Professor Pauleen Bennett
ARG Director and Founder
Head of Department of Psychology and Counselling
La Trobe University
Many people who know me find this difficult to believe, but when I first left high school my ambition was to get married, have lots of babies and live happily ever after. While I waited for Prince Charming to come along I turned my previous hobby of horse riding into a job and starting riding racehorses for a living. A few years later, whizzing around the track at 5 AM and still no closer to finding Mr Wonderful, it suddenly occurred to me that this was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. I consulted a psychologist/careers advisor and enrolled in a behavioural science degree at La Trobe University.
Unlike some students who see study as a chore, I totally loved learning – just about anything. I don’t think I missed a single lecture or tutorial in my undergraduate career and I overloaded every year so that I could fit more in. I tried out computer science, philosophy, sociology, interdisciplinary studies, biology, zoology and, of course, heaps of psychology. Ten years later I had two Bachelor’s degrees, a Master’s degree, a PhD and an academic job in the psychology department at Monash University.
To begin with I focused my teaching and research activities on behavioural neuroscience and clinical neuropsychology. This was exciting and such terrific fun that I found myself working way too hard, with no time to enjoy myself. I decided I needed a hobby that would force me to go home from work. I couldn’t fit horses into my suburban backyard so I bought a couple of dogs. Before long I found myself immersed in the world of dog showing and breeding. This got me interested in animal welfare and, more specifically, anthrozoology – the study of human-animal relationships. Hardly anybody was working in this area then but, as a psychologist, I was totally fascinated by the intimate relationships that form between companion animals and their owners. I was also amazed by the apparent lack of rationality in the way that humans understand and treat animals. Here we are, thinking we are so very smart and so very much in control, when in fact nearly all of us go totally gaga over a cute little piglet, even at the same time as we chow down on a pork chop. This seems to make no sense at all.
Nearly two decades later I’ve established myself as Australia’s first leader in the field of Anthrozoology. I’m friends with anthrozoologists from around the world and supervise a great bunch of students who are working in this general area. I’ve developed courses about animal welfare and animals in society issues for a number of universities and speak regularly at international conferences. And I still breed dogs and go home every night to Mr Wonderful and a very big team of canine companions, who totally take the place of all those kids I thought I would have but never could fit into my schedule.
In early 2011 I took up a position as Director of Regional Operations for the School of Psychological Science at La Trobe University. In 2018 I became Head of the Department of Psychology and Counselling. In the intervening years I re-established my human-animal interaction research group and set up a dog-human interaction laboratory at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe. I recruited a bunch of fantastic students and developed collaborations with many colleagues in Australia and internationally. I spent some time as President of the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) and, in 2018, co-hosted the annual ISAZ conference, which was held in Australia for the first time ever. I also get to live in an idyllic rural setting with heaps of animals, including my beloved dogs. My research students are doing fantastic projects that are making lives (both human and animal) better. This is very fulfilling and I feel very lucky almost every day.