Man's best friend

Dogs can make a difference for farmers in the fight against depression, loneliness and suicide

3rd December 2018

In recent years the positive influence of animals on mental health, particularly dogs, has become increasingly recognised. A study undertaken in 2012 by the Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, found that employees who bring their dogs to work produce lower levels of stress-causing hormones like cortisol. As a result of this study and others like it, more and more big businesses — like Amazon, Mars and Etsy — are allowing employees to bring their pets to work.

However, while this might be a relatively modern phenomenon in the world of business, it is by no means new to the agricultural sector. Farmers have been using dogs as colleagues and workplace companions for thousands of years.

For as long as there have been farmers, there have been farm dogs. A recent genetic study found that farmers in the Neolithic period who migrated to Europe were accompanied by dogs used for herding animals like sheep and goats. Centuries later in Classical Rome, farm dogs had become so valued they were even written into the great classical poetry of the period.

In Horace’s lyric poem Quid Immerentis Hospis, the narrator imagines himself as a sheepdog, “the shepherd’s dangerous friend”, as he “pricks the ears up and chases through deepest snow whatever beast will run from me”. As the subject of such poetry, farm dogs were clearly championed as the heroic protectors of their master’s flock. There is a long history of the close relationship between farmers and their dogs. A dog is, and always has been, every farmer’s right-hand man.

Sitting at a desk in your stuffy office, it might be tempting to daydream about farming as a gloriously peaceful occupation, one where you can while away the hours in the fresh air with man’s best friend by your side. In reality, however, farming is an emotionally draining job.

The sad truth is that more than one farmer a week takes their own life in the UK

Rural isolation, long working hours and financial insecurity can, unfortunately, leave farmers prone to mental health issues. Levels of depression, anxiety and stress in the agricultural sector are ever rising, with the Office for National Statistics reporting that farmers are at an increased risk of suicide.

The Farming Community Network, a charity that supports members of the farming community through difficult times, commented on this upsetting trend: “Despite a greater awareness of mental health within the industry, the sad truth is that more than one farmer a week takes their own life in the UK. In wider society, it is thought that any one suicide has a significant impact on eight other people. Within farming, because of the close-knit nature of our working and social lives, the impact is far wider reaching, devastating whole communities.”

Typically thought of as being only physically taxing, the impact of agricultural labour on the mind is often underestimated, and the stiff upper lip attitude that many farmers adopt means that for many, the conversation about mental health is never had until it is tragically too late. The therapeutic companionship of a dog can, therefore, prove to be invaluable. A far cry from being an emotionless working relationship, a farmer’s dog provides love, comfort and friendship, significantly helping to alleviate the mental strain of farming.

My dog is never more than 6 feet away from me when I’m at home on the farm — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lynsey Martin, the chair of council for the National Federation of Young Farmers, says: “For many farmers, a dog is much more than a working animal, it’s also a companion and guardian. Most farmers will have minimal interaction with people during the daytime so a dog can provide that much-needed emotional connection. A dog also has the emotional intelligence to recognise when its owner is feeling low or stressed and can offer that support when you need it most. My dog is never more than 6 feet away from me when I’m at home on the farm — and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Speaking to farmers of all kinds from across the UK, it seems that the beneficial psychological effect of having a four-legged friend is both noticed and appreciated.

Daniel, a sheep farmer from Surrey, certainly finds having a dog to accompany him around the farm instrumental to his day to day wellbeing. “Having the constant presence of a dog is relaxing,” he says. “It’s nice to feel that there is someone following you around with unconditional love as you go about your day. It makes a hard job slightly easier.”

Benson is a companion to Anna when she is struggling most.

Similarly, Anna, who works on a beef farm in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland, says that the being able to talk to her golden retriever Benson helps her to fight the feelings of loneliness that often creep up on farmers.

