The benefits of having pets

By Fran Price (Goldfinch)
Provisional Psychologist & Resilience Coach


Why is it worth putting up with cat hair on the dining table or dog poo on the pavers out the back?
When the cat whinges to be fed every half an hour and the dog constantly lays sticks at your feet hoping you will throw them.

In our house, there’s a running joke of one of us exclaiming, “Who’d have pets?!” when they disgrace themselves or create extra work. There are many reasons why this has stayed a joke in our house as we love our cat and our dog. There are also many research studies that have focused on the benefits of having pets.  For example McConnell et al. (2011) found that pets can serve as important sources of social support, providing many positive psychological and physical benefits for their owners. Here are some of the things the research has highlighted about pet ownership, with some of my own experiences mixed in.


Pets calm us down
reef fishThink about sitting and watching a fish tank. There is something soothing about their activities in the tank, the colour and the patterns they make as they move around. You can even get screen savers of fake fish tanks! Watching the natural movement of animals, or their basic behaviours can provide a sense of rhythm and purpose, calming us down. Research has shown that pet owners have lower blood pressure and heart rate while performing stressful tasks and people recovering from a heart attack recover more quickly and survive longer when there is a pet at home (Borchard, 2013).


Getting out and going for a walk. Pets, especially dogs, can be that bit of motivation needed to get out and do something. A study in the US (Bauman et al., 2008) found that dog owners were more likely to meet the dog exerciserequirements of daily physical activity than non dog owners and there were fewer obese dog owners. As it comes into winter and daylight saving has finished, it takes more motivation to do something active outside work times, dogs can give you that adoring look that makes you get your sneakers and walk out the door.


Pets give unconditional love and want to be part of whatever is going on. Pets can also act as attachment figures, providing a sense of safe haven and reducing distress (Zilcha-Mano et al., 2012). Their unconditional love can provide affection when we most need it or simply be that smiling face at the end of a long day. It’s easy to see the look of devotion from dogs who want to be wherever you are all the time or the companionship of a warm cat curled up on your lap while you’re sitting on the couch in the evening. People say cats are aloof and they certainly have the potential to be like that, but there are definitely some very affectionate cats. I chose my cat from a litter of kittens at the RSPCA. He was the one climbing to the top of their scratching tower and back down again while playfully swiping at the tails of the othecat clothesr kittens. When I picked him up however, I held him at my chest and he stretched up and touched his nose to mine: A very affectionate trait he still pulls out. Despite the fact that he thinks he deserves the run of the house and has an annoying habit of finding freshly folded clean clothes to sleep on, he clearly enjoys being with us, and comes running when we get home, providing a lovely welcome.


Pets make us responsible for caring for something else. This can be great for kids as they grow up, learning what an animal needs and the fact that they are reliant on you providing it for them. Being responsible for a task guinea pigand taking ownership of completing it, gives us a sense of competence, even if it is cleaning the poo out of the guinea pigs’ cage. Pets also give structure to your day and mean you’re responsible to them to plan ahead if you’re going to be away.


Connecting with others
Owning a pet can help you connect and be part of the community around you. A study of young people in the US found that those who owned pets were more likely to report contributing to their communities by helping their friends and neighbours (Mueller, 2014). There are also the social benefits of owning a pet that needs to beDog park walked. Dogs in particular, due to their desire for exercise and stimulation, create opportunities for interactions and social contact in the broader community. Getting out and walking down the street with your dog or taking them to a dog park creates opportunities for you to meet and interact with other people in your local area. A study in Perth found that owning a pet was positively associated with social interactions both with other pet owners and the broader local community (Wood et al., 2005).  Pet owners compared to non-pet owners, were also significantly less likely to report finding it hard to get to know people generally.


Watching people interact with their pets, you can see such positive connections and it’s lovely to be able to look at some of the research around some of the great things these connections are able to provide.


Bauman, A., Schroeder, J., Furber, S., &Dobson, A. (2001). The epidemiology of dog walking: An unmet need for human and canine health. Medical Journal of Australia, 175, 632-634.

Borchard, T. (2013). 6 Ways Pets Relieve Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 26, 2014, from

McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 1239-1252.

