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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 bounds up to you, enthusiastically wagging its tail. Or when your cat weaves in and out of your legs, clearly pleased to have you around.

There’s also 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 thanks to the work he does with therapy dog, Squirt.

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.

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.’


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.

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.’

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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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