"If I have a dog, my dog has a human."
April 7, 2020 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Folks who are autists or who have mental health issues, especially those who don't have strong social networks: how has being guardian to a dog helped you?

Like many people, I'm thinking of what my life might look like when we all can start moving about freely again. And I think I'd like to foster a dog with an eye to adopting.

My mental health situation: autistic / treatment-resistant depression, which keeps me chronically without close human attachments. Fortunately, now that I'm no longer working fulltime, I have a lot more energy for activities of daily living. And that could include being guardian to a dog, maybe even a high-energy one.

I do worry that my chronic emotional flatness would extend to not being a very enthusiastic companion to a dog. But where I'll do OK is in terms of meeting a dog's basic needs, like training (mostly for me!), food/water, and exercise.

My questions for the hivemind are: if you're anything like me and you are guardian to a dog, how has it helped you? How do you meet mental and emotional health challenges that might make it hard for you to care for the dog? What about housekeeping challenges? Do you care for more than one dog?

I'd really like to hear from people who like me have a history of being without close human relationships. However, if you have chronic mental health issues, and/or are an autist, I'm happy to hear from you no matter what your relationship situation.

I am NOT looking for suggestions on how to improve the relationship issue: you can assume that I've tried all avenues there. Also, assume that finances and available physical space for exercise will not be a problem.

Question title HT: Donna Haraway
posted by Sheydem-tants to Pets & Animals (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I do worry that my chronic emotional flatness would extend to not being a very enthusiastic companion to a dog.

I do not have a dog but my partner is autistic and their undergrad degree and special interest are in animal behavior. They said that dogs tend to learn very quickly how their owners communicate and as long as you aren’t abusing them they’ll know you love them. If you consistently meet their needs and requests it doesn’t matter if you’re interacting with them in a neurotypical fashion.

As an autistic person myself I’ve always found cats less stressful than dogs—the quicker movement, noise, and general “muchness” of dogs can be overwhelming. I like them in short doses but living with one would be a lot of sensory overload. So that’s something to consider, if you have sensory issues. On the other hand, if you are more sensory seeking, dogs are great!
posted by brook horse at 12:29 PM on April 7 [10 favorites]

I am not on the spectrum but have CPTSD, depressive episodes, and anxiety. I have good relationships with some people, but I am not the easiest person to get along with; I call myself a misanthropic extrovert. I like being around people, but I don’t necessarily want to interact with them. I like to just be “a face in the crowd.”

Being a dog owner has been a wonderful experience for me. Winston keeps me grounded and allows me to make decisions that are in his best interest; they are also usually in my best interest as well. I have to plan to make sure his needs are taken care of, and it reminds me that I need to be cognizant of my own needs too. He is moral support and has kept me from being too lonely during this period of social distancing. He’s my companion, and we do stuff together and we travel together and experience new things together. He’s very inquisitive and curious, and he keeps me from getting ahead of myself because he wants to be involved, too. We are active and enjoy each other’s company, and he brings me a lot of joy. He is also the subject of neutral conversation, allowing me to brag about how awesome he is and how I love to spend time with him. As pets have become more a member of the family than they once might have been perceived, people don’t react funny when I treat him like a friend/companion. He helps me stay happier (for values of happiness) and really helps when I’m in a bad place, because I know that he is reliant on me and I promised him that I would take care of him - he’s always at the forefront of my thoughts and he always comes first. He is also humanizing. I have been divorced for a long time, I have no kids, and my “romantic” situation thing is complicated, so people might think I’m weird/eccentric (they’re not incorrect), but I have the capability to love and care for another being.

In your question you stated that finances are not an issue, and honestly because of the level of care I provide him (best vets in the area, daycare, dog walker, travel, food and medications for his allergies, toys out the wazoo), that’s the only detriment. But I wouldn’t trade him for the world.

I think having a pet is wonderful, and cats and dogs and reptiles and fish all make very good pets. Maybe volunteer with a shelter or humane society nearby and see if it would be a good fit before you make any final decisions.

Good luck!
posted by sara is disenchanted at 1:09 PM on April 7 [15 favorites]

Your issues may not be my issues. I'm autistic and had a dog once. I was not prepared for the level of in-your-face neediness of the dog. I really hate being licked on the face and the dog smelled bad to me. (I have sensory issues.) The worst aspect was when walking the dog, it always wanted to stop and interact with other dogs and I had to interact with the dog's people, which was deeply uncomfortable to me. I gave the dog to someone who appreciated her over-the-top love.

