1861 photo of Abraham Lincoln's dog Fido - the first presidential dog to be photographed.
1861 photo of Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido – the first presidential dog to be photographed.

If you know a US Marine, you’ve probably at least once heard them use the phrase “Semper Fi.” This is the shortened form of the Latin motto of the United States Marine Corps: Semper Fidelus, or “Always Faithful.”

The name Fido – these days so cliche that comics to crosswords to conversation use it as the go-to stand-in for a dog’s name – is derived from this same root (as are words like confidante) and translates literally from Latin as “I trust” or “I rely on.” It was, as you’ll notice from the image caption, the name president and CBTN Disordered Personality Abraham Lincoln chose for his own beloved dog.  Abe having Fido Lincoln photographed was an even further endorsement of how deeply he trusted and relied on his Yankee pooch, as the picture was likely made using the then-advanced Wet-Plate photographic process that – well – let’s just say process is a little bit of a euphemism:

From The Civil War Trust website:

– First, collodion was used to coat the plate glass in order to sensitize it to light.

– In a darkroom, the plate was then immersed in silver nitrate, placed in a light-tight container, and inserted into the camera.

– Next, the cap on the camera was removed for two to three seconds, exposing it to light and imprinting the image on the plate.

– Replacing the cap, the photographer immediately took the plate, still in the light-tight container, to his darkroom, where he developed it in a solution of pyrogallic acid.

– After washing and drying the plate with water, the photographer coated it with a varnish to protect the surface.

– This process created a plate glass negative. Once the plate-glass negative was made, the image could be printed on paper and mounted.

Stereo (3D) image from the Civil War.
Stereo (3D) image from the Civil War.

You might now be asking aside from Lincoln being bipolar, what the hell does any of this have to do with mental health or mental illness? That is, unless you’ve ever gone through inpatient that allowed therapy dogs or are one of the millions of people who have had a pooch of your own.

It’s nothing new to notice and speak about the calming, loving presence of a dog during recovery or times of general hardship – so common, in fact, that you hardly need a mental health diagnosis to have noticed this.  Hundreds of studies (printed in hundreds of types of venues, from academically rigorous peer-reviewed journals to disposable checkout aisle housewife mags) tackle the correlation between dog ownership and owner well-being, and with near-universal agreement they in their discussions thereof advocate strongly for owning a dog for the sake of one’s own health.

What’s more interesting, and far rarer, is a serious (and skilled enough to be taken seriously) attempt to tackle the possibility of a causal relationship between the two (owning a dog and being mentally/physically healthy, that is). Causality is a bitch in rigorous science because, without going into too much detail, it is logically impossible to prove (if you’ve ever studied statistics you’ll have heard the phrase “correlation does not imply causality“).  Especially in soft sciences like psychology we are forced to rely on interpretation if we want to explain what we believe are causal effects.  If you’re for-real interested in this discussion I’ll here toss in a link to an explanation of causality vs. correlation.

Dogs are non-judgmental.
Dogs are non-judgmental.

The leading theory – and one I’d agree with – of why caniform (and other pet) ownership is so strongly correlated with owner physical and mental well-being is that dogs are non-judgmental. You’ve heard the term unconditional love, or if you’re still on the civil war kick (focus up homie) maybe even the Confederates’ unconditional surrender; you don’t need to be a philologist to understand what these words are getting at:

Dogs, so the theory goes, make such excellent MH companions because they are unconditionally loyal and non-judgmental listeners.  As to why they are like this would send us spinning down an infinite rabbit hole discussion on domestication and evolution (and then the dog would chase the rabbit, and that would be a mess) – but animals find themselves an audience to the deep-soul confessions and musings of otherwise mature adults because they are the two-factor confluence of:

  1. Being animate enough to appear to (or actually) listen.
  2. Being (in the subconscious of the unburdener) non-judgmental.

If you’re a fan of rabbit holes, feel free to comment on your position on the bipolar scale of they listen and care to they don’t understand anything so it’s safe to talk to them.

If you think about your own human friends you’ll find plenty of anecdotal evidence for this theory – wouldn’t you say your best supports tend to also be the best, most non-judgmental listeners?  In fact, might you go so far as to say that this quality alone is the only metric by which you vet your ideal venting victims? Perhaps this speaks more clearly to why dogs serve as such perfect MH therapists (and less clearly to why I felt the need to drop a pun in the middle of alliterative shenanigans).

And, at the risk of knocking cat people, I think many would agree dogs are significantly more emotive (ostensibly, if you’re an emotive cat freak) – that is, they are more interactive as pack animals, and thus either appear to be or perhaps actually are better suited to human therapy.

If you’re interested in the academics behind some of these studies, I recommend you check out some of the following, or do a simple search for “canine therapy” or “nonjudgmental” in some combination with “dog” or “psychology.” And, in the interim, throw your dog a bone in appreciation for its PhD-level understanding of empirical methods of mood stabilization.

Links:

The Human Dog Bond

Autism and Pets

Pets as Social Support

How dogs can help Veterans overcome PTSD

Mood-Boosting Power of Dogs

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