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Getting human-animal interactions down to a science

Therapy dogs are becoming increasingly popular, but how could the interactions be improved for the benefit of the humans and the animals?

07 October 2018, at 2:20pm

Students at Emory University in Atlanta who receive on-campus counselling and psychological services can interact with four-legged counsellors on staff. And patients undergoing treatment at the Mayo Clinic can make their hospital stays more comfortable with the help of the institution’s “Caring Canines”.

Dogs are often known as people’s “best friends”, and these days trained therapy dogs provide support in schools, nursing homes, hospitals and airports. But how do we make the most of our interactions with them? It’s important to understand the safest ways to introduce an animal into an institutional setting, and how to maximise the impact of every encounter.

Now there is some new research that confirms what our human instincts have been telling us, based on three collaborative studies that the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition presented at the International Society for Anthrozoology’s 27th International Conference. The findings presented at this multidisciplinary gathering have provided reliable, science-based insights about human-animal interaction that can be put into practice immediately.

First impressions and environment matter

The first 10 minutes of an interaction between a human and a therapy dog can make a tremendous difference, according to a study conducted in conjunction with Washington State University (Kuzara et al., 2018). Dogs’ stress levels were measured when first meeting college students – because when a dog is happy and more relaxed about the initial greeting, there is greater potential for the human to benefit from the interaction, too.

Dogs displayed the calmest behaviour when students greeted them from a seated position, rather than standing, and touched them around the chest rather than the head. These are simple tips that should be easy for institutions to implement.

In a symposium on best practices and standards for animal-assisted intervention, Deb Linder of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction and I shared findings on the need for standardised guidelines for structuring the environment where pet therapy occurs (Linder et al., 2018). This includes all things related to safety and logistics such as selecting the most effective space for therapy encounters, coordinating bathroom breaks for the therapy dogs and identifying and addressing potential pet allergy issues before they present an obstacle to the programme.

Future research

As scientists, we are constantly looking for ways to design even better studies that will allow us to learn even more about human-animal interaction.

Traditionally, researchers have found it challenging to design studies that answer three very distinct questions: What are the health effects of pet ownership? What are the health effects of contact with a companion animal? And finally, what are the health effects of animal-assisted interventions, including animal-assisted therapies and activities?

A study (Gee and Friedmann, 2018), conducted in conjunction with the University of Maryland, identified methodological challenges faced by researchers in examining how animals may benefit older adults. Some potential solutions were posed, such as using new technologies like wearables and geographic tracking devices, which can enable us to learn even more about the impact of companion pets on human health and well-being in precise and quantifiable ways.

All of this is good news, for both people and pets. It’s good news for me, too, not just as a researcher but also a dog owner. My dogs are an important part of my life. They make me smile, provide companionship and get me outside and active every day. Am I unique, or do dogs impact the lives of other people as much as they impact my life? The more we learn about the scientific basis behind the benefits of pets, the better we’ll be able to structure our experiences in interacting with pets – and the greater the results we’ll see for pets and humans alike.

Nancy Gee, PhD, manages an international portfolio of human-animal interaction research as the Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager for the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. Her research focuses on the impact of dogs on aspects of human cognition and physiological responses.

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