The Human Animal Bond
The year 2003 started out the same as any other year. It was my second year in the Army and I was just beginning to get used to the demands of military life, when, all of a sudden, my unit got orders to go to Iraq. I felt as if my world had been turned upside down, and I had no idea how I was going to get through the deployment and still keep my sanity. About three months into the deployment, I was taking the trash out after dinner when it happened. As I was about to launch the bag into the trash trailer, I could have sworn I heard a cat meow.
I thought, “I must be crazy! ” I hadn’t seen a cat since I left the United States, but sure enough when I bent down to look under the trailer, there he was. Staring back at me was a cat that could have passed for my childhood cat. I doubted that he would come to me if I called him, but I decided to give it a try anyway, and to my surprise he came! This was the beginning of a three month relationship. I started calling him Marvin since he reminded me so much of the cat I had when I was young. For the three months I spent about 30 minutes a day with Marvin.
He would usually show up right around dinner time. He always knew where he could find me, and when he did, he would come over and jump into my lap and lay down. He would sit with me for a while and I would pet him and talk to him about my day. Some of the people I worked with would come by and tell me that I was crazy for touching a stray cat in the middle of Iraq. “He might have a disease,” they would say. I didn’t care what they said, Marvin was important to me. There I was in the middle of the desert in Iraq, half a world away from my family and everything familiar to me.
For half an hour a day, sometimes more, that little cat allowed me to forget where I was for a while. There are countless other stories of the bond that humans and animals share. In recent years, we have also learned how animals can help humans overcome a wide range of social and individual problems. The relationship between animals and humans provides a common social bond among people of diverse cultural backgrounds, and due to animals’ unique capabilities, they are able to improve our lives.
The most common human-animal bond is the relationship we have with our pets. Other ways are through therapy animals, and service nimals. Therapy and service animals are different from each other because of the types of training they receive and the ways that they assist humans. Each bond is unique and provides a specific benefit to the participants. NEADS (Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans) was established in 1976 to train and provide independence to people who are deaf or physically disabled through the use of canine assistance. These assistance dogs become an extension of their owners and bring security, freedom, independence and relief from social isolation to their human partners (NEADS, np).
Service Dogs are trained to assist people who are physically disabled. They are trained to retrieve things that drop, portable telephones, or items from shelves and other hard-to-reach places; open refrigerator and other doors; push elevator buttons; turn light switches on and off; carry items in their mouths or backpacks; pull wheelchairs up ramps or short distances; go get help should their partner need human assistance. (NEADS, np) A Hearing Dog is specially trained to assist a person who is deaf or hard of hearing. The dog is trained to respond to sounds such as a smoke alarm, baby crying, doorbell, alarm clock etc. nd alert his or her deaf partner that these sounds have occurred (NEADS, np). Service dogs can help disabled people in the following ways: The person who uses a wheelchair can now retrieve dropped items without having to call someone for help. The child with a hearing disability is alerted to the school bell signaling a class change. The person with a visual impairment can walk in the park without holding on to another person. This independence can be accompanied by an increase in self-esteem as the person no longer has to rely solely on other people (Delta Society, np).
Specifically for disabled children, a service dog becomes a constant companion acting as a facilitator of social interaction. The dog can be an icebreaker in social situations where disabled children are often shunned by their peers. Service dogs can help to encourage conversation and to facilitate the formation of friendships (Delta Society, np). NEADS also trains specialized dogs as service dogs in the ministry. These dogs know skills such as retrieving things that are dropped, opening doors or cabinets, turning on and off light switches and more.
They are placed with a minister in a church setting or as a chaplain in an institutional setting. The dog accompanies the minister in his or her duties including visiting those in hospitals, nursing homes or private residences, conducting worship services, greeting parishioners, meetings and day to day activities through the community. They also accompany the minister on pastoral calls, are present during worship, help with children’s’ stories, and provide comfort to those who are distressed. The presence of a friendly, soft, engaging animal often puts people at ease. Children especially seem to find comfort in the presence of a friendly dog.
