The dog that saved my life

THERE was a time when Ali Ramsay thought she wouldn’t make it. She’d lost her career and was in danger of losing her house. She was in physical and mental pain every day. But Clyde got her through. He gave her purpose. He saved her life.

Clyde is a two-year-old chocolate Labrador and when I speak to Ali over the phone, he’s fast asleep at her feet. Occasionally, he likes to get up and demand a cuddle, but mostly he’s just enjoying the nap and the fact that there’s nothing much to do today.

Ali says she could not have survived lockdown without Clyde. The young dog got her through the worst period of her life, she says, and then when things were looking a bit better, lockdown hit and he got her through that too. Being on your own for weeks on end is disconcerting, says Ali, but it helped to have the dog at her feet. You can’t be truly alone if there’s a dog around.

army lady with dog

Ali isn’t the only one who feels that way. The Battersea Cat and Dog Home has been doing some research recently into how our relationship with pets has been affected by the lockdown conditions and the conclusion is that, for many of us, the negative effects have been eased by having a dog or cat about the place. Many pet-owners report that their anxiety about the situation has been eased or reduced by their pet.

This is certainly true for Ali Ramsay. The 48-year-old from Glasgow used to be a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF and was totally immersed in the military life. “It was my work life, my social life, my fitness life – I played volleyball for the RAF,” she says. “It was everything.”

Then she was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, a long-term condition that causes chronic pain, and she was medically discharged from the service. It was the beginning of a long dark period in her life.

“I didn’t want to leave the RAF,” she says. “I had 20 more years of career ahead of me and I wanted that career, but because of my condition, I was medically discharged. It wasn’t a choice. I had no career, no purpose. And then I had tribunals just to get my disability pension so I had financial worries. I would have lost my house if it wasn’t for my family and forces charities helping me out. So I was in a bit of a dire state.”

It got so bad that at one point, she says, she considered suicide – she was depressed because of the pain and had lost all the enjoyment in her life. But that’s when she contacted the Scottish charity Bravehound which matches dogs with veterans to improve the quality of their lives. Suddenly, there was some purpose back in Ali’s life and it was brought about by a chocolate Labrador called Clyde.

“I needed the dog sooner rather than later,” says Ali, “or I would’ve found myself not being here. I was going through hard times and I needed the dog to live. The difference between ending my life and living was having a dog. It gave me something to live for, and a project, and a focus. He was the difference between having somebody else to care for when I didn’t care about myself.”

The positive effects of Clyde have also been amplified by the lockdown. Before the restrictions were imposed, Ali was attending regular training sessions with Clyde and meetings with other veterans and then, suddenly, it all stopped. No more meetings. No more socialising, although the training sessions have continued on Zoom.

“I was in my home 24/7,” says Ali, “and the only thing to get me out was walking Clyde. And although everyone was socially distanced, even saying hello to another dog walker, I had some human connection. Also, having Clyde around the house got me through it. I would talk to him – although he’s a dog, he’s another being and I was able to talk to him and interact with him all the time. He’s either lying beside me at my feet or on the bed. And he loves cuddles.”

Fiona MacDonald, the founder of the charity that matched Ali and Clyde, says she has seen similar effects with many other people during lockdown.

“Dogs are more important now than ever,” she says. “In the current climate when we’re being asked to stay at home and are feeling isolated, they’re helping people leave the house, stay active and prevent them from feeling alone. The unwavering companionship of a dog can do amazing things for people – they literally save people’s lives.”

However, it’s not all positive. For a start, Bravehound, like other charities, is facing a shortfall in funding because of the financial impact of coronavirus and is calling on people to sponsor puppies. There are also concerns about the effect lockdown may have on pets and other animals: the Dogs Trust, for example, says it has seen an increase in the number of animals being abandoned.

lady with dog

Lockdown seems to be having two effects. First, it’s led to an increase in the number wanting to adopt or take on a pet – Google searches for “buy a puppy” were up more than 150% during lockdown – which in principle is a good thing. But there’s also a worry that the easing of lockdown will bring up a new reality and problems for some owners and that there will be an increase in the number of dogs being abandoned or handed into places such as the Dog Trust.