Since then I have had one or two inside cats, and I do much better with them, and no walks! However, if you are trying to develop more people skills, a dog will lead you into into fairly low impact small talk with other dog walking people.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:23 PM on April 7 [4 favorites]

I don’t have autism, but do have mental health issues (anxiety). I got a dog almost 5 years ago, when my anxiety was at its worst and my support network was minimal. I had him for 3 years (he was elderly when I adopted him, and passed away).

It was a truly life-changing experience for me. I went on adventures that I was scared to do alone. I had a buddy to watch TV and read with. I had a creature to focus on, with needs that I put above my own. I felt less lonely than I had in years.

I still miss him every day, and am so grateful for having experienced his companionship. I’m in a much better (less anxious, more supported) place now, but wouldn’t be here without having had that dog.
posted by shb at 2:25 PM on April 7 [10 favorites]

I'm autistic and am a lifelong cat person who lives with a cat. I like dogs and have lived with one, but don't have one of my own for reasons like the ones discussed above (too demanding, too much "needy" energy). An analogy I've heard is that having a dog is more like being a parent, while having a cat is more like being an aunt or uncle. I'm someone who doesn't have or want kids, so that works for me.

If you're feeling drawn to getting a dog, I'd suggest considering what benefits you imagine and how it will affect your day-to-day and moment-to-moment routines. A dog's needs might disrupt patterns in ways that would be helpful or in ways that would be distressing. It's hard to know ahead of time. Looking into fostering might be a thing – if the end of the foster period comes and the dog moves on to a forever home that's great, and if it turns out to be what's affectionately called a "foster fail" and you find you want to adopt the dog yourself, that's also great.

As I type this, my cat is on my lap getting in the way of my keyboard (this is not a complaint). I'm so glad to have her in my life. If getting a dog feels right, I hope you'll find yourself a suitable furry friend.
posted by Lexica at 3:18 PM on April 7 [3 favorites]

Not autistic, have cats, not dogs. Two of the cats are extremely dog-like (vocal, needy, hyper-affectionate). Having a pet is great for ensuring I do not spend my day in bed, because the cats must be taken care of. They make the dark times less dark and the bright times brighter. I do not advocate for everyone with mental illness get a pet, because sometimes the mental illness is so bad that you end up neglecting the animal. But if you're reasonably stable enough then it can really help you stay focused on living.

Dogs can be a lot though, so I strongly suggest you try fostering first before going out and adopting to see if the dog life is right for you.
posted by schroedinger at 5:07 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]

I have diagnosed CPTSD, severe cyclical depression, anxiety, and suspect a few other things (autism spectrum, ADHD).

I adopted a dog who became my emotional support animal, and it's been the very best thing. He helps me overcome so much. When I go places with him, my anxiety is so much less intense. He doesnt care how flat my affect is, as long as we're together. His need for a regular schedule helped me create one for myself.

He is an active breed (German shepherd) but he personally is very chill. If I cant handle a walk, he's happy to just romp in the yard on his own. He keeps me grounded, comforts me, pulls me out of my negative thoughts, and helps me find a playfulness I never have on my own or with others.

I would literally not be here if not for him. He has saved my life both literally and figuratively. He's my very first dog, and he's taught me so much about unconditional love and acceptance.
posted by ananci at 6:33 PM on April 7 [4 favorites]

Yeah if you have sensory sensitivities, be warned that dogs are really really smelly.

But having a pet is a wonderful thing for neurodiverse folks. (I had a cat. He was amazing.)

Sheydem-tants: How do you meet mental and emotional health challenges that might make it hard for you to care for the dog? What about housekeeping challenges?

Honestly, they don't care if you aren't perfect. It's a really special kind of unconditional love. If your mental health issues/autism manifest as perfectionism and self-criticism like mine do, it is really a transformative experience to have an animal companion in your life that is attached to you just because you are you, their person.
posted by capricorn at 6:49 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]

Something I want to point out about fostering is that, depending on the rescue organization you're working with, you'll be expected to do a fair bit of interaction with potential adopters, either in your home, theirs, or at pet store adoption events. No one involved is expecting a dog foster parent to be a cruise director, but it is worth asking yourself if you're comfortable with the types of social interaction that are likely to be a part of being a pet foster parent.

A couple people upthread mentioned that having a dog will open up new social opportunities for you; that's either going to be a feature or a bug. Dogs have a way of making people seem a lot more approachable, and with that end up giving you less control over your social environment than you may feel comfortable with.

