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Health & Medicine

Human/Animal Bond: Beyond the Warm and Fuzzy

Virginia Tech

The bond between humans and animals runs deep. And now, scientists know more about why and what that means for human health. Virginia Tech brought national experts together to explore the latest findings about that connection. 

It’s lunchtime at the Human Animal Bonding Symposium at the Skelton Center in Blacksburg.  But even as people mill about and the scent of food fills the air, two service dogs in training sit calmly and at attention when their handlers stop to talk with me.

“My name is Alison Proctor and this is Luke.”

Luke is a black lab, and near him is Puff, a golden from the Canine Connection, which trains service dogs. There’s no pulling at their leads, no sniffing people going by or interaction between the two, still puppies but with the countenance of older wiser animals.

“ At the end of 2 years of training, he’ll be able to open doors, turn on lights, pull wheel chairs, pick a dime up off the floor.

These guys are being trained to assist wounded warriors.

“He can wake people up from nightmares, remind people to take medication

Dogs are the only animals certified by Americans with Disabilities Act, but many species can serve as therapy animals, horses, cats, lizards snakes, even farm animals. And experts say, they offer something that sometimes human can’t

“Grace, moments of grace. You can’t talk about it in words.

Dede Beasely is an equine assisted psychotherapist in Tennessee.

“There’s attunement in things that people need that we should get from people that you can get from animals and that’s really healing for people that have missed out on that.”

Now, scientists say, for the first time, science is able to document how it works. Bess Pierce is director of Virginia Techs Center for Human Animal Relationships.

“We're learning from some of the studies of Autism that they are one of the means by which we can make new neural connections in our brains.”

There’s also evidence animal bonding causes changes in brain chemistry. Philip Tedeschi helped found the Institute for Human Animal connection at the University of Denver’s graduate school of social work. 

“It appears to release Oxytocin."

That’s the feel good chemical first identified in bonding between nursing mothers and children.

“But now we know that Oxytocin predicts things like, when somebody recognizes somebody that they want to become friends with. Or when somebody feels optimistic enough to want to get better or that they’re capable of healing.  Even things like trust level can change somebody’s confidence or openness or social interaction with others.

He’s studying ways animals have succeed with hard to reach populations.

“These are animals that don’t see you, or rather see the client, through the lens of typical human bias.  So they don’t see you through socio-economic lenses or homelessness or the way you smell or the fact that you might be living in a cardboard box.

Scientists are also studying the effects of how we treat our pets.  Children who witness animal cruelty can react as though it happened to a sibling.

“Everything from not doing as well in school, not being able to make friends as easily, engaging in other types of coercive or bullying types of behaviors.”

But Tedeschi says the opposite is also true.  Where children witness animals treated humanely, they’re more social, and do better in school.  This is becoming an important new area of study because two thirds of kids under six years old in this country live in homes that have pets.


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