Susan Tonner, the manager of the Dog Trust’s centre in West Calder, has said one of the reasons people may be struggling to cope with their pet during lockdown is the financial and economic stress that the crisis has caused, but it can also be the change in circumstances: suddenly, the change in routine causes behavioural changes in the dog and the owner is unable to cope.

Mike Flynn, the Scottish SPCA chief superintendent, tells me the effect of the public health crisis on pets is a concern, but that he remains hopeful. “We believe Scotland is a nation of animal lovers,” he says, “and we’re hopeful that we won’t see an upsurge in pets coming into our rescue and rehoming centres that were purchased or adopted during lockdown.

“However, we’d urge anyone thinking about taking on an animal to remember that they are a long-term commitment. Once the restrictions end, people will return to work, school and socialising as normal and could find that an animal may not fit into their life as easily as before. We appreciate these are uncertain times for many people but abandoning an animal is never acceptable under any circumstances.”

Another potential problem is that an increased demand for pets may also lead to potential owners buying from unscrupulous owners and breeders. The Dogs Trust, Cats Protection and other organisations and public figures including Paul O’Grady, recently published an open letter calling on the public to research animal breeders and sellers thoroughly online before buying a pet.

Christine Middlemiss, the UK Government’s Chief Veterinary Officer, says prospective owners needed to beware of the kind of seller who breeds animals purely for profit and has zero concern for their welfare.

“The devastating consequences include crippling vet bills and, in the worst cases, animals having to be put down,” said Ms Middlemiss. “It’s vitally important that people not only research the breed of animal they want but also the person selling it to them.”

And even for those animals who do not get sick or who are not abandoned, the end of lockdown could be tricky. For months now, many dogs have had their owners around the house day in, day out, which is the way dogs like it (cats not so much). But now that the restrictions are being eased, people are starting to go out more and some are going back into the office, and that can cause extra stress for dogs.

Ben Evans, a dog trainer and advisor to Burns Pet Nutrition, says owners should take action now to acclimatise their dogs to the new reality and prevent them from developing separation anxiety or behavioural problems.

“Owners need to normalise the fact that being alone is not a big deal by doing plenty of it in short bursts,” he says. “Start off with just 10-15 seconds, gradually building this up to minutes and eventually a couple of hours. Leaving and returning should be relatively uneventful as animated greetings or goodbyes can build up anticipation or anxiety.

“It’s also important to desensitise dogs to any signs that indicate you are about to leave. Try picking up and putting down car keys throughout the day, opening and closing doors without leaving, picking up and moving shoes and bags, or putting on a coat and walking around with it before removing it. All these steps will help to prevent these possible triggers from causing anxiety.”

Fortunately, Clyde isn’t one of the dogs who’s going to be facing a separation from his owner and Ali says she’s feeling positive about the prospect of coming out of lockdown. One of the things both owner and dog have missed during the period of the restrictions is a swim: both of them used to be regulars at a hydrotherapy pool – it helped to ease Ali’s physical pain and Clyde loved it too – and she hopes that they will be able to get back to the pool soon.

Ali is also getting out on longer and longer walks with Clyde. “I don’t necessarily enjoy walking because of the pain,” she says – she sometimes uses a stick and sometimes has to use a wheelchair. “You don’t go walking on your own when you’re in pain but I’ll put it up with it more because he needs the walk and he distracts me from the pain. Clyde is one of my coping mechanisms. Even stroking him or cuddling him is a distraction. It releases all the happy chemicals and lowers my heart rate and blood pressure.”

For Ali, the fact that Clyde has helped make lockdown bearable – as well as everything else he does for her – has made her appreciate him even more. As she talks, Clyde is still lying fast asleep at her feet. Ali says her relationship with him is deeper than it’s ever been. He makes her happy. He has eased the pain. He saved her life.

The Hearld by Mark Smith →