Mueller, M.K. (2014). Is human-animal interaction (HAI) linked to positive youth development? Initial answers. Applied Developmental Science, 18 (1), 5-16

Wood, L., Giles-Corti, B., & Bulsara, M. (2005). The pet connection: Pets as a conduit for social capital? Social Science & Medicine 61, 1159-1173.

Zilcha-Mano, S., Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2012). Pets as safe havens and secure bases: The moderating role of pet attachment orientations. Journal of Research in Personality 46, 571-580.

Psychology and the Movies: A Review


By Shannon Gostelow

Provisional Psychologist


What movie is this from?

“After all… tomorrow is a another day”

and this…? 

“Mamma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. 

How about this one?

“Oh yes, the past can hurt. But you can either run from it, or learn from it.”

Did you get them? (Answers are at the end of this blog…;))


Of course we all know that movies are a source of light entertainment or escapism…we also know that they are capable of making us think differently, feel deeply or thoughtfully question. Sometimes movies reflect life right back at us….and sometimes they can depict the truth of it quite well. Truthful movies about romantic relationships and the struggle between good and evil are relatively commonplace. However, films centering around an accurate portrayal of mental illness are fairly rare…and movies that actually have a go at sensitively exploring the lives of those with a psychological illness are even rarer…but they are not non-existant.

There have been some respectful Hollywood attempts. Yes, these types of elusive films actually do exist in tinseltown;) Furthermore, there are even some films which portray realistic storylines, believable characters AND manage to promote overcoming adversity through resilience. These films all concurrently balance the reality and difficulty of mental illness with the possibility for positive change, opportunity and momentum.

At this point a mini film review seems pertinent…

So…the first cab off the rank is  ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’– a recent, academy award winning film aptly depicting a male character with a diagnosis of Bipolar I Disorder.


Whilst this film displayed a slightly questionable ethical relationship between client and therapist, it also gave credible screen time to the symptoms of Bipolar I Disorder (BPDI), the impact of these symptoms on family and friends and the implications of the use and non-use of medication. Overall, the movie communicated that whilst BPDI is a difficult psychological illness to grapple with, it can be manageable with appropriate medication and psychological treatment. This film also advocated that people who have BPDI can have productive lives, contributing creatively and valuably to society. This is a refreshingly accurate ‘message of hope’ which is backed by psychological research. If you would like further information about Bipolar Disorders or research please click on the link below.

The next two films are academy award winning, artfully acted and superbly scripted films based on real life, namely ‘A Beautiful Mind’ which is about mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jnr and his diagnoses of Schizophrenia, and the Australian film ‘Shine’ which traces the life of pianist David Helfgott who has an undefined disorder which is most closely associated with Schizoaffective Disorder.


Both movies follow the lifetime struggle of two men with genius and a significant mental illness. Both explore the various ways the characters attempt to cope with such a dichotomy and both end with the truthful situation of each man i.e. in ‘A Beautiful Mind’ the protagonist John Forbes Nash, Jnr is able to continue his mathematical work, even winning the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics, whilst simultaneously learning how to negotiate living with the hallucinations and delusions associated with his type of Schizophrenia-even in film form it is extremely humbling to witness; in ‘Shine’ the pianist prodigy David Helfgott, after a significant time in hospital institutions, gets happily married, resumes playing piano and performing in concerts…leading to international renown for his uniqueness and ability. In both movies the illness remains a challenge. However, reflecting the real life choices made by both men, this adversity slows but does not stop them from achieving fulfilling lives.  For more on the topic of Schizophrenia click here

or here

or call the Helpline on 1800 18 7263.

The next movie deserving of a mention is one most people would probably know – ‘Rainman’, a 1988 film with Dustin Hoffman.


This film tracks a character, ‘Ray’, with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and explores his difficulty in joining with the world due to his habitual rigidity and social impairments. As a subtle and keenly gifted actor Hoffman gives a truthful humanity to Ray that is often missing from films and characters depicting ASD. The film does not back away from pursuing the effect of ASD symptoms on the main character and his family- the eventual effect being continued inpatient care- BUT the film emphasises the nuanced resilience of Ray and the support and love of a ‘brother’ character which assists in this resilience. Again, this movie manages to offer a realistic but hopeful picture of living with Autism Spectrum Disorder. If you would like further information on ASD click here

The last movie worth mentioning is the romantic comedy ‘As Good As It Gets’ with Jack Nicholson.


