Why should we, as dog obedience instructors, take a special interest in the human-animal bond? Because we are already involved, and always have been, whether we have realized it or not.
Helping people to train their dogs is helping them to develop communications channels with their pets – to better understand each other, to establish mutual respect. The end product is a dog that is more acceptable, more apt to be “taken along”, a dog that will fit better into the new environment people have created for themselves and their animals. Beyond that, class instructors are often consulted by clients on “special” issues – a handler who is not physically or mentally adept at dog training yet must train his dog anyway, questions about behavior problems, a client who must deal with pet loss, and a multitude of other situations that can influence a people/pet relationship. Although these topics are not a part of the usual dog obedience class curriculum, they are an important part of pet ownership and the knowledgeable instructor must know how to deal with them.
Throughout history, animals have been used to improve the well-being of people by protection, work, sport, and companionship. Dog guides aid the blind, hearing dogs help the deaf, and more recently dogs are assisting the physically handicapped.
There is current interest in the ways animals can be used therapeutically to improve the physical and emotional health of people. Research by individuals pioneering in the field have found that more heart attack victims survive if they are pet owners. It has been determined that the death rate of isolated people is between two and ten percent higher than those with companions. Others have found that stroking a pet or just having a pet in close proximity will lower human blood pressure. Recently there has been found a measurable reduction of stress in dental surgery when the patients can view an aquarium instead of a blank wall. There has been reduced drug dependence in psychiatric wards where pets were allowed as residents.
The media feature stories of pets visiting hospitals, animals residing in nursing homes, prison inmates training dogs for the disabled and handicapped individuals benefiting from therapy on horseback.
Veterinarians are taking a greater interest in the roles pets play in their owner’s lives and are becoming more active in counseling clients experiencing behavior problems with their pets or in helping owners deal with the loss of a pet. They often arrange for low or no-cost care for pets of low-income elderly or animals in institutions.
In recent years numerous community-oriented volunteer programs have been established with varied goals. Some visit pediatric wards, convalescent centers and shut-ins with a variety of animals. Food banks have been created to aid pets of the elderly. Grade school children are taught respect and responsibility for pets. Older youngsters are taught about the human aging process as well as the care and training of their own pet and then link the two by regular visits to nursing homes with their animals. One group of volunteers offers a 24-hour telephone service which answers over 600 calls a month about a variety of pet related questions.
Some of these successful organizations have written information to help others who with to get started in these endeavors. Guidelines are available for the optimal placement of animals in nursing homes or with the non-institutionalized elderly. Numerous books have been published on a wide variety of subjects from technical papers on pet-facilitated psychotherapy to anecdotal case histories of instances where pets have made a significant difference in the lives of individuals. Centers to study the human-animal bond have been established throughout the country and abroad. Interdisciplinary research projects have been completed and more are underway by psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, medical doctors, veterinarians and experts on animal training and behavior to measure and evaluate animal companionship and therapy programs and how to identify persons who can benefit from such programs.
There have been national and international conferences on human-animal relationships. Some states have adopted legislation allowing pets in nursing homes and/or in housing for the low-income elderly or the handicapped.
Interest in the role of animals in aiding human health and well being has resulted in many questions. The use of animals is not a panacea. Advocates must know when and how to implement such programs. The Delta Society is a professional organization comprised of most of the scientists actively engaged in research on pets and their role in society, as well as individuals operating programs all over the world. Delta serves as an international resource in distributing material and information on guidelines, research, recent books and programs. Dog obedience instructors and the general public can get such information by contacting: The Delta Society, 212 Wells Avenue S., Suite C, Renton, WA 98055.
NADOI members, knowing that they are very much a part of the interaction of people and their pets, are seeking to learn more about research and activities in this field. At our annual meeting in March in Atlanta, Georgia, a workshop was conducted by Robert K. Anderson, DVM, of the University of Minnesota on human-animal bonding. Dr. Anderson is a Delta Society consultant and is the Director of the Center of Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environment (CENSHARE) in Minnesota.
©1984 Terry Ryan