And, as one minister explained: “I discovered that pastoral counseling took on a whole new depth with my service dog present. Some people stroke him as they talk seeming to gain comfort from his soft coat. Others talk to him or through him making it easier for them to express themselves”(NEADS, np). Social Dogs are trained to assist children and adults who can benefit from the therapeutic value of a dog, but are not able to assume total responsibility for its care and training. A third party facilitator (parent, guardian or PCA) will help with the dog’s daily needs and learn to assist in public situations.
Social dogs may also be trained to assist a therapist or counselor in settings such as nursing homes, halfway houses and psychotherapy centers (NEADS, np). There are also specially trained dogs which are paired with social workers, therapists, and teachers who work with children who have physical, emotional or developmental disabilities. They are integrated into the educational curriculum as motivators and serve as an innovative teaching tool for the children (NEADS, np). Therapy Dogs International has a program called “Tail Waggin’ Tutors”.
The objective of this program is to provide a relaxed and “dog-friendly” atmosphere, which allows students to practice the skill of reading. Many of the children chosen for this program have difficulties reading and as a result have developed self-esteem issues. They are often self-conscious when reading aloud in front of other classmates. When reading to the dog, all threats of being judged are put aside. The child relaxes, pets the attentive dog, and focuses on the reading. Reading improves because the child is practicing the skill of reading, building self-esteem, and associating reading with something pleasant (TDI, np).
At Murray State, pet therapy is used to help de-stress students during finals week as well as once every month during the regular academic year. This also allows the dogs live up to their role as “man’s best friend. ” Pet therapy began several years ago during finals week at Waterfield Library. “That was so successful that we started doing it once a month at the library,” Henderson said. “We still try to do it during finals week. It’s been shown in character that being around a dog and petting a dog actually lowers blood pressure.
Henderson is one of the owners of the dogs being used as therapy dogs at the university (Taylor, np). Therapy animals are used in the aftermath of natural disasters or catastrophic events to assist victims and rescue workers in dealing with emotional trauma. Their steady and unwavering companionship helps to provide consolation. Physical contact has a calming effect and dogs have the ability to bring back pleasant memories of a person’s life. Therapy dogs help combat loneliness and they give people the chance to have something to look forward to (TDI, np).
Non-traditional animals such as horses and dolphins are also used as service and therapy animals. Dolphin Assisted Therapy (D. A. T. ) is a new and exciting field of modern medicine that has shown extraordinary results in relation to the conventional methods of treatments such as prescribed medication, human therapy and others. It is relatively new, but already has documented results in patients that chose to try it. Dolphin therapy programs are designed to help children and adults with physical, developmental, and chronic physical problems.
The program consists of classroom and in water activities (dolphin assisted therapy. com, np). Horse therapy is used to help children with mental and emotional disorders. Children with autism and attention deficit disorder can benefit from horse therapy. Even those showing severe anti-social and aggressive behavior become calmer and more communicative. (wayofthehorse. com, np). “Children with ADD will focus on the horse for long periods while grooming or leading the horse when usually they can’t concentrate long enough to do anything much.
Autistic children who are withdrawn and living very much in their own world will begin to express themselves – often using new words or gestures they’ve never expressed before. ” (wayofthehorse. com, np). The Colorado Boys Ranch (CBR) is one place where they offer this kind of therapy to emotionally challenged boys. Most of the boys here come from the inner cities and many of them have been in jail or reform schools (Canfield, 113). The story of Martin comes from a “Chicken Soup” book. When he came to the ranch, the fifteen year old had already been in jail for a variety of offenses, including assault.
Martin had a serious attitude problem and was always pushing smaller kids in order to get in the front of the line. He had never had experience with animals, but chose to do the horsemanship program at the ranch. When it was time for riding, Martin was the one trying to ride as fast and as reckless as he could. One day, one of the mares suddenly became ill and died. While the staff was unsuccessfully trying to feed her newborn foal, Martin came rushing into the barn, pushing his way through all the other kids to see what was going on. He started yelling that he wanted to feed the horse.
The staff let him, and amazingly the foal responded to him. When he asked what would happen to her now that her mother had died, the staff told him that she needed someone to watch over her. Martin said he would be her new “Mama”. Martin read everything he could about horses and within a few months, he was one of the best horsemanship students at the ranch. His attitude changed, and he even began to help the younger boys with saddling their horses and other tasks. When Martin came to the ranch, he was considered a “lost cause” and nobody thought there was much hope left for him (Canfield, 113-6).
