Final year journalism undergraduate. Passionate about social justice issues, animal welfare and health. Follow her on Twitter @lainefullerton
Dog lovers have long argued the health benefits of four-legged friends but a new ground-breaking study will test the theory.
In a world-first, Sydney University researchers will attempt to measure how much dogs impact human health.
Lead researcher Emmanuel Stamatakis is determined to ensure that the studies are not idealised, but instead illustrate unbiased evidence.
"We are not specifically looking for benefits. I personally believe that dogs are beneficial for humans, but the coexistence is very complex," Mr Stamatakis said.
"The media idealises dog ownership, with cute puppies, but in reality there are pounds and many of them get euthanised because nobody can look after them."
Ben Stapley, Executive Director of Animal Medicines Australia who is sponsoring the studies, believes dog owners visit the doctor less often.
"I think in Australia they really fit with our outdoor, outgoing lifestyle," Mr Stapley said. "Some people really enjoy the exercise opportunities that come with having a dog."
However, the health benefits of owning a dog go beyond physical as they also impact on psychological health.
Catherine Coates, head teacher of the Barclay Learning Centre at Muirfield High School, a centre catered for students with emotional disturbances, has witnessed these impacts.
Ms Coates has been bringing her golden retriever, Monty, to the school for four years and has recently brought her mother's retriever, Marley.
"The reason ... is we had a student who was a selective mute, who wasn't talking but she had the ability to talk. I came up with the idea that if she started reading to the dog, then that might give her more encouragement
"Her confidence grew and now she's communicating a lot more," Ms Coates said.
Year 10 student, Estella Wang, admits to not talking when she started school until she began reading to Monty.
Since Marley's presence at school this year she says her favourite dog is "Marley because he's playful".
“Her confidence grew and now she’s communicating a lot more.”
Ms Coates notices that different students respond better to different dogs.
"Because of the two different personalities of the dogs, some of the kids respond better to one than the other, depending on the kid's personality. Some like the calmness of Monty and some like the activeness of Marley," says Coates.
Mia Mead, a year 8 student, admits that the dogs are "calming to have around".
"Sometimes if we're getting anxious or something we can take them for a walk for 10 minutes around the oval," Mia said.
Left to right: Jared Porche, Monty, Mia Mead, Estella Wang, Marley.
The students are free to interact with the dogs when they need to.
"Sometimes the kids find it hard to even just sit on a chair, so they'll sit on the floor with the dog. They'll lie on the dog; they'll use the dog as a pillow. Sometimes the dogs will come up and they just want to pat them," says Coates.
"It's just a calming influence on them and it might take them away from what they were currently thinking because we've got kids with mental health issues."
Year 10 student, Jared Porche, thinks the dogs "help people to get to know their surroundings and make them more comfortable."
“The dogs don’t prejudge. These kids have come from some really tough backgrounds and the dogs just don’t judge any of the kids and they just make the kids feel happy.”
Coates believes the dogs have a really positive impact on the student's health.
"The smile that you see on the kid's faces and the positivity, it's giving them some sort of responsibility as well... but it's more just the positivity around how they feel. It makes them feel good about themselves," says Coates.
"The dogs don't prejudge. These kids have come from some really tough backgrounds and the dogs just don't judge any of the kids and they just make the kids feel happy."
The studies at Sydney University are currently in stage two and the vision for them is long-term.
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