A piece in today’s Telegraph:
More middle-aged men are publicly declaring their love for their dog – and we’re just beginning to understand this unique relationship
It was the comedian Frankie Boyle who once remarked that dog ownership was for those people who had tried and failed to find friendship among their own species.
It’s an interesting proposition, certainly, but one that suggests that there must now be a lot of lonely people out there, especially given the recent rise in the UK’s dog population.
As a middle-aged man and the owner of a couple of dogs, Nell and Wilbur, I get where Boyle’s coming from, not least because I don’t have many friends.
Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of a life lived in lockdowns, but having dogs in the past year has proved to be one of the most liberating and rewarding times of my life.
Every morning, when I take them out on the South Downs or down to the beach, just me and them, there’s a feeling of freedom it’s hard to find elsewhere. They are honest and uncomplicated, loyal and loving. As the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud said: “They love their friends and bite their enemies.”Yes, men like me are suckers for dogs and this year has seen a glut of midlife men publicly declaring their love for their four-legged friends.
The television and radio presenter Nicky Campbell published a memoir, One of the Family: Why A Dog Called Maxwell Changed My Life, detailing how his relationship with his pet Labrador helped him through the dark days of depression. He also hosts his own canine-based podcast.
The sports commentator Andrew Cotter, meanwhile, also released a book about his relationship with his two dogs, Olive and Mabel, while The Fast Show’s Simon Day recently took to Twitter to sing the praises of his pooch. “Was feeling a bit flat last night,” he wrote, “and my dog gave me so much love it nearly broke my heart into pieces of happy goodness. If you are uncertain, scared or confused about life GET A DOG – they will heal you.”
Research suggests he’s right. In 2018, psychologist Dr Chris Blazina conducted a study among middle-aged men and found that up to 42 per cent of them are more likely to turn to their dog for emotional support in difficult times than anyone else in their social circles – including their partners.
“Even if men have established social networks it’s not a guarantee that they can be themselves fully in those connections,” says Blazina. “Much of the socialisation for men in the western world places very strict rules about not showing vulnerability to even the closest members of inner circle.
“Sometimes the way man works this out is in the company of their dogs; they don’t judge us for showing a more relational side; that is to say who we are beneath the mask we’re taught to wear.”
Interestingly, Blazina’s research that shows that men also downplay or underreport the importance of their relationship with their dog to other men, lest they be considered in any way less manly.
“A good example of this was one man who always kept a distance emotionally from his dogs while in the presence of others,” he recalls. “But then his daughter saw him with his dogs through a window one day and she noticed how caring his behaviour was towards them and how he talked very tenderly when he thought no one else was around.”
Given the general reluctance of men to seek help on those issues that are troubling them, it’s often the case that the emotional bond with a dog can help them get over any hesitancy. Blazina’s interest in man’s relationship with dogs and the more general psychology of pet ownership, for example, was borne out of personal experience.
His two dogs, Sadie and Kelsey, both no longer with us, taught him to open up and better express himself. “These two rescue dogs were really dogs that kind of rescued me,” he says.
But midlife is a maddening time for men. On one hand, there is an expectation to maintain those traditional traits of masculine identity, like strength and stoicism, but, conversely, it’s often a time of life when men can be beset by anxiety and depression as work, finances and family battle for attention.
In that respect, says Blazina, men tend to use the bond with dogs to help them deal with whatever life is hurling at them, be that pressure from work or personal problems.
“The bond with man’s best friend is like a Swiss Army knife,” says Blazina. “It fulfils so many important roles.”
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