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Going to the dogs for help

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01 August 2017, at 12:00am

MARION McCULLAGH reports from the CABI-RVC symposium, which looked at the human-animal bond and how assistance dogs can change human lives substantially in various scenarios

THE 6th CABI-RVC SYMPOSIUM – “The human-animal bond and companion animals; implications for animal welfare, society and veterinarians” – was held at the RVC Camden Campus on 21st June. CABI is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to improve lives through solving agricultural and environmental problems. It also publishes scientific titles. The meeting was chaired by Dr Martin Whiting of the RVC. He introduced Professor Danny Mills of the University of Lincoln, who shared his views on “Companion animals: stopping society going to the dogs.” Society is defined as a fellowship with a common interest. The relationship between humans and animals needs compromise on both sides. Dogs work very hard to fit in with people; the dog cannot always work out what the human wants and there can be language problems in both directions. If the human has unrealistic expectations, the dog can have a bad time. This leads to the comment: “Some families would be better with a stuffed dog.” 

Part of the family 

For most people, the pet is regarded as part of the family and the bond is life-long. In one survey, 94% of the respondents said they would cut back on expenses to pay for a pet’s veterinary treatment. Old people who own dogs take more exercise and have more interactions with other people. The benefit is not quantified, but it is very valuable. Danny would like to see “One health, one welfare” in a society where pets are physically, socially and mentally healthy. A responsible owner provides the dog with appropriate diet, exercise and healthcare. The dog encourages the family to have fun, to play and to exercise in all weathers. Exercise is a proven antidote to depression. Handling a dog gives a sense of safety, improving the confidence of the human. For children, the youngest child in the family or an only child is the one most likely to form a strong bond with the companion animal because the animal provides a focus of constancy. In the United States, a child is more likely to have a pet than to have a resident father. Dr Sandra McCune is scientific leader for human-animal interaction (HAI) at the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, where HAI has been studied for over 40 years. In her paper, “From one to one health: connecting the individual with their part in a healthy society through pet ownership”, she reminded us that pets have been around for a long time. Animals have been buried with their humans for over 10,000 years. In the UK there are about 7.5 million cats and 8.5 million dogs.* Family structure is changing overall with a reduction in constancy; there is more divorce and family units are becoming smaller. Also, as each family is in a constant state of change, pets and humans have to keep adapting to new situations. A human has a need to protect and be protected and to maintain close proximity to others in order to cope better with the world. Having a pet helps a child’s emotional development, especially between the ages of six and 10 years. Fostered children may be suspicious of people, but able to trust an animal. The pet does not talk, it provides affection and an absence of conflict. A human may be attracted to a pet because the animal reminds them of a child; as time passes, the animal doesn’t grow up but continues to fulfil the human’s need to be a caregiver. However, the HAI can be blighted by miscommunication and misinterpretation. 

Reading body language

People can be bad at reading a dog’s body language. A good  understanding of the pet’s behaviour is essential for safe, peaceful interaction. For example, a bulldog resting its head on a young child can look charming, but the dog needs a pillow because of its short neck and the situation is potentially dangerous. Cats are basically solitary and their signalling is much more subtle than that of dogs. Peter Gorbing, chief executive of the charity Dogs for Good (which used to be called Dogs for the Disabled) described “How dogs are good for us”. The best-known example is the story of “Toby and Sox” where the assistance dog transformed the lives of the family and the autistic child who is now a fully engaged adult. A woman with cerebral palsy was socially isolated in spite of her best efforts until she teamed up with a dog. Until then the shopkeepers shunned her, assuming that her slurred speech was due to drunkenness. With the dog, she became approachable and popular. It is easy to ban dogs and the benefits of having an assistance dog are, as yet, poorly documented. Ironically, the policy of austerity may help because the provision of an assistance dog can replace human carers. A younger person with learning disabilities and severe anxiety needs full-time human carers, but a full-time resident dog can boost his confidence and break social isolation. Dementia sufferers stay longer in their own homes and have a happier family life when a dog is added; 70% of autistic sufferers want to work, and a dog can help them by increasing their
self-confidence. Dogs can help in a wide range of situations including physical disability, autism, dementia, learning disabilities
and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The provision of assistance dogs
is a world-wide phenomenon. Where a dog can take the place of human carers, the care will be much cheaper but also more flexible so that the needy human is more independent: he can go to bed when he wants when there’s a dog to pull off his socks. His day is no longer framed by the carer’s timetable. Dogs for Good holds workshops which fit a family to a suitable dog that can provide assistance without being a fully-trained assistance dog. We have a massive resource in our animals; in return they need to be  respected and managed responsibly. Assistance dogs have a deep and harmonious connection to their people; it is very different from mechanistic control: both parties feel secure. What we need for the future is a multi-species society that says “Dogs welcome”.
* The human population of the UK is around 65 million.