I interviewed this morning.
After a recent column I wrote on depression, Sheila’s therapist was very jazzed up to tell me about a unique kind of depression treatment.
“Get a dog,” said the therapist.
As it happens, I am a dog guy. There are dogs sleeping on my feet right now while I write this. One is snoring, the other is emitting smells that are watering my eyes. I am hard pressed to believe curing depression is easy as owning a dog.
“It’s definitely not a cure,” says Sheila’s therapist. “But it helps.”
She went on to say that research proves that dogs are valuable pieces of medical equipment. More valuable than anyone in the mental health field once realized.
“It’s amazing,” says the doc, “dogs can sniff out blood sugar levels, predict seizures, and they can even detect cancer with their noses.”
But a dog’s real talent lies in its ability to know its owner’s moods. Dogs know how you’re feeling before you do.
“Have you ever seen a dog tilt its head when you make a weird sound?” says the doc. “It’s called head-orienting. The canine brain is sensitive to audio, they can tell just from your voice what’s happening in your head.”
The canine brain can hear tiny vocal inflections and know whether you’re happy, sad, ticked off at your boss, anxious about a pandemic, or in Sheila’s case, depressed.
“But that’s nothing,” says the venerable therapist. “Wanna hear something even cooler? Dogs boost oxytocin.”
I realize this is all starting to sound like the biology lecture from hell, but bear with me here.
Turns out, there’s a chemical in your brain known as the “love hormone.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, this potent chemical is not the same “chemical” often found at Crosby, Stills & Nash concerts. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter associated with love, romance, affection, trust, social interaction, and lots of other bodily stuff.
A depressed brain fails when it comes to oxytocin activity and other feel-good chemicals. Which are all key players in depression.
“Here’s the best part,” says the doc. “Pet owners have WAY more oxytocin activity than non-pet owners. They have better pain management, more social engagement, lower blood pressure…
“We’ve seen dogs literally change the mental health of inmates, as well as cancer patients, dogs can even help you sleep better.”
I’ll admit, the part about sleep sounded far fetched. Because I have two dogs, and I don’t always sleep great. Namely, because my dog wakes me up every morning about 4 a.m. to tee-tee in the backyard. And trust me, this does not help my quality of life.
But the doc says this, too, is another benefit of dogs. Pet ownership forces you to go outside often, which helps you get more vitamin D from the sun, which helps your brain produce even more Woodstock chemicals.
The doc claims that many of her patients with depressive disorders are reporting huge gains from simply buying a pet.
So I’m running out of space, but if you’re struggling with depression, I’ll leave you with a few personal quotes on the matter:
MIKE—“I used to have night terrors, from PTSD, I’d wake up with a racing heart and stuff… But now with Apollo [Rottweiler, age 4] sleeping by me, he’s there and… It’s easier not being alone at night.”
ERICA—“Whenever I get anxious, Mia [collie mix, 9] can just tell I’m worked up… She’s such a lover, I feel more chill.”
EVE—“When Ju Ju [Lab mix rescue, age unknown] gets in my lap and loves up to me, she won’t give me time to think about how bad things are, she’s just like, ‘Hey, c’mon, pet me.’”
SHEILA—“Yogi can tell when I’m shutting down, he knows when I need affection, I think that’s a missing piece from my life with this pandemic, I’ve been missing affection… I love my Yogi.”
THE LATE YOGI BERRA—“Love is the most important thing. But baseball’s pretty good, too.”