The big black dog of depression first became significant in our cultural
psyche when it was spoken about by Winston Churchill. The wartime
Prime Minister of the UK was known to have suffered from periods of
depression during his lifetime.
Although this is the first time in recent history when the black dog was
mentioned it can be traced to earlier cultures and civilizations. In Roman,
Egyptian, and Norse mythology there are many references towards black
mythical creatures that were responsible for changing the personality and
moods of their citizens. The Black Creature was believed to be the earthly
manifestation of the devil and escaping his clutches could be difficult.
Also in Jungian psychology, the black creature could be seen as an
archetypal representation of your shadow, the evil inside yourself.
Many of us have awareness of the physical symptoms of depression. We
may have experienced memory loss, foggy thinking, appetite loss, and
repetitive negative thought cycles. We can see that the metaphor of the
black dog fits very well with these symptoms. The black dog is following
you around and you can’t get rid of it. The black dog needs feeding and it’s
you feeding him. As you get older the black dog grows even bigger and
can become more menacing. There are many effective techniques within
CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) that teach people how to cope with
living with the black dog. Many of the ideas are that with understanding
the dog better we will be able to live more functional lives. We could of
course just euthanise the black dog and put it down, but then again if we
are animal lovers this would be cruel even if it’s only a metaphor.
I guess this is where the irony of the recent trend for therapy dogs and
emotional support pets comes to the fore. While there is scant and
patchy(no pun intended) scientific evidence for the effectiveness of
animals in helping with depression there are many people in the world who
believe in their effectiveness in helping them overcome significant events
in their lives. There is little doubt that having a pet can help relieve
loneliness and isolation. Perhaps there is also the benefit of outdoor exercise
as our thoughts can become restricted between four walls.
Many pet owners insist there is a special bond and unconditional love
between them and their animal which is nothing to do with the pet
knowing who did they rely on for food. Then of course social recognition
from other dog owners when you are out walking your dog is a
psychological benefit. There was a recent study in a prison that cited mood
benefits to inmates when therapy dogs were introduced into the prison.
With many things in life, it is only when what is helpful gets exaggerated
and becomes ridiculous that we begin to take notice. In America, there’s a
huge industry of fake emotional pet certificates that dubious individuals
obtain to allow them to take the animals on board planes.
I remember finding myself watching a television commercial in the middle
of the night advertising a furry robotic cushion with a wagging tail. The
idea is that by stroking a fake pet you get the same benefits of a real
animal without having to clean up after it.
In conclusion, if all else fails why not get rid of your metaphoric and
imaginary black dog of depression and find yourself a real pet instead.