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Pets to the Rescue 

The mysterious bond between people and animals gets a closer look from scientists

click to enlarge From stray dog to life-saving companion: Jamie Brannock with Misty. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • From stray dog to life-saving companion: Jamie Brannock with Misty.

“We started to notice that she was hanging around the neighborhood.” That’s how Coeur d’Alene resident Jamie Brannock describes the first time she set eyes on Misty back in October 2011.

“We just planned to keep her as a pet,” Brannock says. But then Brannock and her husband noticed that their new family member was exhibiting some unusual traits.

Brannock is 35 and suffers from diabetes and epilepsy. (“Fun mix, eh?” she says.)

“We started noticing that if I wasn’t feeling good, Misty would really be focusing on me,” Brannock says. “If I didn’t do a whole lot better, she’d start fretting.”

One day, Brannock recalls, “I was just laying on the couch and she came over and was bugging me, and I guess I wasn’t responding enough to her liking.” Turns out, Brannock was having a low blood-sugar episode. Mysteriously, the dog then left the room. “I could hear her in the kitchen,” says Brannock. “And then she came in and dropped an apple in front of me.”

Misty’s dog-sense doesn’t just pick up on Brannock’s low blood sugar, though. Out of the blue, “She’d be on the floor asleep and she’d come over and start getting attention from me,” says Brannock. “It’s like she’s trying to tell me something.”

Before long, Brannock figured out what Misty was up to: “I have small seizures pretty regularly.” Misty was giving her a cue: A seizure is coming and she needs to sit or lie down to avoid a fall.

“I’ve learned to recognize how she acts when she’s trying to get that message across,” says Brannock.

The relationship between humans and animals is a long one. Some estimates say humans first domesticated horses 6,000 years ago. The humancanine relationship goes back even further, some 30,000 years. But, surprisingly, it’s just in the past 40 years that research into the human-animal bond began.

How dogs like Misty operate is still very much a mystery, although a recent study from the University of London suggests dogs have an innate connection to people. Researchers tested the reactions of dogs to strangers who pretended to cry. Dogs sympathetically approached the strangers. “Rather than approaching their usual source of comfort — their owner — dogs sniffed, nuzzled and licked the stranger instead,” the authors write.

“We have anecdotal evidence that human interaction with pets is important,” says assistant professor Sylvie Cloutier of the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Research will identify and quantify those effects. “It is important to know that pets really have an impact on the health and well-being of humans if we want to integrate the use of pets in treating issues such as heart diseases, depression, etc.,” adds Cloutier. “It is also important to have strong evidence of the benefits of pets so that insurance companies can cover the cost of treatments using animals.”

Cloutier teaches a course called “Reverence for Life” that was created by Dr. Leo Bustad, the late, legendary dean of the WSU vet school (1973-83). “Because of Leo, there’s a growing body of research into the human-animal bond. What used to be anecdotal is now being scientifically investigated,” says Cloutier.

A number of human-animal bond research projects are currently underway at WSU. One involves examining the interactions of shelter dogs and at-risk youth. And, in an effort to better understand the animal side of the human-animal bond equation, researchers are looking at grieving in dogs. Cloutier is working on research that aims to reduce the stress on lab animals, to improve both the comfort of the researchers and animals, and obtain better, more accurate results.

Research isn’t confined to the veterinary program, though. At the College of Education, Phyllis Erdman is directing counseling and psychology students on projects looking at the use of horses in therapy. She also has students starting doctoral degrees this fall who are interested in working in the area of human-animal interaction.

“Our long-term goal is to offer a degree/specialty — most likely a certificate — in human-animal interaction,” says Cloutier.

One of the seminal studies on the humananimal bond was published to considerable fanfare in 1980. The study looked at the recovery progress of 421 heart attack victims. Researchers found that those patients with a dog were more likely to be alive a year after their heart attacks than those patients who were dogless. And it didn’t matter how severe the heart attack was.

Research rapidly followed that showed pet owners had lower blood pressure, cholesterol and tricylcerides. The effect of pets on human health was considered so significant that two researchers wrote in 1987, “No future study of human health should be considered comprehensive if the animals with which they share their lives are not included.”

Broad studies funded by the National Institutes of Health are now underway to determine the impact of animals on child development and whether animals have the ability to help reduce or prevent disease in humans. At the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, researchers have found that interacting with animals seems to increase people’s levels of the feel-good hormone, oxytocin. Dogs may also boost healthy behaviors in humans — dog walkers not only get more exercise, but are also more concerned about the role exercise plays in staying healthy.

In another Missouri project, shelter dogs are given to returning military veterans for training. While it’s still early in the research, researcher Rebecca Johnson says one thing seems pretty clear: “Helping the animals is helping the veterans to readjust to being at home.”

