The Power of the Human–Companion Animal Bond

I sit at my desk watching black letters appear like magic on the white screen in front of me. The room, brimming with books and papers, is cozy and warm, filled with heat blowing softly through the register. It’s quiet, save for the hum of my computer and the intermittent clacking of the keyboard when worthy words emerge from my fingertips. But I’m not alone: two of my closest friends are nearby. I can hear Devon snoring out in the hallway—only the white tip of his tail is visible in my doorway—and I glance over my right shoulder to Chester’s favourite spot—his mouth is twitching, he’s somewhere in doggy dreamland. I smile. Life is good….

But I don’t have to tell you how it feels to love and be loved by a dog, or two. If you’re like me, you hate to leave them in the morning and you can’t wait to get home to them at night. If you can, you take them everywhere with you; if you can’t, you wonder how they are and what they’re doing. You care lovingly for them: you feed them what’s best and keep fresh water in their bowls, you bathe and groom them until their coats shine, you exercise them regularly, you give them a nice place to sleep. When they’re not feeling good, you worry. You celebrate their birthdays and you mourn their deaths.

Why? We pet owners often have difficulty explaining our devotion to our animals. We describe our dogs (and cats and horses and guinea pigs and birds and snakes) using words like "soul mate,” "best friend,” "closest companion.” We don’t know why we feel that way; we just know we do. And we know we couldn’t be without them. It’s not surprising to us that research has found that pet owners are more responsible and dependable, less egotistical and self-centered, that they have higher nurturance scores and are generally more self-sufficient, optimistic, and productive. That’s the power of the human–companion animal bond.

The power lies in what our pets unknowingly give back to us: unconditional acceptance and unwavering devotion. They don’t care if we’re female or male, young or old, rich or poor. They don’t care if we’re having a bad hair day or have put on a few pounds. They don’t care if we’re in a good mood or bad. No matter what we say or do, our pets’ love for us is constant.

And they’re perfect listeners: they’ll never talk back, never argue or disagree, never betray a confidence. They provide us company when we’re alone, no matter what we’re doing, and they make us feel safe. They act as a social bridge, enabling us to meet new people. They satisfy our need to be needed and they provide a socially acceptable outlet for our desire for physical contact.

All this for a kind word and a soft touch.

Dogs have played an important part in our lives throughout human history, but our modern-day society has significantly changed their primary role from that of service animal to that of companion animal. But that doesn’t mean that some dogs don’t work for a living. In law enforcement and security, from sniffing out drugs and weapons to pipeline leaks, in search and rescue—the natural skills of our beloved companions, more and more, are being applied to assist man in our fast-paced urban environment.

You have probably seen seeing-eye dogs at work, and you’ve probably heard of hearing-ear dogs and dogs that are being specially trained to assist wheelchair-bound individuals and others with special needs. In every case these animals have given their owners the one thing they value the most—their independence. The bonus is that unconditional acceptance and unwavering devotion with which you and I are so familiar. But the power of the human–companion animal bond has made our pets shine in yet another important way: in the last 40 years or so, research into the human–companion animal bond has given credibility and respectability to what many of us already know inside—our pets make us feel good.

Thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts in the 60s of child psychologist Boris Levinson, who used his own dog, Jingles, as a co-therapist, and Samuel and Elizabeth Corson, who conducted the first clinical trial using pets as a part of psychiatric treatment, research programs into the nature of the human–companion animal bond have been established across North America.

And as a result, animals of all kinds are being used today to facilitate therapy in hospitals, nursing homes, correctional centres, and other care facilities across the country. Children, teenagers, adults, and the elderly are reaping the benefits—physical, mental, and emotional—of the human–companion animal bond. These programs owe a considerable debt to psychiatrist Michael McCulloch and veterinarian Leo Bustad, who were instrumental in founding in the late 70s the Delta Society, a U.S.-based, non-profit organization dedicated to the study and application of the human–companion animal bond. The therapy programs developed by the Delta Society continue to serve as models for programs throughout the United States and Canada.

So, why does pet therapy work? The results of research conducted at the University of Maryland by Erika Friedman and Aaron Katcher are now well known: the survival of heart attack victims was considerably improved in the first year if they owned a pet, and blood pressure was lowered while talking to and petting a dog or watching tropical fish in an aquarium.

Study and simple observation over the years has shown that pets used in therapy provide sensory stimulation, encouraging physical and social activity; they calm the aggressive or hyperactive, improving relationships with care-givers and peers; they help institutionalized people cope with feelings of loneliness and isolation, relieving depression and disorientation; they improve morale, working on self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-respect.

The benefits of pet therapy go on and on, but perhaps the two most important are that pets satisfy a need for physical contact and they provide a medium for communication. The touching, petting, cuddling, and hugging that goes on between people and pets is not only mutually beneficial, but all-important to people who have lost otherwise meaningful contact. Pets stimulate memories and emotions that might otherwise be held inside, opening up a therapeutic dialogue between patients and therapist, staff member, or visitor. There have been many miracles reported in pet therapy involving the ill, the elderly, and the handicapped, but every response, however small, is noteworthy.

I turn off my computer and Devon and Chester jump to attention, recognizing the familiar signal that will end my session for now. Tails wagging furiously, ears pricked up, big brown eyes look at me as if to say, "Is it time for supper yet?” I laugh at their hopeful expressions.

"Should we go for a walk, guys?” I offer instead. They whirl and go barrelling down the stairs to the back door, knowing full well what the words mean, yipping and whining in frenzied excitement.

It may be the most natural thing in the world, the human–companion animal bond, but I can’t help but think there’s a little magic in it.

Penny Grey is a freelance writer in Nanaimo, BC.