Stories like Martin’s are proof of the importance of the human-animal bond. When everything else had failed, the relationship a teenage boy developed with a newborn foal was enough to turn his life around. In today’s culture, animals are practically as important to us as the air we breathe. Pets can be found in over 60% of households, and 90% of owners consider their pet to be a family member. (Brodie, 330). A drive around town or a stroll around the mall is all it takes to see how important pets are to those who have them.
Bumper stickers that read, “I love my Golden Retriever”, or “Cocker Spaniel on board” can be seen all over town. Entire stores and websites are devoted to our pets, but studies have shown that happiness is not the only thing our pets can provide us with. There are a number of reasons why acquiring a companion animal is beneficial to health (Serpell, 720). Pet owners report benefits to their well-being such as ongoing reciprocal affection, companionship and affection. In addition, it has been claimed that companion animals protect against boredom, loneliness, and helplessness in nursing home settings (Winefield, 303).
As far as pets providing us with health benefits, many medical studies have been done to prove that pets are beneficial to us. In a blood pressure study, Brodie states pet owners had significantly lower systolic blood pressure and plasma triglycerides than non-pet owners. Male pet owners had lower cholesterol levels when compared with male non-pet owners with similar BMI, smoking habits and socioeconomic status (331). Pet owning subjects had significantly decreased blood pressure when they interacted with their pets when compared with a resting control group. 331) Brodie states that although there are some conflicting results, general research and published material tentatively suggests that human/pet interaction can have positive effects on human health.
Those effects include: decreased loneliness, improved morale, and increased social interaction (333). Brodie also states that it may be justified to accept that those people who interact with pet animals may benefit from improved physical, psychological and social health experiences and that animals can provide specific benefits for special groups in society (the disabled) (334).
In another blood pressure study, when the effects of pet ownership on cardiovascular responses to psychological stress were examined, the results showed that ACE inhibitor therapy only lowers resting blood pressure, whereas the addition of social support (a pet) lowers responses to stress (Allen, 817). During an exit conference of the study to which all of the dog owners and most of the cat owners brought their pets. The question, “how has your pet changed your life? ” was posed to the group.
By consensus, the response with the highest rating was, “having this pet makes me better able to see what is really important and to put things into perspective”(Allen, 818). When asked about the pros and cons of pet ownership, participants responded that “the positive aspects far outweighed any added expense or responsibility and that they would never give up their pets”(Allen, 818).
Allen states that participants were asked to “identify whether they thought pets influenced their resting blood pressure, their responses to stress or both. All participants except for two who answered “both” believed their pets helped lower their blood pressure. Participants also claimed they believed the combination of drug therapy and pet ownership over all contributed to their lower blood pressure. (819) In another study, Cline states that dog ownership may also decrease depression through promoting physical activity, and that physical activity has been shown to improve psychological well-being. Also, dog owners are more likely to get the prescribed 30 minutes of daily exercise than non-dog owners.
Singles may benefit more from dog ownership than married people because the dog serves as an alternative source of social support (119). Cline also states that older owners are especially likely to gain benefits from dogs because the dog is the primary focus in conversation with others during walks. All of these individuals talked to their dogs during walks. Dog ownership may have more positive effects on women’s than men’s depression because women seek social support more than men do, and also because women place a higher value on their relationship with their pet.
Pets can have positive effects on well-being, but these effects may not be the same for all individuals (120). Cline states that “dog ownership is at an all-time high in the United States, with approximately 39 percent of households owning at least one dog. The impact of dog ownership on psychological health is becoming increasingly important as the landscape of family life continues to change (e. g. families living further apart, increased divorce rate, etc. )” (127).
“There has been a more or less implicit assumption that the human-animal bond is a form of emotional attachment with the same benefits as close human relationships. (Winefield, 304). For those of us who have pets, this statement is true. To some, animals are a necessity for them to retain their independence. For others, animals help them to see a purpose in life and give them something to live for. In order to get the benefit of the human-animal bond, it is not necessary to own a pet. Any interaction with animals can benefit us in some way. Even a short, three month relationship with a cat in the middle of Iraq had an impact on me that I will never forget.