DR MAX PEMBERTON: The best therapists come with a lead and waggy tail

DR MAX PEMBERTON: The best therapists come with a lead and waggy tail

  • Celebs have posed with their dogs to celebrate Guide Dogs’ 90th anniversary 
  • Dr Max Pemberton says dogs are often better than pills for cheering people up
  • NHS psychiatrist recounts patients’ reaction to a dog visiting a crisis ward 

Dogs really do deserve their title of man’s best friend, don’t they? Where would we be without our faithful hounds? A host of celebrities, including Simon Cowell, Tilda Swinton, Eamonn Holmes and David Walliams, have been photographed with their dogs in a series to celebrate Guide Dogs’ 90th anniversary this week. Looking at the photos, it really brings home how integral canines are to our lives.

Of course, it’s not just guide dogs that help people — I’m a great believer in the power of all pooches to help, especially when it comes to mental health.

I know, if you’re a cat person you’re probably spitting feathers at this suggestion, but hear me out. While a cat can be a wonderful companion, there’s always a sense they are only around for as long as the tin of Whiskers is available. Take away the warmth and the food, and they will saunter off somewhere else.

One person who, ironically, isn’t a cat person is Andrew Lloyd Webber who said last week he was left so ‘emotionally damaged’ by the film version of his hit Cats (anyone who has seen it will know why) that he had to buy a ‘therapy dog’ to help him overcome his mental struggles.

Dr Max Pemberton says dogs are often better than any pill or potion for cheering people up. Pictured: Tilda Swinton and her dog Louis pose for the Guide Dogs charity

The fact is, dogs are often better than any pill or potion for cheering people up. Life can be difficult for all of us at times, but one of the things that is almost guaranteed to lift your spirits — and, unlike most of the medications we dish out, has no side-effects — comes with a collar, a lead and a wagging tale.

Time and time again I’ve seen dogs transform lives and help people get through even the darkest, most difficult periods. They are an absolute tonic.

There is no medication a doctor can prescribe, no operation they could undertake and no procedure they could do that would have the same life-affirming effect on someone going through emotional trauma.

In fact, they seem particularly effective precisely in times where there’s little doctors can do medication-wise to ease someone’s suffering, such as bereavement, for example.

I remember talking to one middle-aged woman whose 14-year-old son had died of cancer a few years previously. Her world had crumbled, she explained. She described it as feeling as if someone had scooped out her insides — she felt so utterly empty and hollow. She wanted to crawl into bed and never get up again. But she couldn’t. She had two other children and they needed her.

Just before her son died, they had bought him a dog. He had nagged her and her husband for years for one and, sensing time was precious and he didn’t have long left, they gave in and got him one. While she’d never been interested in dogs and had never even remotely considered herself a dog-person, now he was gone, it fell to her to take care of it. She explained how the dog made her get up each morning as he needed to be walked before the children got up. He forced her to get dressed, to structure her day. When the children were at school and she was home alone, if she wanted to cry, he didn’t mind.

He didn’t judge her when she wanted to roll up on the sofa and instead would come and lie next to her. She said somehow he could sense her grief and knew she just needed someone there with her, silently but persistently keeping her company. ‘The dog saved my life,’ she told me.

Dr Max (pictured) said he has seen people who have arthritis drag themselves up, day in and day out, to take their beloved dog for a walk without complaining 

I was working in a crisis ward where there were lots of suicidal people when I met her. But she wasn’t a patient, she was a nurse. She brought her dog to work each day because of the effect it had on the patients. He was given pretty much free rein of the place and would happily wander in and out of the patients’ rooms. People who had tried to end their lives would suddenly look up and smile when the dog padded in, tail wagging, snuffling in the waste paper basket and nudging a hand for a stroke. Patients who had felt there was no hope and that life was empty and dark suddenly found a reason to laugh as they felt his cold nose pressed against them as they lay in bed.

He’d sit out in the patient garden and pester people for walks. I credit that dog with doing as much for those patients as the staff did.

It’s not just the mental health benefits. I’ve seen people who are so riddled with arthritis drag themselves up, day in and day out, to take their beloved dog for a walk. What’s more, they do this without complaining or griping.

What’s interesting is that I suspect if I told them to exercise, they’d scoff at me and think me mad. Yet, thanks to their dog, they actually do more exercise than many people half their age.

And this is borne out by research. Studies show dogs have demonstrable health benefits: older dog owners are more than twice as likely to maintain their mobility than non-dog owners.

They have lower blood pressure and rates of depression, better cholesterol levels and are also less likely to feel lonely. How often do we reach for the prescription pad when the answer is sitting in front of us — wearing a collar and wagging its tail?

Don’t give age-gap love the kiss-off

Dr Max said Sir David Hare’s disapproval of age-gap love feeds into the ageist, dirty-old-man trope. Pictured: Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz 

Sir David Hare has described actors kissing women 20 years their junior as ‘disgusting’. Hang on a minute. Regardless of the fact this smacks of being rather hypocritical — his thriller Page Eight features that exact age gap between stars Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz — isn’t this rather ageist?

What’s wrong with two consenting adults kissing, regardless of the age gap? What’s disgusting about it? Imagine if he’d said this about mixed-race couples or same-sex couples — there’d rightly be an outrage. His comments feed into the ageist, dirty-old-man trope. While racism, sexism and homophobia are shunned, ageism appears to be one of the last bastions of acceptable intolerance.

  • Have you ever tried to build a mind map? By answering five simple questions on the NHS website Every Mind Matters, you can create your own. Think of it as a tool kit of things specific to you that can help you feel happier, less anxious and more in control.

It’s a public health initiative from the newly formed Office for Health Improvement and Disparities and it aims to pull together resources and help us think proactively about the small changes we can make to boost our wellbeing.

It comes on the back of research that shows nearly half of adults in England said their mental health was negatively impacted by the pandemic and more than a third did not know what to do to improve it. Why not give this a go?

Dr Max prescribes…

Frozen dates 

Dr Max said frozen dates are packed full of fibre as well as being high in vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium and copper

This new health fad is something I can get behind — fans of frozen dates say that they taste like caramel. They can be eaten as a dessert or snack and are packed full of fibre as well as being high in vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium and copper. For an extra special treat you can mix protein powder in with peanut butter and stuff the dates with the tasty filling before freezing them.

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