This film explores a character with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and also touches on the use/non-use of medication and psychological therapy as treatment tools. The most significant aspect of this film is that the character has to constantly adapt to get what he needs/wants-nothing seems to happen quickly or easily for him. This is fiction truthfully reflecting life. In fact, whilst the end is slightly Hollywood-ised, there is still a question mark about exactly where this character will go in life. One thing is clear though- the character is empowered to tackle his illness through a pattern of ‘trying again’ or persisting when faced with a challenge and this display of resilience increases his chances of defeating OCD. This film is an accurate portrayal of the ongoing difficulty of OCD alongside the possibility for change. OCD is a mental illness that, with the aid of treatment, does not have to be lifelong which, in itself, brings hope. More useful information on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can be found by clicking on the link below.

The central components underpinning all these films is that they depict characters facing adversity in the form of a mental illness, yet choosing hope in the face of the challenge. So… in metaphorical movie talk it looks like this:

The psychological symptoms shout (Gandalf style) “You shall not pass!!!”…but through the adversity the characters all reach for the outstretched hand of hope which is accompanied by a voice which says “Come with me if you want to live” (in a strangely Austrian accent…;)

These films reflect what is psychologically going on around the world, every day, all the time. That is, people with a psychological illness are picking themselves up and taking steps forward where they can even though it is hard…and it IS hard. But, as shown in films and life, positive change is not impossible. These movies offer truthful windows into the lives of others…and by increasing understanding, the door toward empathy opens ever wider.

We will never see all the blockbuster films that could be made about the every day people who take the forward steps where they can…but we can certainly watch the films that are made which so respectfully and accurately reflect them.

Right…so where’s the popcorn…?

(Answers: 1. Gone with the Wind, 2. Forrest Gump, 3. The Lion King, 4. sneaky reference to The Lord of the Rings and the Terminator films)













Let the children play!

By Ruth Fordyce
Alpha Psychology and the Resilience Centre

Children seem to be leading busier and busier lives. Many children have a weekly routine that is full of scheduled and structured activities. Whether it’s tutoring, sports, music, dancing or community service groups, it’s now common for children to have activities scheduled many afternoons or evenings of the week. And of course there is homework to be completed as well! Parents feel the pressure to ensure that their children are succeeding at school, as well as getting every opportunity to develop their interests and become a ‘well rounded’ young person. However, there is an increasing concern amongst parents as well as academics and researchers who are questioning – when does this leave time for children just to PLAY?

Why is play so important for children?

It is widely agreed that play is vital for children, as it plays a key role in their physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. Professor Peter Gray, a researcher on the effects of children’s play, is concerned that too great a focus on education in countries like the UK (and Australia, I would suggest) is robbing children of important playtime.
Indeed, in a recent article he argues:

“the most important skills that children everywhere must learn in order to live happy, productive, moral lives are skills that cannot be taught in school. Such skills cannot be taught at all. They are learned and practised by children in play. These include the abilities to think creatively, to get along with other people and cooperate effectively, and to control their own impulses and emotions” (Gray 2014).

Gray’s article is well worth a read – I was fascinated to learn that in areas such as east Asia, where education has long been so greatly prized, there is now a move to reduce homework and schooling hours in response to grave concerns about decreasing levels of resilience and creativity in children, and growing rates of emotional problems.

So play is clearly important, but what actually defines good quality ‘play’ and sets it apart from other recreational or entertainment activities that children participate in?

Some level of risk is an important part of play

As it turns out, some of the most important aspects of play are related to the element of risk. Some researchers are concerned that we have actually made play areas and activities for children too safe and therefore too boring and not stimulating enough for meaningful play. Consider the average playground that has static equipment like a see saw or a slippery dip (slide). There is essentially only one way to interact or play with these pieces of equipment, and the element of risk is (intentionally) very low. Even toddlers can become quickly bored. In contrast, Anita Bundy and a team from Sydney University have been researching the effect of providing unstructured materials in school playgrounds, to encourage creative and imaginative play (for example – buckets, hay bales, car tyres, cardboard boxes and wooden planks). Teachers at first worried that playground injuries would increase or that children would use the materials to hit each other; however this did not happen. In fact, teachers reported positive changes – the children played more actively but were also more social, creative and resilient (Wallace, 2009).

