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Posted on 16 Jun 2020 in Non-Fiction | 3 comments

KATE LEAVER Good Dog. Reviewed by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

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In Good Dog Kate Leaver writes in praise of having dogs in our lives, whether for their health benefits or their loyalty and companionship.

When 65-year-old Andy Szasz ended up in hospital with pneumonia and influenza, the doctors put him in a medically induced coma in the hope of increasing his chances of survival. His wife and family came to visit him regularly, and one day his wife noticed a therapy dog making the rounds. She asked the nurses if she might be able to bring Andy’s schnoodle, Teddy, in for a visit. The nurses agreed.

When Teddy arrived, he jumped onto the bed and started licking Andy’s face, then gave a single sharp bark. It was enough to wake Andy up. Five days later, Andy was back in his own bed. It took another 18 weeks for him to recover enough to accompany Teddy to the dog park, but Teddy was patient. He stayed snuggled up on the bed with his best mate throughout those long months.

When Andy was well enough, he decided others could benefit from Teddy’s company, and trained him to become an official therapy dog. The two are now fixtures at Southampton General Hospital in the UK, where Andy was originally treated, and Teddy is an ambassador for the RSPCA.

Teddy is also one of 11 particularly good dogs featured in Australian author Kate Leaver’s new book, Good Dog.

A self-proclaimed dog lover, Leaver refers to her shih tzu, Bertie, as her firstborn son. Bertie, she writes:

… is almost omnipresent in my life; we don’t like to be apart. He is my editorial assistant, my best mate and my emotional-support beast. I get separation anxiety when I have to leave him, so he’s usually by my side.

Her previous book, The Friendship Cure, examined how friendship can help to alleviate the epidemic of loneliness, which competes with mental illness and sedentary lifestyles to be the worst health crisis of our time. Friendship has powerful health benefits, as many scientific studies show.

Good Dog is an extension of that idea, exploring how our furry friends enrich our lives while providing numerous health benefits that researchers are only beginning to uncover. Along with the 11 stories of especially good dogs – Bertie included – Leaver explores research into the impact of dogs on human health.

As it turns out, canine company is very good for us.

One meta-analysis found that dog owners were 24 per cent less likely to die, over a ten-period period, than non-dog owners. This may be because dogs provide loving companionship and therefore lower stress, while also keeping their owners more physically active through regular walks.

But the health benefits go deeper. In one study, researchers tested the blood pressure of everyone in a hospital cancer care unit half an hour before a volunteer dog arrived, and half an hour after the dog left. The study lasted a number of weeks, and each time, the researchers found that blood pressure levels had gone down for everyone present – the patients, nurses and even the cleaners. This happened regardless of whether people had directly interacted with the dog.

Dogs can help to lower anxiety, reduce depression and even suspend panic, as numerous studies have shown. As well, Leaver writes:

Stroking or making extended eye contact with a dog triggers a release of oxytocin, which is extremely comforting. Making physical contact with the dog, or in fact just seeing one, can lower our heart rate as well as our blood pressure. They can make human beings feel less pain, feel less agitated and be less prone to depression and anxiety.

Leaver is well aware of the impact of dog companionship on human health because of her own experience. She suffers from bipolar disorder, and often suffers periods of depression, in addition to insomnia, which leaves her ‘tired and fragile in a way only another insomniac would recognise’. Her dog buffers her from the outside world, lying on top of her to provide comfort, safety and companionship, without a hint of judgement.

In sharing the stories of the book’s exceptionally good dogs, Leaver explores many of the benefits that dogs can bring to human life. Of these, perhaps the most well-known type of canine support is seeing-eye dogs. But dogs can assist in a wide variety of ways: comforting children with autism or behavioural problems, working in schools and encouraging reading; monitoring the glucose levels of diabetics and sniffing out particular kinds of cancer; volunteering in courts, particularly to console victims and witnesses; being companions and fur-coated carers to people suffering from PTSD, including veterans; and, like Teddy, volunteering in hospitals and aged-care homes.

Prison training programs for dogs are also becoming more popular around the world. Often in these programs shelter dogs are brought to live with inmates, who in turn learn to train the dogs, developing a new skill while giving the dogs a much better chance of adoption. But again the benefits go much deeper:

In reports on some of these programs, inmates who participate have said that previously they considered themselves to be extremely selfish, but after spending time caring for an animal they realised what it felt like to do something good for another living being. It often inspired them to be more proactively people, too, and to think about how their actions affect others.

Good Dog is full of such extraordinary stories and facts. More than the dogs, however, it’s Leaver’s warm presence, along with her distinctive voice, that gives the book a special charm. She’s there in the introduction, relating how much Bertie has helped her. She’s there in each chapter as well, visiting her profiled dogs in their homes or places of work, drinking sweet, milky tea with their owners and handlers. Her love for dogs infuses every page, particularly in her descriptions – to her, dogs are noble, impeccable and valiant. Her prose is light-hearted and cheery, even whimsical at times, such as when she notes:

Dogs can make you believe in all sorts of impossibilities, because they’re just a bit magical like that.

Good dogs, Leaver concludes, are the greatest creatures we have – and are proving a practical way to provide an incredible range of benefits in our hospitals, courtrooms, prisons, schools and aged-care facilities, as well as in our homes and hearts.

Kate Leaver Good Dog HarperCollins 2020 288pp $29.99

Ashley Kalagian Blunt is the author of the memoir How to Be Australian. Her first book, My Name is Revenge, was a finalist in the Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award. Find her at

You can buy Good Dog from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.




  1. Warm-hearted author Kate Leaver perhaps knowingly understates of dogs: “they’re a bit magical”.
    Of course she knows very well that they’re a lot magical.
    So may I tell minor magical tales of two dogs very close to me.
    The abandoned black-and-white puppy rescued from a wilderness 18 months ago immediately showed an instinctive urge to heal the less fortunate.
    On Day 1 he strode boldly up to ageing chihuahua Bruce and, with his tongue, delicately cleaned the inner corners of two thankful, bulbous eyes.
    To everyone’s delight the treatment is repeated every single morning, just before breakfast.
    Rising 80, I have a cataract in one eye but am careful not mention this within his hearing.
    These days known as Doctor Magic, and responding to either word, he weighs 24kg and is strong enough to enforce an eye-procedure on me.
    I might accept a tongue in the eye, but you know how neighbours talk.
    The gossip would be intolerable.
    Meanwhile in Minor Miracle 2, Bruce Chihuahua has his own supportive role – as life-guard.
    In a very hot climate, in a small pool, I swim frequently but with a slowness that somehow defies gravity.
    Day and night.
    Without fail, old Bruce pads along the rough tiled edge, keeping patient pace with me.
    Regardless of the hour.
    Then he leans forward to encourage me up the steps and safely out.

    • Jan, I love this! These two dogs do sound remarkably magical. Thank you for sharing their stories. I hope they keep healing and lifeguarding for many years to come.

  2. Ashley, when I saw that someone had responded to my comment, my first thought was “who have I irritated?”.
    So hip-hip for your kindness.
    You might like to know that old Bruce Chihuahua adores a noon-day swim.
    Doctor Magic does not, although he’s a truly Olympian free-styler.
    All 24kg of him has to be carried from wherever he’s hidden, and dropped in.
    He emerges thrilled, wagging his tail the max 180 degrees, waiting for a medal.