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Dogs rely on their owners for everything from food and veterinary care to grooming and exercise. When you see a friend or family member falling short in caring for their dog in one or more of these areas, it’s only natural to have concerns. If someone is dealing with depression, they might be neglecting their dog’s needs and their own. Even basic routines can start to feel overwhelming.

But how do you talk to someone about what you’re noticing without sounding critical or judgmental? On the one hand, your priority might be to ensure that their dog is receiving proper care. On the other hand, you don’t want to risk pushing your loved one away, especially when they might need help the most. The way you voice your concerns can affect how receptive this person is to an offer of assistance.

Determining if Help Is Needed

For situations where you’re not certain if neglect is occurring, it’s important to gather more information before intervening. This can be easier to do if you know the dog owner well or have an opportunity to observe them with their dog on multiple occasions. For example, you might be concerned about whether their dog is getting enough exercise. After talking to your friend, you might learn that their work schedule only permits late-night walks. You might discover that a family member’s dog is experiencing hair loss due to a condition for which they are receiving treatment. The point is, we don’t always know the full picture and it’s easy to make assumptions based on what we’re seeing.

A third scenario might be that a friend or family member’s dog is not receiving the same level of care you had observed previously. If depression is affecting your loved one’s ability to provide adequate care, you might feel compelled to say something. Before you do, it can help to learn more about depression and strategies for approaching this conversation.

Recognizing Signs of Depression in a Friend or Family Member

We all know what it’s like to experience sadness. Accordingly, we might think that someone who is depressed can just snap out of it. This isn’t true. “Sadness is usually brought on by an identifiable event, whereas depression might be present without a particular reason as to what is causing it,” says Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick, Ph.D, a licensed psychotherapist.

Beagle being snuggled by a woman outdoors.
Solovyova/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Another key difference is that sadness can come and go while clinical depression persists for at least two weeks and often has a negative impact on a person’s quality of life, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. People who experience depression may find it difficult to carry out daily routines, including pet care. “Depression often results in feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and despair, which makes it difficult to see beyond these feelings,” Dr. Fedrick adds.

Other signs of depression in humans include:

  • Consistently low moods or irritability
  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Withdrawing from social interactions or isolating yourself
  • Loss of energy and motivation
  • Increased pain or fatigue

Dogs can pick up on these signs of depression, as well as changes in their owner’s behavior. Moreover, depression can disrupt the very routines, like regular meals and walks, that help dogs thrive.

Knowing When to Intervene

Depression can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope with stress. If a dog has behavioral issues such as excessive barking, unwanted chewing, or leash pulling, the owner might withdraw from recreational activities, feel reluctant to have friends come over, or avoid taking their dog out in public. Avoidance behaviors like these can compound their sense of isolation, making it harder to reach out for help.

“It is important to ensure that you are showing up with empathy and support when a loved one is struggling with depression,” Dr. Fedrick says. This means offering help when depression is impacting their daily functioning, including their performance at work, relationships, personal responsibilities, and recreational activities.

“If a loved one’s depressive symptoms are worsening, or if you have any concerns for their safety, it is crucial to intervene and offer help,” Dr. Fedrick says. She suggests checking in with them more frequently, validating their feelings, asking what kind of support they need, as well as encouraging them to seek professional help. This doesn’t mean that you “try to rescue your loved one or fix their situation, as this is not something you have control over and it might delay them getting the professional help they truly need,” she adds.

Offering Help with Their Dog

If you decide to step in and offer help, “it is important you do this with sensitivity and respect,” Dr. Fedrick says. A good starting point is checking in and asking questions about how they’re doing. After giving them space to share, “you can gently express that you are worried about them and their well-being and are curious how you can best show up for them,” she adds.

Being supportive can look like acknowledging how much work it takes to care for a dog, especially if they’re training a new puppy or a dog with behavioral issues. You can validate them for taking on this responsibility, acknowledge what they’re doing well, or commend them for any improvements in their dog’s behavior. You might also wish to remind them how much their dog loves them and wants them to be as happy and healthy as possible.

Pug laying down indoors looking sad.
claudiodoenitzperez/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Dr. Fedrick suggests asking questions like these when offering help:

  • I’ve noticed you’ve been struggling lately. Is there anything I can do to help?
  • You seem really overwhelmed. How can I best support you right now?
  • I have sensed you’ve been pretty sad lately. Is there anything you would like to talk about?
  • I understand you’re having a hard time. I’m worried about how it is impacting you. What can I do to support you?

Once your loved one indicates that they’re receptive to help, you can have a conversation about how to support them. For instance, you can offer to walk their dog, pick up dog food or medication, or take their pet to a vet appointment. Make sure to ask if it’s okay for you to share what’s worked for you, such as a particular training technique or dietary supplement, with your dog.

Another way to help is by expanding their support network. This could include recommending a dog trainer or behaviorist to help with any behavioral issues, offering help with finding a mental health professional, connecting them with a veterinarian, or simply being a sounding board for them. “It is in everyone’s best interest for your loved one to be assessed by a mental health professional who can determine how to best help them, as well as to assess for any potential risk factors,” Dr. Fedrick says.

Preparing for Negative Reactions

Because depression is unique to each individual, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself for a range of reactions including defensiveness, denial, or avoidance. No one enjoys receiving criticism or feedback, even when it’s constructive. Consider it an opportunity to take a step back and reassess how you’re approaching them and what you could do differently, Dr. Fedrick suggests.

Likewise, if they shut you down or deny what’s been going on, “it is okay to just plant a seed and let them know you are there when they are ready for help,” Dr. Fedrick says. “When someone is struggling with depression, they might have a difficult time truly recognizing or acknowledging the impact that it is having on them,” or their dog.

Her advice is to be sensitive and gentle in your approach because they might not be ready to talk about their mental health. Empathizing with their struggles can go a long way toward encouraging them to open up, as opposed to criticizing how they’re taking care of themselves or their dog.

Lastly, if they’re not receptive to your offer to help, it’s important to respect your friend or family member’s wishes, except in situations where they or their dog are in imminent danger. Reassure them that you are here to help if they need anything now or in the future.

If you or someone you know is in a crisis or needs immediate support or intervention, please reach out with the following resources:

Toll-Free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Live Online Chat

Related article: Managing Frustration While Training Your Dog
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