I'm not an autist so take this with a grain of salt. I've been a lifelong cat owner (but closet dog person), and I find that cats are great for providing comfort and feeling like you're important to a living being. Having my fluffy antidepressants around has been helpful when I haven't had a strong social network. The thing about cats, though, is that they don't open up your world in quite the same way that dogs do. Dogs can be great companions in most of the ways that cats are, but they are really fantastic if what you want is an efficient way to expand your comfort zone.
posted by blerghamot at 8:25 PM on April 7 [2 favorites]

blerghamot makes a good point about the interaction you're often expected to have with potential adopters. Right now though, due to Current Events, a lot of rescues just need a safe place for their animals to stay, and are not holding in-person adoption events or expecting fosters to invite people into their homes. So if that aspect of fostering seems a little out of your comfort zone, you'll probably be able to find a shelter or rescue that isn't doing that right now.

Regarding your concern about not being an enthusiastic enough companion, sometimes all a shelter dog needs is a comfortable, quiet place to de-stress for a while, with their basic needs looked after. Shelters can be loud, uncomfortable places. Not all dogs need that in-your-face type of care or companonship that we often associate with dogs. Some just want to hang out and chill. Don't be afraid to mention that you're looking for that kind of hang-out-and-chill experience.

I am also not an autist, but I do have MDD and anxiety, and fret all the time about my three dogs and whether or not I'm being a good owner. I figure they're safe and fed and they sniff around the yard once in a while and they get regular vet care and a lot of the time, that's about all I can manage for myself, so we're all good.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 5:02 AM on April 8 [2 favorites]

There are wide variations in dog activity levels, in the sense of how bouncy/wiggly/licky/in your face they are. I've known many quiet and reserved dogs who show affection by leaning on you instead of jumping up to lick your face, and they tend to prefer quite and reserved people. Animals pick up on much more subtle body language than most people, so I think what may read as "flat" to people is a comfortable volume level for animals.

Smell and noisiness also really varies. Scent hounds like Bassets tend to be quite stinky, sight hounds barely smell, most are somewhere in between.
posted by sepviva at 8:19 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]

On the 'smelly' note...its somewhat down to breed and somewhat down to how much you want to address it through grooming.

I bathe my GSD twice a month (shampoo and conditioner), use grooming wipes on his paws and ears as needed (those tend to be the smelliest bits), and rub a drop or two of lavender oil into his back fur every now and then. It's his favorite scent and it helps us both relax.

Everyone comments on how nice he smells and how soft his fur is.
posted by ananci at 9:31 AM on April 8 [1 favorite]

I have to stop by to say that a half-grown kitten attempted to become my pet just this morning. Sadly I'm in a short-term rental till at least June and have no way of furnishing any critter with what it needs at the moment.

Video here. Kitty literally followed me up the stairs into the apartment.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 1:39 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure exactly what flavour(s) of neurodiverse I am, so I'm not sure if my experience is relevant for you, but getting my first dog last year has really transformed my life:

It's forced me to have a much more consistent daily routine, including getting outside twice a day every day, which is very good for my mental health.

I have to plan everything at least a little ahead of time and can't go out much, which some might not like, but I'm not a very spontaneous or social person anyway and now I can just accept that.

It'll change where I choose to live in the future (a huge factor for anyone renting, especially for certain breeds).

Since mine is a high energy breed mix, keeping her needs met is a constant challenge, but it's one I enjoy.

I didn't know how much I would like training, especially tricks. Dog training and behaviour has become one of my obsessive interests. There are quite a few people in the dog training/competition world who seem to be neurodiverse.

I am very sensitive to sounds and the barking/whining has been manageable (this can be helped a lot by careful training plus avoiding certain breeds). I don't find my dog "smelly"- she sometimes has a smell if I'm very close but it smells neutral-to-positive to me. The house is a lot dirtier now despite much more time cleaning (tracked in dirt, shedding, toys everywhere, etc) so that's a minor inconvenience for me but may be a big deal for some people.

Side note: I had always owned cats before and I was fond of them but they were pets and I sometimes resented taking care of them, and I was a less than ideal owner for them. My dog is family and I don't resent at all the (significantly higher) effort it takes to meet her needs and make her happy. I never knew it would be so different and I can't explain why. I know it's just the opposite for many people, as seen in this thread, so if you're able to "test-drive" both dogs and cats through fostering or pet sitting before committing, that would be an excellent idea.
posted by randomnity at 10:07 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

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