She says, “Farming is very isolating. You could go days or weeks without seeing people, so I’d be lost without Benson’s companionship. He’s with me at all times and we do everything together. I talk to him, saying what we’ve got to do or what’s happening next. Talking away to him makes it feel like I’m not alone.”

There has been plenty of scientific research into why we talk to animals. A study from 2008 looked into the motivations for treating non-humans as if they were humans, and found that if a person lacked social interaction (as many farmers do), one of these motivations was a desire to “create” a human to engage with. Perhaps for farmers, talking to their dogs enables them to “create” a colleague; an almost-human substitution for workmates. Just as an office worker might vent to a colleague about their stresses or worries, a dog can provide a sympathetic ear for farmers to vent their anxieties about the day ahead. Interacting with their dogs gives farmers a sense that they are not working alone, helping to prevent them from falling into the downward spiral of loneliness and depression.

During the day, when I come into the house and the house is empty because my family are at work or school, Carlos always provides great companionship and a warm welcome

Working in the agricultural sector is not a regular nine-to-five job. In fact, a survey of 700 British farmers conducted by Farmers Weekly revealed that, on average, farmers work a 65 hour week — significantly more than the UK national average of 42 hours a week. These extensive hours often mean painfully early rises and late finishes. Not only are they long, the hours that farmers work are also somewhat unpredictable as their work is inherently reliant upon the weather.

Geoff, a dairy farmer from North Wales, finds that his pet labrador, Carlos, helps him manage the difficult working hours. He says, “During the day when I come into the house and the house is empty because my family are at work or school, Carlos always provides great companionship and a warm welcome.”

The irregular and unsociable working hours of farm work make maintaining a healthy work-life balance difficult. The reassuring presence of a dog, however, goes a long way to helping farmers switch off from work at whatever time they step through the door.

Anna is particularly appreciative of Benson’s loving company, which helps her to de-stress in her downtime at home when she is not working. She says, “He’s great for a cuddle after a long hard day, and taking him out to play or for a walk helps me relax.”

At home, dogs provide a much-needed distraction from the pressures of agricultural labour. An article published by the Harvard Medical School argues that, “Perhaps one of the greatest psychological benefits of interacting with a dog is the opportunity it provides to be more mindful — to purposefully focus your attention on the present moment.” Remembering to care for dogs, to feed them, to play with them and to show them affection, takes people out of their own heads and away from the worries circulating in their minds. Dogs encourage their owners to be alert to the present moment, to be mindful.

Carlos is a friend, not a co-worker.

Harvard Medical School praises the practice of mindfulness, suggesting it “can help reduce stress and enhance health”. For farmers, a dog’s ability to help them unwind is particularly significant. Most farmers live where they work, making it difficult to escape the stress of the working day even when they are at home. Having a pet dog to come home to can help to create a more relaxing home environment, making it slightly easier for farmers to separate their home lives from their working lives.

Nevertheless, some farmers own dogs who are not a part of their home lives at all. The relationship that farmers have with working dogs can be slightly different, but according to Geoff, these relationships are still similarly beneficial. Geoff has had both working dogs and pet dogs and finds that his relationship with his working sheepdog Fred was very different to his relationship with Carlos.

“In the past, I have had a working sheepdog, who was not considered to be a family pet but a part of the working team. The relationship you have with a working dog is less friendly and affectionate. They are there to assist you. Though I suppose that’s not to say that their companionship isn’t appreciated. My sheepdog was an extremely loyal dog to me, personally, and a really good help to my work. He was so protective of me that when my then-girlfriend, now-wife used to come around he would give her evils from outside. I think that proves you still have close, rewarding bonds with working dogs, it’s just a different type of bond.”

Farm dogs, regardless of whether they are working dogs, pets or both, are clearly invaluable to farmers. More than just man’s best friend, farm dogs are a guardian, a workmate and an ally. They are a reassuring comfort throughout the workday and at home, with their unconditional love and loyalty going a long way to soothe the hidden emotional burden of agricultural labour.

3rd December 2018