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A woman lying on the ground with a dog
Man's best friend: the wonders of pet therapy

There’s no doubt that pets provide us with a range of mental and physical benefits. It’s hard not to smile when your dog greets you at the door enthusiastically wagging its tail or your cat weaves in and out of your legs, clearly pleased to see you.

There’s also growing evidence to back up the anecdotal benefits, showing that pets not only offer companionship and comfort, but can also help with anxiety, depression and loneliness.

Deakin lecturer Dr Tony Chalkley doesn’t need scientific evidence to understand the impact dogs can have on humans – he sees it up-close each week when he and therapy dog Squirt hit the classroom.

Dr Chalkley – a former primary school teacher – and his popular pooch volunteer with young children at South Geelong Primary School, who are struggling with reading or other issues.

‘The teachers tend to use the therapy dogs as a learning tool, as a teacher’s aide,’ Dr Chalkley says.

‘They’re pretty inventive with the way they use dogs, so they’ll know when a kid’s maybe having not such a good time at home, or maybe they’re struggling or they’ve been unwell or whatever.’

Pets as therapy

Dr Chalkley and Squirt are volunteers with Delta Society Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that provides therapy dog visits to more than 850 facilities nationally each year – from hospitals to aged care, mental health facilities and prisons.

Squirt acts as a ‘constructive distraction’ for the young students she meets, Dr Chalkley says.

‘They have absolutely no self-consciousness about Squirt. They read to her and it doesn’t matter if they make a mistake, she doesn’t care,’ he says. ‘They will barrel on with their reading knowing that if they look at her she wags her tail, so every time they look up they get a wag.’

Children reading to dog in classroom

Animals helping humans

The duo also helps kids who are battling social anxiety.

‘Last year we would meet a boy at the gate every Friday morning. He wasn’t all that keen on school, he was a bit of a school refuser, but if he came to school and got involved for the week he was allowed to bring Squirt into the school and sign her in with me,’ Dr Chalkley says.

‘He loved dogs and he was pretty proud that he signed her into the visitor’s book.’

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that therapy dogs provide comfort to children and elderly people.

Comfort and companionship

But pets in general seem to provide countless mental and physical health benefits for people of all ages, says Associate Professor Gery Karantzas, of Deakin’s School of Psychology.

He says pets can be particularly beneficial for people lacking strong emotional or physical ties.

‘In that way pets do fulfil this sense of companionship. We do refer to dogs as man’s best friend and there’s probably a kernel of truth to that,’ Assoc. Prof. Karantzas says.

Studies have shown that at times of distress, pets of all types can be extremely comforting – though not on the same scale a human companion might be, he says.

‘In many ways it relates to this idea there’s still a figure, even though it’s not human – it’s a figure in the house that we communicate with and it has the capacity to communicate with us.’

Tony Chalkley and Squirt the dog

Reducing feelings of loneliness

Assoc. Prof. Karantzas says emerging evidence shows that owning a pet can not only reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, but also help diminish feelings of loneliness.

‘It’s certainly not a replacement for the kind of human relationships we have, and I don’t think anyone’s arguing that,’ he says.

A number of universities around Australia have welcomed therapy dogs on campus as part of the Delta Society’s Paws the Pressure program, designed to help alleviate students’ stress levels at exam time.

Dr Chalkley and Squirt are also visiting Deakin’s campuses for the second year during exam time.

‘As students line up outside the exam centre and they’re kind of nervous, we just walk in amongst the crowd and they’ll give her a pat,’ Dr Chalkley says.

‘A lot of the students told me last time that they had to leave their dog at home when they went to uni, so they miss their dog, cat, rabbit, whatever it is – they miss that domestic interaction with an animal. Many students live on res and they’re just pleased to see another dog because it brings them back to home.’

While numerous studies have investigated why the interaction between pets and humans has such a powerful effect, Dr Chalkley believes there’s nothing complicated about it.

‘When you watch it at work, it’s just as simple as getting a pat, having the dog get its tummy rubbed, wags its tail and it’s that really that simple interaction,’ he says. ‘It’s a very basic human instinct I guess.’

If you want to learn more about how the human mind works, consider studying psychology at Deakin.

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Dr Tony Chalkley
Dr Tony Chalkley

Lecturer, Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

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Associate Professor Gery Karantzas
Associate Professor Gery Karantzas

Director of the Science of Adult Relationships (SoAR) Laboratory, School of Psychology, Deakin University.

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