Winston Churchill, like Samuel Johnson before him, called his depression his “black dog”. Like a faithful hound, his paralysingly low moods were – we must imagine – lingering at his heel, waiting to be attended to, demanding things of him. This metaphor has become particularly instructive of late, not because we use it as Churchill or Johnson did, but because we have become preoccupied with the mental health of our dogs.
Research published by the charity Guide Dogs reveals that three quarters of dogs in this country are depressed. That’s approximately 8.8 million pooches that feel low, can’t get out of their baskets and generally don’t give a bark anymore. What’s more, we, the dog-owning populous, have other dark confessions to make: according to the poll, only 36 per cent of us are able to spot the signs of poor canine mental health, and more than 24 per cent of our number admit to not subscribing to the notion that dogs may suffer with poor mental health.
As a long-standing dog owner, I am curious to know how this depression may manifest in my enormous German shorthaired pointer, Percy. I crouch down beside his sleeping form on the sofa to scrutinise his mood but he does not turn to face me. I ask him if he’d like anything to eat but he continues to stare into space. Increasingly perturbed, I proffer him his “chicken-for-life” plastic bone but he folds himself into a tighter position using his large ears as curtains to evade eye contact.
As per the report’s findings, my dog exhibits the classic signs of depression: low activity levels, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy and reduced appetite. However, when I offer a walk, Percy erupts off the sofa like a speckled missile hurtling towards me at high speed (another sign of depression, apparently). The patient will live, but the idea is planted in my head.
As dog behavioural expert Alexandra Horowitz, author of Our Dogs Ourselves, attests, our interpretation of the emotional states of dogs is worrying – not to say almost entirely wrongheaded. “If a dog is regularly by your side, that looks less like commiseration than simple desire for proximity; if you keep pocketsful of cheese, their attention may have other explanations,” she says. In the air in this country now, and perhaps particularly since Covid, is the idea that dogs follow us around not just physically but also, psychically.