La Trobe's Living with Disability Research Centre has just finished a pilot study in Bendigo to track the experiences of those who ventured into the community with and without a dog.
Research fellow Dr Emma 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.
“So we raised the question, what might be a catalyst for encounters with others in the community for these people? Our answer was dogs.”
Researchers worked with Bendigo-based charity Righteous Pups and 16 adults with intellectual disabilities, with profound results.
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.
She said the benefits of this were remarkable. Those with a dog experienced more positive encounters with others, were more quickly recognised and acknowledged and showed greater confidence to engage socially with strangers.
Righteous Pups managing director Joanne Baker witnessed those results first-hand.
“To see these very isolated, beautiful individuals come alive and smile, as friendships were formed and these new people addressed them by their name, was just wonderful,” she said.
“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. But dogs take the time to connect to everyone and just keep trying until they build that bond.
“Slowly and gently, I saw the dogs form the bridge across the chasm of isolation to inclusion.”
Dr Bould said the Bendigo study was timely given the recent National Disability Insurance Scheme launch.
“The NDIS is likely to open up possibilities for more individualised interventions to support community participation for people with intellectual disabilities,” she said.
“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.”