Monty Don, the television gardening presenter, always comes across on screen as irrepressibly cheerful and enthusiastic, but this is a misleading impression. In fact, he gets black moods. ‘It’s no secret that for many years I’ve suffered from depression,’ he said last week at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. He had tried Prozac and cognitive behavioural therapy, but the only treatment that had worked for him was provided by his dog. ‘If you are unwell, physically or mentally, a dog is a huge comfort,’ he said. ‘Dogs heal. There is plenty of evidence to show that.’
I was glad to hear this praise at a time when the word dog is more famously being used as a term of disparagement. Donald Trump had been contemptuously calling women dogs, while Robert de Niro batted the insult back to him when he said: ‘He is utterly stupid, he’s a punk, he’s a dog, he’s a pig.’
But the truth is that most people like dogs and value their companionship, and this seems to have been the case since almost the start of human civilisation. Archaeological researchers now think that at least one dog accompanied a human on a journey from York to Stonehenge 7,000 years ago; and even Trump is said to be very fond of his golden Labrador.
But can dogs really help against depression? I had never thought about this until Monty Don talked about it last week; but yes, I think they can. I have had dogs as pets throughout my life, but have never before seen any of them as having therapeutic value, probably because I haven’t felt in need of therapy. Of late, however, I have known what it’s like to feel depressed.
As Bette Davis once said, ‘Old age ain’t no place for sissies’; and I fear that I am a bit of a sissy. A brain haemorrhage six months ago sapped my energy and made me start shuffling about like an old man. I am much better now, though I still sometimes muddle my speech when I get tired and can’t always understand what other people are talking about. I have also been forbidden to drive a car for 12 months.
Things could be a great deal worse, but they are tiresome enough to cause moments of self pity and fears for the future. So this is where the dog comes in. ‘A dog is an incredibly good way of getting you through the black periods because they love you all the same when you are feeling very unlovable,’ Monty Don said. ‘Having a dog stops you thinking about this person you don’t like very much.’ I wouldn’t go as far as that on behalf of my Jack Russell terrier, Polly, but she certainly occupies my attention.
She is now 13 years old and spends a lot of time asleep, but she never leaves me in peace for long. Food is the main contention between us. She has got rather fat, but she doesn’t like the diet I have put her on. So she is often whining for more to eat, and the whining can only be stopped by giving her food she is forbidden. It never ceases to surprise me that dog food manufacturers spend fortunes on research but still can’t produce food that dogs like as much as the stuff that humans eat. Polly is as fastidious as she is greedy.
The other thing she does is bark when she wants to go out when she’s indoors and wants to go in when she’s outside. This is hardly less irritating, for she is never in one place for more than a few moments before deciding she would rather be in the other. I am constantly rising from my chair to open the door, as I am too when an explosion of barking signals the arrival of a visitor (or even doesn’t, as Polly often imagines visitors that don’t exist).
Her judgment of people is very strange. She greets kindly, dog loving old ladies with ferocious hostility, but wags her tail and cuddles up with loutish young men covered with tattoos. As for her relationship with me, it can best be described as friendly and considerate. She is not wildly excited to see me, but seems reassured by my presence. She likes to be in the same room as me, but not on the same sofa or bed. She behaves like a sensitive, non intrusive carer, which, come to think of it, is rather like how I behave to her.