Therapy dog helps give counselling jitters lick

A little puppy love is helping University of Queensland students experiencing a ‘ruff’ time improve their mental health and wellbeing.

UQ’s Canine Co-Counselling program is enlisting the help of a trained therapy dog and their handler during special counselling sessions to support students experiencing difficulties including stress, anxiety or depression, grief, social isolation or trauma.

UQ Student Services counsellor and researcher Dr Bronwyn Robson said by using trained therapy dogs, the program aimed to reduce the stigma of seeking help and create a relaxed environment for students.

“Research has shown mental health conditions are prevalent amongst university students, so the sooner we can get students to seek help, the less impact it’ll have on their wellbeing, studies and life in general,” Dr Robson said.

“Therapy dogs are specially trained, and are used passively, actively and as a common context for behaviour during a session depending on the student’s needs and the judgement of the counsellor.

“In a passive situation, their presence is calming which helps an anxious student feel more relaxed, or comforting for students experiencing grief.

“As an active therapeutic tool, the student engages in specific, goal-based interactions with the dog to build assertive behaviour and confidence.

“The dogs are also used as an example of behaviours – such as learning new skills, communicating explicitly and assertively, and physiological responses to stimuli.”

It’s long being known pets are good for your health – research has shown they help decrease blood pressure, lower cholesterol, reduce the chance of strokes and the feeling of loneliness, while increasing the opportunity of exercise and socialisation.

While a growing number of US colleges and universities offer animal-assisted activities and informal intervention programs, UQ’s Canine Co-Counselling program is believed to be the first to offer formal therapy sessions under the guidance of a mental health care professional.

“Given the positive impact therapy dogs can have on people’s wellbeing, we wanted to explore their potential to improve the outcome of counselling sessions, as well as investigate the value and cost effect way the program could support students.

“Since our first pilot trial in 2018, we’ve run three additional rounds and all have had positive results and feedback from the students.

“We’ve been told that the presence of a dog was relaxing and put them in a receptive state which helped them process emotions and information.”

UQ Canine Co-counselling program from The University of Queensland on Vimeo.

Since the program began an increasing number of students at UQ have specifically requested a canine co-counselling session.

UQ Student Services Director Andrea Strachan said students experienced a lot of stress while studying, however this year there was the additional pressure of the pandemic on their mental health.

“It’s important we remove roadblocks for our students so they seek help early, and the animal-assisted therapy is doing that for students who may struggle with the idea of counselling,” Ms Strachan said.

Dr Bronwyn Robson’s research findings have been published in Counselling Australia (Volume 19, 2019).

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