James Middleton Life with his pack.
[2 minute 50]
Over the past few years, he’s spoken openly about his battle with depression, and the impact his dogs have had on his recovery journey. He feels so strongly about dogs’ positive impact on human wellbeing that he’s now an ambassador for Pets as Therapy, a charity that provides assisted dog visits to hospitals, hospices and care homes across the UK.
We met up with James (and his pack) to discuss the intrinsic link between dog companionship and mental health, and how we can give back to our pets.
JV: Tell me about your background when it comes to dog ownership – have you always had dogs?
JM: I think I must have been around 11 when we got our first family dog, Tilly. Everything I did was inclusive of her – I remember trying to make a sidecar on my bicycle so I could take her places with me. Tilly lived until she was 17, so she had a really good life and was a constant companion. She cemented my bond with dogs. And then it was in 2008 that I got Ella, my first dog as an adult. I think straight away [my family] knew that it was the beginning of something special; they knew that someone special had come into my life.
JV: What was the main motivation behind getting a dog?
JM: The key thing for me was that I wanted to create a routine. Getting Ella meant that there was a reason to get up every day, and not just for me, but for someone else who was reliant on me.
I'd only feed myself or get a cup of tea after I'd done all of the things that I needed to do for her. I'd always put her first. That gave me a responsibility and a purpose, which created a structure in my life.
JV: Having a pack of dogs must keep you pretty fit!
JM: It's cheaper than having a gym membership if you look at cost per usage value! It gets you outdoors whether it's snowing, raining or a beautiful day. You've got to go outside for them, and as a result you get wrapped up and out into the fresh air. You're getting something subconsciously, and I think when you're getting something subconsciously, you either take it for granted or you don't recognise the benefits. So I try to appreciate the benefits and encourage other people to as well.
JV: Do you think that having a dog can be a good way for isolated people to meet others?
JM: Yes, having a dog is a wonderful way of meeting people. I actually met my fiancé through Ella – we were having a drink and Ella walked up to Alizee, and Alizee was giving her some attention. I then noticed her and made an effort to go and say hi. A lot of the time, you look at people who're out and about, and their eyes are looking down at their phone; they're not engaged with the things around them. But as soon as you have a dog, your eyes are up and you're looking around, and you'll see somebody, and they'll come up to you for a chat. It's that common, mutual love of something that acts as an immediate conversation starter.
Even if people don't have a dog, you can see that they'd like to say hi, so I'll say, 'The dogs are very friendly', and then we'll start a conversation. You can share so much joy and happiness with those who maybe don't have the opportunity or ability to have their own dog. Just a couple of minutes of an animal's undivided attention can make a huge difference to somebody's day.
JV: Are there any moments that stand out in your mind where your dogs helped you to cope with a difficult situation or period of time?
JM: When I was a kid and I was being bullied, I'd tell Tilly. Looking back on it, that was her helping me, without me really realising it. I couldn't tell anyone I was being bullied because I was fearful of the repercussions of that, yet she knew. It's the same principal with Ella. She came to every single one of my therapy sessions; I remember making excuses not to go if she couldn't come with me. She was helping me just by being there. When I was talking, I'd have my hand on her head, and then as soon as we got out, we would go for a walk. It was a really great way to unwind after a deep session.
JV: Our mental health is often overlooked, especially in comparison to our physical health. Why do you think that is?
JM: It's an interesting one. I think because [your mental health] is not visible, so it's harder to recognise the signs of illness, whereas you can usually see changes in your physical health. So on the surface you can look alright, but on the inside, you can be really burning up. It can be very hard to talk openly about mental health struggles because some people perceive it as a weakness to talk about their feelings. I remember having this big debate with my mind: 'Why do I feel like this? I've had a very fortunate upbringing and I've been very privileged, so why do I feel the way I feel?' But mental illness doesn't discriminate, no matter your religion, background or race.
JV: As you say, there's a stigma attached to speaking about our mental health. Do you think that'll ever change?
JM: I think it's already changing. In general, people are more open when it comes to talking about their mental health and wellbeing, and there are some fantastic organisations and charities that have been set up to support people. But now the ball is rolling, we need to keep it rolling, because if the conversation stops then so does the progress. Nobody's got any problem in saying, 'I can't go out, I'm going to the gym tonight' but would somebody say, 'I'm struggling at the moment and I need to take some time for my mental health'? I think that's in reach, but there's a long way to go.
JV: You've spoken about Ella being there for you when you were struggling with your mental health. What would you say to someone who was thinking of getting a dog to help them cope with similar challenges?
JM: A dog won't fix your mental health, but they're definitely a medicine. I think they can really help you to cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life. That being said, sometimes dogs can make your life more stressful. With a dog comes a huge amount of responsibility and dedication. It's a big commitment that needs to be taken very seriously. So if you're thinking about getting a dog, do it in stages. Build your confidence and work out whether owning a dog is a good solution for you, by volunteering to foster and things like that.
JV: If ownership and fostering aren't available to me, where else can I go to enjoy some quality time and interaction with a dog?
JM: Quite a lot of places, including charities like Pets as Therapy. As an ambassador, I visit centres and refuges for people who suffer with their mental health. It's hugely rewarding for me – and Ella, she loves it.
JV: What does your dog need to do to qualify as a registered therapy dog?
JM: There's no specific training programme or anything along those lines, it just comes down to whether your dog has the right temperament, and whether you trust your dog and can handle them in the correct way. If you both pass that assessment, then you're able to go on visits to registered locations. Signing up for Pets as Therapy is probably one of the most rewarding things I've ever done with Ella, and it's something that I look forward to continuing with once I know that it's safe to start visiting again. To share that bond you have with your dog with somebody else who isn't in a position to have a dog is hugely rewarding, and I would encourage any owner to experience it.
JV: We've talked a lot about what our dogs give to us. What can we do as owners to give back to them?
JM: I'm forever searching for a way to give back to my dogs to repay them for all the things they've done for me, and the key thing I've learnt is that the kindest thing you can do for your dog is to feed them the best diet possible. This was the main driving force behind me setting up my own company, Ella & Co, which is a happiness and wellbeing company for dogs. I wasn't that happy with the [dog food] options that were out there. Dogs are reliant on you for their diet, and it's only fair that we do the best that we can for them. They're not that fussed about whether they have a particular collar and lead, or a fancy dog bed. The thing that they want, and the best investment you can make in them, is a good diet.
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JV: And what can we learn from our dogs?
JM: If we try to look at life a bit more like the way a dog looks at their life, which is that they're content with what they have and they're not chasing tomorrow, I think we could actually be a lot happier. I'm guilty of it myself – I think more about tomorrow than I think about today, and before you know it, you've missed the moment.