On the couch with Percy

Published 29 July 2019

He's become something of a celebrity on campus, but Brittany spaniel Percy is more than earning his keep as a member of the University of New England (UNE) Student Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) team.

The affectionate dog is thought to be one of just two university psycho-therapy dogs in Australia providing comfort to students and unique support for treating psychologists.

Since October last year, UNE psychologist and Percy's owner, Gwen Shumack, has included him in most of her private consultations with students and small-group sessions with student leaders from UNE's residential colleges. This month the three-year-old starred in his first workshop. And he's excelling in his demanding roles.

"We don't yet have a lot of empirical data in Australia to support the benefits of using a psycho-therapy dog, especially in a university context, but we do know that Percy eases the client's stress and increases their production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with increasing trust, relaxation and positive regard," Gwen said. "From a neurological perspective, Percy increases client comfort levels and their capacity to engage fully in therapy. International research has shown that dogs are so effective in therapy that their presence can reduce the number of sessions required."

Percy (and Gwen) have undergone extensive training with Therapy Dogs Australia to move into this specialised field, and will be reassessed every 12 months. "Percy was dux of his course; he demonstrated his empathy and ability to respond sensitively to human emotions right from the start," Gwen said. "He's very cheeky but also inquisitive and happy. He always has his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth and loves being around people."

Gwen said students interacting with Percy in therapy tend to open up more readily. Their interactions with him can also offer her important insights into behaviours within their human relationships that might need to change. "He's a great ice-breaker; he breaks down barriers that I can't at times," Gwen said. "Something shifts, by sheer virtue of his presence, and you can start to have more meaningful conversations.

"Percy and I know each other so well that his behaviour gives me subtle clues as to how the client is feeling. He might be fast asleep and will suddenly raise his head, which tells me he is sensing something that's different. As humans we can miss those cues, but not Percy.

"He picks up on people who are really depressed. I have had clients say they wouldn't have admitted that they had suicidal thoughts until Percy hopped up on their lap and licked them. In one particular session, Percy moved closer to a client in high distress, licked her hand a couple of times and then rolled on to his back to try to defuse her emotions. It enabled me to project on to Percy and give the client strategies to relax. I often use him to model the changes clients need to make to their own behaviour."

Which all sounds like a big responsibility, but Percy takes it all in his shaggy stride. He works three days a week at UNE, leaving plenty of time "just to be a dog", but Gwen sees additional opportunities for him to help relieve student stress at exam drop-in centres or during crises.

"There is huge scope for dogs to be used in other settings, especially for group therapy," Gwen said. "Many organisations wish they could do what we're doing at UNE.

"I'm so proud of him. He loves his work - anyone who meets him can see that. He has a very steady temperament and can be around a lot of people and not get intimidated, but he's not a robot either, which makes him very therapeutically useful to me."

CAPS Manager Annette Stevenson said Percy's intelligence and empathy has made him a valuable addition to the team. "When Percy offers comfort, we hope he encourages the client to give themselves permission to receive other forms of comfort and support," she said.

"They may not yet be open to another human being giving them comfort, but Percy paves the way for that."