A similar result was found in a study in New Zealand, in which one school bravely decided to get rid of playground rules entirely! The children were allowed to climb trees, ride bikes and play with loose junk materials similar to those described above. In time, the school found there was a decrease in injuries, a drop in bullying and that students concentrated better in class. Principal of the school, Bruce McLachlan, makes an interesting observation that in response to a riskier environment, the students did not act foolishly, but rather took “incremental, calculated risks” (Fox 2014). Professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, is concerned that we often do not consider the benefits of risk taking for children.

“Some exposure to risk is good for children,” Schofield says, explaining that children develop their brain’s frontal lobe when they are taking risks and given the freedom to calculate consequences. “The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it’s more dangerous in the long-run,” he says. “Anticipating risk helps children watch out for themselves better.” (Fox 2014).

Principal McLachlan also observed that his students became more independent and also more imaginative because there was far less adult intervention in their play.

This sheds light on another aspect of how we have reduced the risk element of play – most children today hardly ever play without close adult supervision. Many parents reading this blog would remember experiences in your own childhood of playing for hours on end in the backyard or in the local neighborhood, with minimal to no adult supervision. Hanna Rosin explores this concept beautifully in her essay, “The Overprotected Kid”. She highlights the underlying fear that most parents now have about their children being unsupervised – the possible risk of abduction or abuse at the hands a stranger. I sometimes hear parents say, “I trust my kids, but I don’t trust the world”. Interestingly, though, Rosin (and others) point out that the rate of children being abducted or abused by strangers has not increased since the 1970s. Overall, crimes against children are actually decreasing (Rosin 2014). Your child is far more likely to be involved in a car accident while you are driving, and yet we do not perceive this activity as nearly as risky! While there are some risks associated with children being unsupervised, there are also great possible gains in confidence, resilience and independent creativity (children’s ability generate their own ideas about what they want to do – in contrast to the “I’m BORED” phenomenon!).

Some practical considerations

So, how can parents respond to these issues? It is not always easy to promote your child’s independence and appropriate risk taking, within a culture that is skewed towards fear and over-protection of children. Here are some initial thoughts:

Parents of toddlers and preschoolers:

  • Encourage outdoor play with natural items like sand, water, dirt and pebbles. Often children love to play with these items as they can be manipulated into endless different combinations, stimulating their imagination and creativity.
  • Indoor play can also incorporate more creative items like blocks or playdough, rather than toys or games that can only be used in specific ways.
  • Even young children can be given the opportunity to play independently, beginning with very short periods in an enclosed environment such as their bedroom or a fenced backyard. You might supervise from a distance but allow the child to direct the play and explore the environment, as appropriate. Beginning this from an early age is hugely helpful in avoiding the problem of older children who cannot entertain themselves or use their imaginations!

Parents of primary school children:

  • Be mindful of how many scheduled activities you are allowing your child to participate in. Allow time in the week for ‘free play’ (either alone or with friends).
  • With each increasing year of age, think about some small steps towards independence that you can allow or encourage for your child. For example, playing in the backyard unsupervised; walking or riding their bike to school with a friend or two; walking to the shops to buy something. This may mean talking with your child or practicing skills with them until they are confident to do it alone. When I started at a new primary school in Year 5, it meant catching a bus to the station and then a short train trip to get to school. I have fond memories of my Dad doing a ‘trial run’ with me in the holidays so that I would be confident about where to go. I was a bit nervous but it soon became easy and was a great step in my independence.
  • Talk with the parents of your child’s friends about what level of risk and independence they are comfortable to implement with their child. Respect that different parents will be comfortable with different levels of risk. However, if you can find some like-minded parents, this may help to be able to encourage your children to do some activities together, independent of adult supervision.

These are just inital thoughts and I would be interested to hear comments and feedback from parents, as we wrestle with these difficult but important issues!

Ruth Fordyce is a Registered Psychologist at Alpha Psychology and The Resilience Centre. Find out more about Ruth by clicking here.



Fox, Michaela (2014). Ripping up the playground rule book delivers incredible results,

Gray, Peter (2014). Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less,

Rosin, Hanna (2014). The Overprotected Kid,

Wallace, Natalie (2009). Topsy-turvy thinking keeps creativity out of the playground,

Related reading

Peter Gray has some other excellent articles online – for example here and here.

An excellent book exploring concepts of risk and resilience in the teenage years – Too Safe for Their Own Good, by Michael Ungar.