Pet therapy for mental health


Associate chaplain Richie McPaw on Massey’s Auckland campus.


University can be a stressful place and stage of life. The pressure of exams, assignments and moving away from home can all make study that much harder. This week marks Mental Health Awareness Week. The theme for the second year running is Nature is Key.

On Massey University’s Auckland campus, students and staff are lucky enough to have associate chaplain Richie McPaw on hand. The 15-year-old golden lab belongs to campus chaplain Jill Shaw, and provides pats and cuddles whenever needed.

While we couldn’t interview Richie for this piece – his vocabulary is fairly limited – Ms Shaw says he is always ready to listen. “People talk to Richie, and I try not to eavesdrop. They don’t go into too much detail. I think they know his vocabulary isn’t extensive! But he’s a great listener.”

Richie, who was a guide dog for an Anglican priest for eight years, is never far from Ms Shaw’s side, providing support to students and staff when needed. “Some people will walk right up to Richie and I for a pat and a chat. Typically, they are struggling with feelings of hopelessness, lack of meaning, or perhaps struggling to integrate what they’re learning with their values, and what they hope to accomplish, as well as their identity, so it’s more the holistic integration thing that we can help with.”

And Richie certainly does help. “I walk into a room with Richie and you can feel a collective sigh. People feel grounded, they take a moment, take a breath, pat Richie. He makes people smile. I could walk around campus wearing a billboard saying ‘Chaplain’, and very few people would gravitate towards me, but with Richie, people detour to come over to me, and it opens up conversations that wouldn’t take place otherwise. He offers up an opportunity for people to speak to me about all types of things, that perhaps they might internalise usually."

Check out Richie in action.


Riding the stress rollercoaster

Ms Shaw says stress levels on campus are a bit of a rollercoaster. “At the beginning of the semester new students are all uptight, trying to figure it all out. In the middle of the semester they are coasting along, and then during big assignments and exams, the stress levels go up again. The same thing is true with our staff workloads too.”

Richie also helps with homesickness and loneliness for students missing their pets. “Today I met a young man from Wellington, and he misses his dog. Another young lady missed her dog, so any time she sees Richie on campus, she comes over for a hug. He can help with homesickness, loneliness, just patting him and telling me stories about their dogs, it helps. And if Richie helps with student retention and success as well, then he is worth his weight in dog food!”

Ms Shaw says Richie helps break down barriers, around speaking about mental health. “Having him with me creates the ability for students to seek support in a less formal way. My wish is for mental health to be discussed in the same manner as other illnesses, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.”

“If anybody appreciates anything Richie has done on campus, please donate to the Blind Foundation, or consider fostering a puppy. They are very expensive to train and not government funded. It’s also so important to support the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, who do some great work in helping Kiwis boost their wellbeing.”

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