La Trobe University pilot study in Bendigo shows positive effect of dogs on the social lives of people with intellectual disabilities

PENNY Williams found striking up a conversation with a stranger challenging before Jimmy came into her life.

The 22-year-old Echuca resident has gained confidence since meeting the companion dog.

“He’s just helped me express my love,” Penny said.

She was one of 16 adults with intellectual disabilities who had Righteous Pups handlers and dogs join them on a number of outings in the community as part of a study by La Trobe University’s Living with Disability Research Centre.

Researchers studied how often community members interacted with the participants when a dog was present, and when it was not.

“Our findings showed there were significantly more encounters between participants and strangers when a dog was present,” research fellow Emma Bould said.

“But also the presence of a dog led to more positive encounters. People became more quickly acknowledged and recognised by others in the community and they also gained confidence to engage socially with others.”

Righteous Pups managing director Joanne Baker said it was wonderful to see the participants making new friends and meeting new people.

“Most people wanted to be inclusive towards the people with intellectual disabilities, it’s just they didn’t know how, or were scared to risk and then opted for the safer choice to disengage,” she said. 

“But dogs take the time to connect to everyone and just keep trying until they build that bond.”

One of the participants got to know her neighbours as a result of the study.

“During the outings when she was with the dog, one of the neighbours came up and repeatedly over these outings they had these interactions which grew over time,” Dr Bould said.

The research does not advocate for people to get a dog.

“The pilot study has certainly shown the potential for a dog walking program to encourage encounters which, in turn, could help people build a sense of identity and belonging in the community,” Dr Bould said.

She was hopeful the study would have implications for policy and practice, and is seeking to expand the research.

Dr Bould said people with intellectual disabilities were one of the most socially excluded groups in society.

“There is little evidence about effective models to increase social inclusion or to enable people with intellectual disabilities to connect with others,” she said.