Health professionals throughout the country have started to realize the importance of the human-animal bond in their day-to-day work. Physical therapists have introduced amputees to horse riding as a way to retrain their muscles, counselors have incorporated dogs into their sessions with traumatized children, and doctors have seen results in stroke patients who play catch with golden retrievers.
Well-positioned to offer both research and outreach on this topic, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is adding to the growing body of evidence on the therapeutic benefits of companion animals and creating opportunities in the local community through the Center for Animal Human Relationships.
“With the direction of its advisory group and the assistance of its partners, the center aims to provide educational opportunities for veterinary medical students, outreach and service to the community, and the basis for collaborative research on the animal-human interface,” said Dr. Bess Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences and the center’s director.
Established in 2004, the center began with seed money from the Metcalf Foundation of the Eastern Shore of Maryland along with other donations and grants. Pierce, a faculty member in the Small Animal Community Practice at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve Veterinary Corps, took the helm in late 2011 and has already put to use her background and interests in working and service dog care and animal-assisted activities in the military and law enforcement.
The center has partnered with the veterinary college’s Companion Animal Club to create a new organization of students, faculty, and staff at Virginia Tech to bring its mission to the community at large. Volunteers with the Virginia Tech Helping PAWS (Pet Assisted Wellness Service) visit community facilities that may benefit from animal-assisted activities, such as nursing homes, assisted-living centers, hospitals, counseling centers, rehabilitation centers, and schools.
“Each handler has his or her own heartwarming stories that keep a volunteer going back again, and the participants develop relationships with the dogs and look forward to the next time they get to see them,” said Dr. Zenny Ng, a resident in canine and feline clinical practice at the veterinary college. “Through such experiences, volunteers realize the value of community service and the role of animals in improving human health and well-being.”
In addition to starting Virginia Tech Helping PAWS, Ng has developed a reading program at the Blacksburg library for children whose self-esteem issues are set aside with the presence of dogs as well as a relief fund and pet food and products drive for pet owners affected by the Pulaski County, Va., tornadoes in 2011.
He also is pursuing a master’s degree in human-animal bond studies and conducting additional research in the area. For his master’s thesis, Ng is testing the salivary cortisol levels and behavior patterns of dogs during visitation sessions. In partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, the experiment measures the dogs’ stress levels and adapts film-analysis software designed to study the effects of human therapy on their canine counterparts.
The veterinary college has other research on the human-animal bond, too. For example, a new agreement with the Master of Public Health program in the Department of Population Health Sciences encourages at least one student in each class to conduct a special project on the human-animal bond. According to Pierce, this is part of the college’s work on the “One Health” initiative, a collaborative effort which seeks optimal health for people, animals, and the environment.
In May 2013, researchers on the human-animal bond will have an opportunity to showcase their findings and best practices at a one-day symposium at Virginia Tech. This will include speakers from both the human and veterinary medical sides of the field.
“We are excited that this conference will highlight the efforts of the center and its partners, and this is only the beginning of our work on the human-animal bond,” Pierce said. “As the role of veterinarians in society continues to evolve, we fully expect that service, education, and research on the human-animal bond will continue to become even more important.”
The Center for Animal Human Relationships has recently incorporated a service dog named Delaware, an 8-year-old black lab, into the daily activities of the veterinary teaching hospital.
Delaware was a guide dog for the blind for several years before joining the first in-residence therapy canine team at the veterinary college. She will help students, faculty, staff, and clients learn about the principles of animal-assisted activities and therapies.
Therapy dogs such as Delaware represent the best of the best and must meet several criteria before they can begin their work. They must pass the American Kennel Club’s Good Citizen test and a rigorous health screening. The ideal dog is well-mannered, shows no aggression, follows commands promptly, enjoys greeting people, and tolerates stressful situations.
Dr. Bess Pierce and Dr. Zenny Ng discuss the Center for Animal Human Relationships and research into stress levels in therapy animals.
Service dogs include guide dogs, handicapped assistance dogs, detection dogs, military and police dogs, search and rescue dogs, and formally trained and certified therapy dogs.
The veterinary college has offered free health screenings for service dogs for more than 20 years and free eye exams for the past five years.
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