How raising a puppy changed my mental health

In honor of National Dog Day, one dog-mom reflects on the effect a puppy had on her life
By Natalie Koch  Published on 08/26/2018 at 12:50 PM EDT

Before we get too far, I want to say up front that I’m not one of those people with a goofy “Who Saved Who?” bumper sticker. When I say that my dog has helped turn my mental health around, I mean that very seriously. She’s not a licensed therapy or service dog, in fact, she very nearly didn’t pass puppy kindergarten. She is, however, very emotionally sensitive, and came to me at a time in my life when I desperately needed her.

Two years ago, my husband and I had just moved to Iowa in pursuit of his Ph.D. Previously, we’d spent five hard, but very fun, years in Northwest Ohio while he worked on his Master’s degree. I was no stranger to the academic grind and had gotten used to the kind of schedule it had set for us. We had amazing friends in town, I had a full-time job I enjoyed, I was involved in the community, and we were relatively close to our families. Despite my mental health always being a struggle I had managed to maintain some semblance of a balance during those years. When we moved to Iowa I didn’t expect to be so completely thrown off by all the changes.

I was very fortunate to begin working from home full-time as soon as we moved. An unfortunate side-effect of that arrangement meant I had no forced interaction with other humans, and since I didn’t know anyone in town yet, I spent many lonely days in an empty house while my husband went to school. He was able to make friends with his fellow students, and while they were perfectly nice people I felt very much an outsider. I began spiraling down a path of self-loathing, wondering how I’ll ever fit in with my measly Bachelor’s degree in my new, highly-educated city. I didn’t want to leave the house, I stopped taking care of myself, and began turning even more inward. Bereft of motivation and alone for almost 9 hours every day, sometimes more, I was losing myself.

Three months and two panic attacks into that first year, salvation came bounding into my life in the form of a tiny, Goldendoodle puppy. Getting a pet in the midst of mental health issues is a gamble, for sure, and I promise we didn’t make the decision lightly. My husband and I had been living together for quite a while at that point, and because I was working from home and had the means to support an animal, we thought we were in a good position to raise a puppy. He and I both grew up with dogs and had been wanting one for years. Fate seemed to throw a puppy at us and it all seemed a little too perfect—a former coworker of mine knew someone whose Goldendoodle and Standard Poodle had an accidental litter that they would not be keeping, so all the puppies needed homes.

Fate was good to us, but not super-good. We’d actually already moved to Iowa by the time the puppies were old enough to leave their mom. We made the 7-hour journey back to Ohio to pick up the pup and tried to prepare ourselves for a 7-hour drive back with a confused 9-week-old dog. She was the last puppy left from the litter, and when we got there the owner’s daughter was holding the puppy, reluctant to let her go. We could see why. She was insanely cute, as most puppies are, floppy, and a little bug-eyed. Basically, she was a Muppet come to life…and I love Muppets. Plus, she only peed on me once the entire drive back to Iowa! We named her Rylie and fell in love with her very, very quickly.

A post shared by Rylie (@rylie_doodle) on

Because I suffer from anxiety, it came as no surprise that I am an anxious dog owner. The first few weeks consisted of me Googling every possible anomaly, or chasing Rylie down to retrieve whatever it was she trapped in her jaws. My head snapped around at every whimper, I took her outside with precision every 30 minutes, and, slowly, I was feeling better. My worries about my dog’s development began to eclipse every other worry I’d been having since the move. Raising a puppy is hard, and I’d even go as far as saying it’s harder than taking care of a newborn. Why? Newborns wear diapers. But despite how difficult it can be, I was actually feeling happy.

A post shared by Rylie (@rylie_doodle) on

Getting a dog was the best thing I’ve ever done for my mental health. I’m not cured, I don’t feel great all the time, and I will likely always struggle. But having a dog gives me, personally, a daily purpose. It forces me to go outside into the sunshine and walk around, it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and most of all I always have something soft and fluffy to hug when I’m feeling crappy. Rylie is outgoing, rambunctious, always happy to see people…she is my polar opposite in personality. And that’s why we work.

Rylie turns 2 next month, and you can follow her adventures on Instagram. Hey, I’m a Social Media Manager, what did you expect? Share photos and stories about your dogs in the comments!

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