Stepping out of isolation

Dianne Dempsey | Bendigo Weekly | 17-Nov-2017

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Penny Williams and Jim. Photo: Andrew Perryman.
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Meet Jim, a four-year-old labrador and his much loved friend, Penny Williams.

Brought together through the auspices of a pilot study conducted by La Trobe University researchers, the two companions have enjoyed regular walks together, all in the name of science.

La Trobe’s Living with Disability Research Centre has just finished a pilot study to track the experiences of those who ventured into the community with and without a dog.

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

The study found the company of a dog can improve that terrible sense of isolation.

Ms Williams said when she walked with Jim people often stopped to talk to them.

“If you do that at the same time every week, they get to know you then,” she said.

During the study the participants were divided, with half having 14 outings with a dog and its handler, while the other half had 14 outings with a handler alone, followed by five outings with a handler and a dog. 

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

Researchers worked with Bendigo-based charity Righteous Pups and 16 adults with intellectual disabilities. Dr Bould said the Bendigo study was timely given the recent National Disability Insurance Scheme launch.

“Our study highlights the potential for a dog walking program to encourage encounters, which could help people build a sense of identity and belonging in the community,” she said.  

Penny and Jim, who now have to part ways, are hoping that further funding will allow them to see each other again. – Dianne Dempsey

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