That ability of dogs to relate to people who may be feeling isolated or disengaged is at the heart of a new program at Spokane’s Airway Heights Corrections Center. While similar programs are in place at 11 other Washington corrections centers, this spring marked the first time that offenders here would have a chance to train adoptable animals. Twenty-seven offenders applied to take part in the program, called “Pawsitive Dog Training.” Just four were selected to participate.

Prison officials in Washington have long advocated this type of program. “It’s an incentive to encourage positive behavior among the offenders,” says Risa Klemme, spokesperson for Airway Heights Corrections Center. “At our facility, we don’t allow offenders to touch each other, we don’t touch them, they don’t receive a lot of touch in a loving, pro-social way. But you bring in an animal, it’s perfectly appropriate to pet a dog, so you have that need met because the animal shows affection back.”

“One of the [offenders] has not had the opportunity to pet a dog in 25 years,” says SpokAnimal trainer Kim Imel. “He commented that they are feeling emotions they haven’t felt in a long time — all the guys there.”

Like any new pet owner, the offenders work day and night to train the dogs and prepare them for adoption. The SpokAnimal professionals visit twice a month. A recent training session was particularly poignant, says trainer Carol Byrnes: “We came out of the prison in tears yesterday. Happy tears for the impact these dogs are having on these men.”

Klemme adds that the program goes beyond emotional breakthroughs. “There’s a reduction in bad behavior. Offenders don’t even want to slam doors around the dog because they don’t want to upset the dog.”

Across town, dog visits are helping ease the pain for people facing illness. For the past six years, Scooter Mahoney has served as the volunteer chair of the pet visitation program at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane.

This spring, Mahoney’s team approached Gabrielle LeDuc, a Kalispell, Mont., 5-year-old who was at Sacred Heart for leukemia treatment. “I was thrilled because Gabby loves pets, and I knew she would want to have one of the dogs visit her,” says her mom, Kathy. After Kathy gave her the OK, the dog’s owner and his dog, Maya, paid Gabrielle a visit.

“She was in her bed, she scooted over, and then they placed Maya on the bed and got her situated,” Kathy LeDuc says. “I don’t even know how to describe it. It was awesome. The connection they had, I don’t even know how to explain it.”

Mahoney first began the program with her dog, Suki, and still remembers her first patient visit. “This young woman, 32 years old, had had a stroke and she hadn’t moved or spoken,” she says. When Mahoney put her dog on the bed, Suki cuddled up to the patient, whose arm was then draped over the dog, as if cuddling her. “The next thing you know, she started moving her fingers, as if she was stroking Suki’s coat.”

The woman’s husband, who was in the room, began to cry and implored his wife, “Don’t give up, honey! Don’t give up!”

For her part, Mahoney says, “I’m proud I own Suki, but I don’t think I did anything to make her this way. I think it’s who she is.”

While Maya, Suki and other therapy pets provide immeasurable comfort to people coping with illness and disease, service animals are on a mission.

A service animal is usually a trained dog that is able to perform some crucial, even life-saving task for its disabled owner. Like Brannock’s dog, Misty, service animals are recognized as a key element in maintaining their owners’ independence.

“They’re not just a pet, they’re a partner,” says Charlie Bales, owner of three dogs — two pet dachsunds and a German shepherd service dog. “We call him the 80-pound dachshund because a lot of times he thinks he’s a little lap dog.” The difference between this “lap dog” and his two relatives is that Max provides more than just emotional support to Bales. He’s kind of a personal assistant.

“My disability is that I can’t walk long distances,” says Bales. “I have to use a wheelchair when I go for walks.” She says that Max helps her do household chores. “He pulls the laundry basket to the washer. He hands me laundry out of the basket, he helps me stand, he helps me with my balance.

“He’s made a huge difference in my life. I can get more done because I’m in a lot less pain.”

Bales is emphatic, though, about the difference between a service animal and a regular pet. “They are, by law, considered durable medical equipment and, thus, the disabled handler with a service dog has protections which allow them to bring their service animal into non-pet locations.”

Though Bales is undeniably fond of her dachsunds, her relationship with Max is special. “It’s like having a spouse, as opposed to a best friend,” she says. “You share a lot with your best friend, but you share everything with your spouse.”

Illuminating that special relationship between animals and humans holds promise — for both sides.

“It’s important to know that pets have an impact on humans in order to further understand the relationship and how it is working,” says Sylvie Cloutier of the WSU vet school. “This knowledge could be used to improve human-animal relationships and develop new treatments or new uses of animals in therapy, or just better understand how we interact with animals.”

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