I had one last beautiful, golden weekend before starting my OB/GYN rotation. I knew that I had to fit in one more memorable activity before my life became overrun with uteruses (uteri?) and babies. I was struggling to think of an activity, when one of my friends asked if I’d be interested in going over to the local park with her to play with her dog. That was an obvious, immediate YES! — and then I realized exactly what my next activity would be.
Interactions between humans and animals have been well documented in the literature and various positive effects of these interactions have been explored: reduction of stress-related hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, improvement of immune system functioning and pain management, increased trustworthiness and trust towards others, reduced aggression, enhanced empathy, improved learning, and increased oxytocin release. Mental health benefits have also been well documented, particularly in the elderly, and has been seen in younger people as well. I’m sure many of us have gone to colleges where petting zoos or opportunities to pet dogs were offered during exam week, as studies have shown how petting animals significantly reduces anxiety levels. It is not the mere action of petting either; one particular study observed that those who pet animals and those who pet stuffed toys, and found the former group to be the only ones to have a mental benefit. Given this abundance of research supporting the theory that animal interactions reduce stress, I decided that I would test out the theory and rent a dog to boost my mental health.
Now, there may be the unique medical student who has the time and space to care for an animal in medical school, but I am not one of them. I wish that I had the opportunity to interact with animals and play with them, but like many med students, my schedule doesn’t allow for too much free time. So, I decided to search for a rent-a-dog app — and found several good ones. One in particular is called Walkzee — and it’s the first online platform designed to “unite lonely dog lovers with shelter pups who could use a walk,” in their words. This, to me, seemed perfect: a win-win situation between human and animal! Bark N Borrow was another excellent app connecting dog owners to dog lovers, if one desires to meet other pet owners in the area.
I decided to try the Bark N Borrow app. As I waited with my friend and her dog to meet my dog for the day, I could not help feeling nervous. Despite my excitement, what if the dog (Sheila was her name) hated me? What if the owner never showed up? What if something happened in the two hours I had rented Sheila? My friend told me that I was panicking for no reason, but I wasn’t sure.
As it turned out, my friend was half-right. When Sheila and her owner showed up, I felt a sudden wave of nostalgia hit me as I thought about how my dog looked so similar to her (which is why I had picked Sheila in the first place) and I suddenly felt very, very homesick. Sheila could be a little shy, I was told, though she was good with other dogs and children. However, she was a little on the older side so running around wasn’t really her thing. That was okay, I thought — I’m not particularly the running-and-frisbee-tossing type of pet owner either. After her owner left with a promise to be back in a couple of hours, I sat down on the picnic blanket with Sheila and absentmindedly began to pet her as I talked with my friend. She was one of the sweetest dogs I ever met, and just quietly just sat next to me, satisfied with the feel of someone rubbing her belly. We took a short walk through the park, Sheila trotting next to me with my friend’s dog next to her. They seemed to get along well and, thankfully, Sheila wasn’t the type of dog to run off or bark at other humans or animals. She did tire out pretty fast, so we had to end our walk a bit shorter than we would have liked. We ended up spending the rest of the hour at the shoreline before Sheila’s owner came back to pick her up. I felt sorry to see her go — but at the same time I felt an odd sense of relief, like I had just finished a babysitting job, though really it was I who had chosen to rent her out in the first place.
Before I delve into my thoughts, I want to say that this was an excellent experience. For anyone interested in spending time with an animal without the ability to care for their own pet, or visit their pets back home, these two apps are for you. Whether you want to associate with other pet owners or work with a shelter dog depends on the app you use. Sheila was an absolutely amazing dog, and I have no regrets or complaints spending time with her. I think that for me, personally, spending time with Sheila made me nostalgic for my own dog back home that I am extremely close with. No dog is the same as your own, as many pet owners would know, and no amount of time with another animal really fills that void; if that’s what you’re hoping to fill, this may not be the activity for you. However, for those looking for some stress relief and wishing to spend a couple of hours with a friendly dog, this is definitely the activity for you!
A very important topic is that of mental health in medical practitioners, notably medical students. According to a study in the Student British Medical Journal, 30 percent of medical students report having a mental health condition — with a majority of 80 percent stating the level of available support was poor or only moderately adequate. This column was born from these alarming statistics and aims to stimulate conversation on mental health in medical students, from providing suggestions on how to maintain one’s mental health to discussing the taboo and stigma surrounding conversations on mental health in practitioners and students, and how to eliminate it.