During the COVID-19 pandemic, I, like many people, experienced a deep sense of disconnection with others. Social distancing measures, lockdowns and working from home reduced physical and emotional contact for many of us.
Despite having a family, I became increasingly stressed and anxious about how isolated I felt, particularly from my community. How could I connect with others in my street and area after spending so long avoiding all sorts of contact?
Even after the pandemic faded into the background of everyday life, my sense of loneliness and disconnection persisted. I tried litter-picking in my local community to shore up the feelings and transform them into positive action. Still, these voluntary events were weeks apart, and in many cases, we separated across a vast green space, picking up litter alone.
Amidst all this, my sister returned to full-time work, and her loyal and lovable Golden Retriever, Hopper, was becoming anxious about being left alone for long periods. Anxiety in dogs has been widespread among canines way before humans made the post-pandemic return to work, so it's no wonder Hopper suffered from this.
Previously a stay-at-home mom, my sister had no choice but to reluctantly give up Hopper, knowing that he needed an owner who could be with him 24/7. She called me to see if I could offer him a home, despite living in a different country and having no prior experience owning a dog.
When she asked us if we would adopt Hopper into our family, we leaped at the chance. We had already met him on visits back to Ireland, knew he was well-trained, gentle with children, and loved cats. With a 10-year-old boy and a 16-year-old cat at home, he was the perfect fit for us.
My sister came to settle Hopper in, and there was a sad and tearful farewell as she returned home. Now we had a dog! A dog that needed a lot of exercise, love and of course the very best puppy toys.. A dog that also missed his old family and cat friends back home. We inched tentatively into our new lives together, walk by walk.
Emma graduated from the Royal Vet College in London in 2011. She has a keen interest in surgery and went on to do a postgraduate certificate in small animal surgery and was then awarded advanced practitioner status in the same discipline. When she is not practicing she provides expert commentary on behalf of Perfect Pet Insurance.
How dogs can reduce loneliness and isolation
At first, Hopper was a problem walker. Spooked by busy streets, unsure of his new territory, he would suddenly sit down mid-walk, refuse to budge, or stand stock still in the middle of a road. Ever tried to move a Golden Retriever who doesn't want to be moved? It’s impossible, especially if that dog is just a handful of pounds lighter than you.
Standing by my dog mountain one day in a street near my home, patiently waiting for him to move (and feeling ridiculous), a woman drew up in her car to tell me that was the second Golden Retriever she’d seen that day who staged a sit-down protest. We shared a brief chat and a chuckle about these obstinate creatures, then went on our separate ways (after more patient waiting from me). This simple interaction was the first of many spontaneous chats I would have as a dog owner over the next year.
After a while, Hopper and I settled into a daily walking routine around the local parks and green spaces, and there began the transformation that having a dog can bring to your life. People passing by couldn't resist his charm, leading to random chats and interactions. You couldn’t take him out without having at least one passing conversation with a stranger. These small and pleasant encounters brightened each day, and slowly, as I grew into a more confident dog owner, they became something I looked forward to.
While many dog lovers are convinced that their canine companion improves their well-being, I was curious to discover if animal experts agree and whether there’s any scientific evidence to support it. I spoke to a practicing vet and expert for Perfect Pet Insurance, Emma Chandley, who told me that dogs have a unique understanding of humans, making them great therapeutic pets.
“Humans have domesticated dogs for years,” said Emma. “Over this time, they have evolved to become receptive to human emotions and behavior. Dogs are human body language experts. They can interpret our actions, gestures, and tone of voice and act accordingly.”
“Strong, healthy bonds with animals and other humans are vital for good mental health. A human without good connections will be isolated, lonely, and potentially depressed. The world gets bigger and less isolated when you have a dog. The social recognition our dogs offer us, and the fact that they identify us as someone important that plays a significant role in their life means that we hold ourselves in higher standing, too.”
So not only does a dog act as a conversation starter, but they also boost our self-esteem!
The research backs this up. According to an article published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, dogs have helped their owners break free from their cozy little pandemic bubbles. Having a furry friend encourages people to be more social, reduces loneliness, and boosts companionship. Dogs are like social magnets, making neighborhoods friendlier and sparking more interactions with neighbors. So, it's not just my personal experience - science says that dogs really do bring people together and make life more social.
Having a dog can open up your world, literally
I also discovered the joy of visiting dog-friendly places in my home city. Pubs, cafes and dog-friendly shops offered doggy treats, staff lingered to have a pet or a scratch, and fellow dog lovers exchanged stories, training tips, and recommendations for other dog-friendly places and spaces.
In a local park, I met a woman who lived right around the corner and has now become a friend and regular dog-walking companion. Instead of passing them by on the street with just a wave or a nod, I stopped to chat with my neighbors. I discovered beautiful green spaces across my city and beyond that I’d never heard of, passed on to me by dog lovers. Now I’m passing on those tips to other newbie pet parents!
An increased sense of well-being, balance and empathy
Throughout our adventures together, Hopper’s unconditional love, innocence and joy of living in the moment have reduced my anxiety and taken me out of my own head. His calm nature and willingness to stop and have a fuss from anyone walking by has shown me that it’s so simple to pause and connect. This simple act can brighten your entire day.
My journey with Hopper, from a novice dog owner to his best human friend, has taught me how to connect with and respond kindly to others. I can’t express how grateful I am to him and my sister for letting this happen.
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