Ross Fretten The Sailor Effect.
My aim here is to share my personal experiences with mental health — not from a position of expertise, but from a place of honest lows and gradual change — and explain the ways my dog Sailor has altered my relationship with myself and the world at large in the hope that others may open themselves up to similar benefits a dog can bring.
My journey with anxiety and depression started at a young age, growing up in an environment which taught me to shut myself off from both my emotions and the people in my life. The result was a persistent sense of loneliness and an avoidance of meaningful human connection. I quickly learnt through my pre-teen years to turn to video games to get me through the day and animals for a sense of calm and affection — most notably, my grandparents’ border collies Sally and Meg who I’d cuddle up with under my grandparents’ dining table when we weren’t going for long walks in the Welsh fields with my Grandad.
By the time I hit my late twenties, loneliness and social anxiety had come to dominate my emotional experience - irrespective of who I had around me whether that be a group of friends or a romantic partner or otherwise and addictive and destructive behaviours had become my way of coping with these emotions. But it was also around that time that my living situation changed, and I was able to seriously contemplate getting a dog of my own. Though initiating a radical change in routine had the potential to have adverse effects, I was hopeful for the first time in a while and confident that having a consistent energy in the house to which I could become attuned would be beneficial.
I’d always think back to Sally and Meg and the purity of that relationship and consider how bringing that energy into my life every day would be such a beautiful thing to focus myself on when things didn't feel so great. I did my research and I knew this was something that I had to do and when I met Sailor for the first time I couldn't stop myself even if I wanted to. Though when I brought him home I felt even more on edge: my sleeping was a mess and I was extremely anxious that I wouldn’t be able to train him up to be office-ready by the time I had to go back to work. But at the same time, that sort of anxiety didn’t feel as heavy as everything that I’d been carrying, and being forced to focus on Sailor. This utterly simple, lovable and warm ball of affection disrupted my destructive patterns and instead introduced something so simple yet powerful into my everyday life that I’d previously avoided... touch.
Sailor was a quick learner and off we went to work. With puppy-in-tow, I met more people in the span of that first month than I had in the three years I’d worked there. For the first time that I could remember, interacting with people wasn’t so emotionally draining. Because everyone I was interacting with was engaging with me about Sailor rather than me, I didn’t feel that same sense of dread and intrusive claustrophobia that I often did when unfamiliar people engaged with me. Over time, this felt more natural to me as my social barriers began to come down. In this way, Sailor really socialised me as much as I did him.
At home, things improved too. In more difficult times, I would experience anxiety attacks that would leave me on the floor overwhelmed and immobilised, But now, here would come Sailor, because apparently the floor is his turf and I am welcome there only on his terms! It’s quite extraordinary how aware he is and in these intense and upsetting moments he’s quite forceful with his affection, refusing to obey any commands or to back off - insisting on his head resting firmly on my shoulder and pushing into me as he puts his paws on me too. At first I felt that same sense of claustrophobia but over time I learned to accept his unconditional love and bring down some of my walls.
Over the following months, I noticed typical situational triggers weren’t affecting me as much and, as a result, my crashes were becoming increasingly infrequent. Similarly, I saw that Sailor was becoming even more in tune with my emotions. Even before I’d fully manifest anger or distress, he would position himself next to me with his paw on my knee or place his head on my leg. It was as though he could read changes in my disposition before I had time to register my feelings. This made me far more aware of certain triggers in my day-to-day life and also taught me how to detect and be conscious of my emotions before they overwhelmed me.
But Sailor’s attentiveness affected more than just the frequency and severity of my anxiety attacks; it showed me how to be more receptive to myself and everything I was experiencing. He taught me the beauty of openness, intimacy, and self-care. His sweet, steady nature challenged the narratives I had been replaying in my head since I was a kid, softening me as he introduced a new vocabulary of interaction into my life, one in which it was OK for me to acknowledge my own vulnerabilities and to seek comfort with them
Sailor has been a catalyst for so much change in my life. Because of him, I’ve learned how to be mindful of my resisting emotional intimacy and I now find I seek out deeper, more meaningful connections with people. I’ve discovered the importance of giving and receiving unconditional love and I’ve become more comfortable and confident with opening myself up to new emotional experiences and being honest about my difficulties. I certainly couldn’t have written this two or three years ago.
Having a dog is a beautiful, symbiotic relationship — and in my experience, they take care of you just as much as you’ll ever take care of them. And though getting Sailor definitely wasn’t a cure-all for my mental health, it was a transcendental step in my healing process. So now, when I do experience low periods, I not only know how to face them; I know how to grow through them. And at the very least, I know I’ll never be alone on the floor again.
Everyone’s mental health is different. But I also believe that many of my individual experiences are not all that unique to me, and that anyone struggling with anxiety, depression, loneliness, addictive behaviour, social avoidance, or attachment issues could benefit from opening up their world to a dog. The nuances of these wholesome, emphatically loving creatures go far beyond aiding the effects of particularly troublesome moments; they reshape your perspective, reconnect you with yourself, and remind you of the things that are most meaningful.
To put it plainly: I owe a lot to my dog Sailor.