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The importance of dogs to people with drug problems
New research explores how people living with a drug problem describe their everyday life when owning a dog.

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Different impacts of dog ownership

A new Norwegian study explores how people living with “Substance Use Disorder” experience and describe their everyday life when owning a dog. The study is based on eight in-depth interviews with people who have both drug problems (all were heroin users) and own dogs. We know from extensive research that people tend to form close bonds with their dogs, who are described to be as important as other family members.

Feelings of loneliness are reported to be reduced through pet ownership and the evidence base tells us that for people with mental health conditions, emotional support, social interaction and identity are all positive aspects of pet ownership.

Findings

Unsurprisingly, (at least to dog lovers like myself) owning a dog was described to have had a positive impact for the study participants. The dog affected their lives in many ways, personal, social and practical. The researchers describe three positive and one negative impact of dog ownership for this group.

You get to know people

Critically, owning a dog provided a connection to other social relationships. The dog provided a social platform from which to talk to others, providing an ease of interaction that was hard to attain without a dog.

“With a dog, you meet other dog owners, not just dog owners, other people too. You get to know people, just like that, through the dog, and suddenly someone you meet maybe becomes part of your network and you get to know people.” 

Lives were described as isolated with few social connections. One man told of only having the pharmacy staff to talk to aside from his dog. Yet, participants described that having the company of the dog filled the space of lost social networks and helped them feel they could connect into society.

Interviewees also described the positive view others afforded them because of the dog. One man described how the dog acted as a facilitator in the broken relationship with his daughter. Another woman described how the dog helped her daughters gain a more positive view of her situation.

I couldn’t just let everything be messy around me

Owning a dog was also associated with having a sense of belonging which gave meaning in life. Many of the participants moved from perceiving themselves as being alone to describing being part of something more than themselves. They belonged together with the dog, describing the dog as a family member, a partner, a baby or a child. They were not alone anymore. Their existence seemed to change when the dog arrived:

“Then all the focus was on him. I couldn’t just let everything be messy around me, you know. I had to make sure it was nice around me, and that did something to me, rather than everything just going over my head, you know. It was simply another focus that meant I also managed to take better care of myself, you know. He was so happy and playful—the care and love he gives, the being that he is, everything became much more positive. But no, its been a mix. The one takes care of the other, you know. To take care of him, then I take better care of myself.”

The connection with the dog was described as unbreakable. Although there were many challenges in life, this relationship was resilient and trusted and was seldom seen as a difficulty. A sense of togetherness and belonging with the dog was a repeated theme for all participants. They were appreciative of having the dog in their life and felt that the dog made their life better.

Many of the interviewees described how caring for another had motivated them to be conscious of the choices in their life, describing how they experienced a change in themselves due to having to consider the needs of the dog. Several participants described how this responsibility led to them putting the needs of the dog before their own needs. The dog gave them purpose in difficult times, the feeling that they were facing life together and that they could now feel that they had a future ahead of them.

He gives me fixed routines

Dogs also provided structure, something to get up for and set the daily rhythm. Having this structure gave people motivation that was different from before they owned the dog. The day became organised and grounded with purpose. One man described how, after giving the dog up for rehoming, he found it difficult to get up in the morning. Another participant described how owning the dog gave him the motivation to ´sharpen up´ his life. Consistently, the participants described how the dog gave them something to do or ´employment´.

“He gives me fixed routines and there is nothing better than that, and so I have obviously consistently stuck with it, first and foremost for him but also for myself.” 

Owning a dog allowed people to distance themselves from the drug scene. One participant described how, before she got the dog, she had had nowhere else to go, but after owning the dog she wanted to avoid the active drug environment. Interviewees also described how having a dog helped them cope with anxiety and depression.

Because I had a dog, we cannot get accommodation

One downside to dog ownership was that requiring assistance from service providers was challenging as a dog owner. Accessing housing or temporary housing services was described as particularly difficult, giving rise to much anger, resentment and feelings of desperation.

Conclusion

Overall, this study may it clear that the relationship with the dog confers many benefits to the owner, both on a personal and societal level. At the same time, there are pitfalls in terms of accessing services. It may be important for drug and alcohol services to make sure dogs are welcome on their premises, given their importance to people’s emotional survival and recovery journeys.

Thanks to Madeline Bowen for kind permission to use the  images in this post which were previously published on Unsplash.

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