Pet positive (Giselle Roberts)

This interview with Professor Pauleen Bennett by Giselle Roberts first appeared in the SHE Review (October 2018) and is republished here with kind permission. 


Pauleen Bennett and Errol | Photo courtesy of Giselle Roberts
My guess is that Dr Pauleen Bennett is rarely without a dog in tow. On the morning I met her, Errol, one of Bennett’s Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, sat happily in a sunshine-filled corner of the office, gnawing on a chew toy.

Bennett is an anthrozoologist and behavioural psychologist who has devoted her career to understanding the relationship between humans and animals. She heads Australia’s first dedicated human-dog interaction laboratory, and together with Dr Tiffani Howell, has embarked on a ground-breaking program to train assistance dogs for veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

I sat down with Dr Bennett to chat about how animals enrich our lives.

GISELLE ROBERTS: Pauleen, most of us who have pets will attest to the positive influence they have on our lives. There are also a raft of studies to support this.

PAULEEN BENNETT: Yes. For many people, the difference between having a good day and a bad day is pets. As a psychologist and a person who grew up with animals, it’s an interesting phenomenon. Research supports their positive influence on everything from children’s reading skills to anxiety. Stroking or petting an animal causes transient decreases in blood pressure and the mere presence of a companion animal will reduce stress. Take a dog into a nursing home and residents feel better.

GR: Why?

PB: We are not entirely sure. Evolutionary theories suggest that it may be connected to the emergence of stable habitation patterns in humans some 40,000 years ago. Wolves co-located to early human settlements where they lived on discarded bones and scraps. Slowly, they became domesticated. They also kept watch and became a form of protection for family groups.

GR: So there was mutual benefit.

PB: Yes. And now we have entire populations of people who feel better when there are dogs around. Our brains have been hard-wired to regard them as a safety signal, like the sentry in a meerkat colony. If the sentry is doing its job, everyone else can relax. If a dog is calm and sensible, then we feel safe and secure. Tiffani and I are currently working with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) to train dogs for veterans with PTSD, and the same principle applies. When the dog is calm, the person with PTSD feels safe. They can get on with their lives and do things that they normally couldn’t do.

GR: Your research and training happens at the “dog lab”?

PB: Yes, it’s a space where we can bring people and dogs together for research. We don’t keep any dogs in the lab, but they do visit. Many of our projects focus on training dogs and developing the best training models. One of our PhD students, Nick Rutter, has enlisted the help of 16 volunteers in the Bendigo region and, together, they are training their dogs to detect endangered species. We have other students who are rearing guide dogs and seizure alert dogs. Then there are our 20 dogs that will be trained for veterans with PTSD.

Photo courtesy of Giselle Roberts

GR: What does the training involve?

PB: Mostly it is about teaching the dogs to be friendly, safe and calm. They shouldn’t jump if somebody drops a bed pan, for example. The dogs for the DVA project will be fostered by staff and student volunteers who will become puppy raisers for about a year. They will bring the dogs to La Trobe campuses for formal training, and expose them to a range of social situations to prepare them for placement with veterans. It’s incredibly rewarding. I love that my work with animals has such a positive application.

GR: You have devoted your career to understanding companion animals. How many animals do you have?

PB: A lot! I have a farm and we have four horses, six alpacas, a dozen goats, sheep and between 12 and 20 dogs at any one time. Oh, and one cat. At the moment we have puppies, because I still breed them as a hobby. They are wonderful time wasters.

GR: What have they taught you personally?

PB: Authenticity, tolerance, taking time out to sniff the roses, and not getting too caught up in all the hype. Research suggests that people often regard their pets as honest and genuine. They are who they are. I’ve got one dog at home who is grumpy, but she is who she is. And that genuineness is really significant. It makes people feel grounded and happy.


This is the last post for RED Alert for 2018. We'll be taking a blog break and our first post for 2019 will be published on 5 February!

Happy and safe holidays, everyone!