Dogs are often described as man’s (sic) best friend. Many of us have known the pleasure of keeping pets, either as children or at a later stage of life. I was struck, when working in a university counselling service, by how often clients talked about missing their pets at home after making the transition to campus accommodation. There was a real longing for the comfort and companionship these beloved animals provide.
Certainly in the UK, it seems we are a nation of animal lovers, with huge sums spent on pet toys, gourmet pet food, pet pampering services, and so on. I heard recently that many modern breeds of dogs have emerged in response to the needs of adults living alone: fluffy coats, large eyes, docile temperaments – a kind of partner substitute.
I’ve known for some time that many counselling services bring animals onto campus at exam times to give anxious students the opportunity to interact with furry companions. I have to be honest and say that my initial reaction to these events was pretty sceptical: is providing animals to pet, something that a counselling service should be doing? How is this ‘therapeutic’ in any other sense than being a nice experience that dissipates within 10 minutes of leaving the animal behind?
And yet… over the years, my opinion has changed. Who gets to say what is ‘therapeutic’? And I’ve seen (and experienced) for myself, the wonderfully comforting presence of a gentle animal. There is something about cuddling or stroking a cat or dog which seems to bring genuine, lasting comfort and calm – at least for those of us who love our pets!
In this issue, Patricia Pendry and Jaymie Vandagriff, from Washington State University, describe their research into the impact on ‘at-risk’ students of participating in animal-assisted therapy. The outcomes are genuinely fascinating and completely contradict my initial prejudice towards bringing animals onto campus. The evidence seems to point to the possibility of a lasting and deep impact on students who might otherwise remain distressed or unable to engage.
My own two furry friends, Harry and Jasper, are curled around my feet as I write. I can’t help but agree that animals’ presence is truly something to treasure and enjoy: and something that can only be good for our, and our students’, mental wellbeing too.