A dog is a man’s best friend. Did you know that they are also an ADHD brain’s best friend, too?
In the spring of 2021, I was miles ahead of where I had been only a few months prior. I was the epitome of “what success looks like” for someone with enough diagnoses under her belt to create her own alphabet soup. My teeth were mostly brushed, the house was mostly not a glorified landfill, and my hair was mostly not a birds nest. Such progress! Such achievement!
One day, my partner made the fatal mistake of saying “things have been much better for us lately, maybe we could look into getting a dog?” My ADHD brain doesn’t do things in half measures, and I latched onto this “maybe we could” with all the determination and fervour that you’d sooner expect from a child who was being taken to the pet store to pick out her first hamster.
“Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer.”– Dean Koontz
Now, not to say that I have the mind of a child, but the reward systems that are often reserved for children can work very well for an ADHD brain. We crave dopamine more than most. If I was a good little egg and did all my chores (kept up my cleaning, picked up my clothes from the floor…) then my partner would agree that we could look into getting our first dog. Hurrah! The cats will be thrilled!
However, I had a list that I had to get through before we could go from “look into getting a dog” to “actually getting a dog.”
That period in itself was very engaging to my ADHD brain. Having a tangible reward at the end of it (a freaking puppy!) went a long way to powering through chores that ordinarily I would neglect for months on end.
As we get to the end of the year, I would like to reflect on some of the specific benefits I’ve found from getting our dog.
There’s one alarm clock you can’t switch off. A puppy. And oh boy did I try. No amount of snacks, no sleepy cuddles, NOTHING will satiate a puppy’s need to playwithyourightnowohmygodwakeupwakeupWAKEUP!!! Ever since we got our dog, I have hardly awoken past midday. For some of you, that might not sound like much of a big deal, but as someone who didn’t see sunlight for half the year, it’s a major, unbelievable result.
The sleep deprivation from her being a puppy was very challenging, however. The only solace was that she grew out of it within a few months. The issue with having a sleep disorder is that there’s very little that can be practically done to sway you from your natural rhythm. Being forcibly awoken anytime between 5am and 8am for months on end was HELL for me, but my God did it work. It was the reset my body needed, and I would’ve been unable to get the same impact in any other circumstance.
Breaks me from unwanted hyperfocus
“Getting stuck” on a hyperfocus is something that happens to me often. I’ll realise that I have been sitting in the same position for far too long, having not done anything. Sometimes this is because I am “stuck” on social media, sometimes “stuck” on an engaging work project. Either way, this unwanted hyperfocusing gives me a feeling of powerlessness. The feeling that a part of my brain is overriding the control of my body, telling me to stay there and continue doing what I’m doing, whether I liked it or not.
A dog doesn’t listen to that.
A dog doesn’t care that you’ve been pinned to the chair, doom scrolling Twitter for the third hour in a row without looking up to blink.
A dog will wake up from a nap, drop a toy in your lap, and say “play with me. NOW.”
A disruption in this “getting stuck” cycle is what breaks the hold on me. I’ve found that it allows me to open my eyes to the world around me in a way that I struggle to do without external stimuli. There have been many times that my dog coming over to me to get my attention has been the input that prompted me to think “hang on, I haven’t moved from this spot in a few hours, I should do that.”
A puppy won’t let you be a social recluse
Something that often occurs with ADHD is anxiety. Anxiety takes many forms, of course, but social anxiety is one of the most common. I would not have considered myself an anxious person in the past, but long periods of Covid-induced isolation shook me up. Getting back into the world, I found that I was terrified of situations that used to not even appear as a blip on my radar.
I’ll tell you what is a great conversation starter, however. A puppy. When she was tiny, I couldn’t step five steps outside my front door without someone stopping me to coo after my little furry gremlin. This “forced socialisation” sounds awful on paper, but as it was directed firmly not at me, it gave me the perfect situation to re-socialise myself — a safe environment to practise being around other people again. All I had to do was go “yes, she is cute” and “she does keep us busy, yes” to each thrilled passer-by.
When she was a few months old I even managed to take her to a big outdoor event. I mingled with hundreds of people and dogs, but I was just so focused on making sure my dog had a comfortable time that my own anxieties were completely forgotten.
(That’s not even to mention the new doggy friends and neighbours we acquainted ourselves with! I never needed to worry about sounding stupid again, as everyone we bumped into was just so happy to see the puppy!)
Don’t worry, there’s no one at the door
Another negative by-product of my ADHD hyperfocus was this. I would often worry that my crap memory had betrayed me into somehow leaving our house wide open for would-be burglars. I would get up after I had settled into bed to check that I had actually closed and locked the front door. Every sound I heard in our old building made me run through a laundry list in my head of worst-case scenarios.
Installing contact sensors on the door helped a ton, as did setting an automation to turn on all the lights if the doors were to open in the middle of the night. That did not alleviate my worry that someone was lurking outside the door, however.
Having a dog snuggled in bed with me changed all that. When she was little, every noise outside the front door made her think a new potential friend was coming to visit. She’d bark bark bark whenever someone was about to knock on the door before they’d even made it up the outside stairs. This was a tremendous help to my hyperfocusing on a potentially bad situation, as when she did not bark, I knew that there was no one there, and it was just my mind playing tricks on me.
An accountability partner for sticking to your routine
This is the big winner for me. A dog is a creature of habit. Having ADHD is the duality of absolutely requiring a routine to function, but also being completely unable to manage or stick to a routine. A dog that gets grumpy if she’s not fed at the same time, awoken at the same time, taken out at the same time is a great help. She doesn’t care about your neurological struggles. She just wants to be loved by you, be cared for, and do everything by your side. It’s a real motivator on the tougher days.
“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”– Josh Billing
As we are back into winter, I reflect back on last year. The difference that having a dog has made to my routine is incredible. I didn’t have any reason to leave the house last December, and now I get to go on lovely winter walks with an adoring fuzzy companion.
I cannot wait to see what the future brings, and discover all the other benefits that my wonderful dog brings me!