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

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

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

“Research has shown mental health conditions are prevalent amongst universitystudents, so the sooner we can get students to seek help, the less impactit’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 acommon context for behaviour during a session depending on the student’s needsand the judgement of the counsellor.

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

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

“The dogs are also used as an example of behaviours – such as learning newskills, communicating explicitly and assertively, and physiological responsesto stimuli.”

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

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

“Given the positive impact therapy dogs can have on people’s wellbeing, wewanted to explore their potential to improve the outcome of counsellingsessions, as well as investigate the value and cost effect way the programcould support students.

“Since our first pilot trial in 2018, we’ve run three additional rounds andall 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 areceptive state which helped them process emotions and information.”

Sincethe program began an increasing number of students at UQ have specificallyrequested a canine co-counselling session.

UQ Student Services Director Andrea Strachan said students experienced a lotof stress while studying, however this year there was the additional pressureof 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 strugglewith the idea of counselling,” Ms Strachan said.

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

Image: UQ Canine Co-Counselling therapy dog Rex

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