1. Reading to therapy dogs improves literacy attitudes in second-grade students

    June 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Tufts University press release:

    Second-grade students who read aloud to dogs in an afterschool program demonstrated improved attitudes about reading, according to researchers at Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction at Tufts University. Their research appears online in advance of print in the Early Childhood Education Journal.

    Reading skills are often associated with improved academic performance and positive attitudes about school in children. Researchers wanted to learn if animal-assisted intervention in the form of reading aloud to dogs in a classroom setting could contribute to improved skills and attitudes.

    “Previous studies have evaluated the impact of therapy dogs in children’s literacy programs outside of the academic setting, including our previous research evaluating children reading to dogs in a library program,” said the study’s corresponding author Deborah Linder, D.V.M., research assistant professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and associate director of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction. “However, little has been done to assess the effects of this type of reading program in schools, where children may experience greater stress, challenging social situations and fear of negative feedback.”

    For this pilot study, participating second-grade public school students were divided into two groups. To be eligible to participate, children had to meet the guidelines for average second grade literacy skills, as measured by Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS), a tool used by the school to assess reading skills. For six weeks, one group read to a therapy dog for 30 minutes once a week; a control group followed a standard classroom curriculum. Children’s reading skills were assessed biweekly and attitudes about reading were assessed pre- and post-intervention. Proper training and health requirements were put in place to ensure the health and safety of the animals, their handlers and the children involved.

    As part of the DIBELS assessment of reading skills, the study participants read passages aloud for one minute while teachers assessed their ability to read and comprehend the passage. Reading attitudes were assessed using the Elementary Reading Attitude Survey (ERAS), which asks 10 questions about attitudes to recreational reading and 10 about academic reading. Children select pictorial responses that offer expressions ranging from “very upset” to “very happy.”

    Scores assessing academic reading attitudes increased significantly among the children who read aloud to dogs. Reading skill scores did not change significantly in either group, nor did attitudes about recreational reading outside of school.

    It is possible that reading skills did not improve for the control or intervention group because participants had average reading skills; evaluating children reading below grade level may demonstrate a larger impact, suggest the researchers. Other influencing factors that warrant further study include frequency of the read-aloud sessions and duration of the interventions; longer or more frequent programs may show a greater difference between the control and treatment groups.

    One of the most important aspects of facilitating reading skill development is motivating a child to engage in reading,” said the study’s senior author Lisa Freeman, D.V.M, Ph.D., professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and director of Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction.

    “Our results suggest that reading to dogs in an academic setting has the potential to provide motivation, which will help inform future research into this animal-assisted intervention,” Linder added.

    Linder has already received a Tufts Collaborates seed grant from Tufts University to research how reading to dogs can lower anxiety and improve reading skills for children aged 7 to 11 years who are enrolled in a summer reading program and require remedial literacy instruction. The team’s objectives include evaluating pre- and post-program anxiety, engagement and reading skills of underperforming readers randomly assigned to read to a therapy dog or read aloud to peers.


  2. Study assesses recommendations for certifying emotional support animals

    May 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Missouri-Columbia press release:

    Service animals help owners navigate daily tasks and often have years of training to help them serve disability-related functions. However, little consensus exists when it comes to the certification of “emotional support animals” (ESAs). These animals usually have little or no specific training, which poses a challenge for mental health professionals who are asked to certify them. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have conducted a survey to examine what techniques and instruments mental health professionals are using to aid in their determinations of whether certification of an ESA is appropriate. Researcher recommendations could help mental health practitioners make better judgments when certifying ESAs and steer policy-making decisions for housing and travel sectors.

    “ESAs are legally different from service animals, such as guide dogs,” said Cassie Boness, a graduate student in clinical psychology in the MU College of Arts and Science. “An ESA usually provides companionship, relieves loneliness and sometimes helps with anxiety or depression. Although emotional support animals can be pets, they’re not considered pets under the law and sometimes special accommodations must be afforded to individuals who have ESAs. Because of this requirement, owners seek out ways to get their pets certified without thinking about the ramifications of their actions.”

    Federal and state laws regulating ESAs often are convoluted and ever-changing. For example, landlords who normally prohibit pets must allow ESAs and waive any fees or pet deposits. Airlines are required to allow ESAs to accompany their owners in the main cabins of aircraft. As a result, it can be implied that some patients who claim they need ESAs are doing so to “buck the system,” causing a dilemma for mental health professionals who often are tasked with certifying these animals, Boness says.

    Boness, working with Jeffrey Younggren, a forensic psychologist and clinical professor at MU, surveyed 87 mental health professionals, 31 percent of whom have made ESA recommendations. Survey participants were required to read ESA policies, including the Department of Transportation’s requirements for airline travel. Participants then answered questions about the certifying process.

    The survey demonstrated that both clinical and forensic practitioners are making ESA recommendations; both groups believe certifying ESAs is appropriate for treating patients. Results and recommendations from the study indicate that clinicians should not certify ESAs and doing so can trigger ethical and legal challenges, including a pending case in Colorado, Younggren says.

    Based on their findings, Boness and Younggren recommend that:

    • Requests for ESAs should be met with the same thoroughness that is found in any disability evaluation
    • Professional guidelines outlining the types of assessments, who conducts them and how they are conducted are needed
    • Local, statewide and national policymakers should consult with mental health professionals as they vet and evaluate future legislation

    “A clinical practitioner’s primary goal is treatment; often, personal relationships with their clients can lead to biased assessments and a willingness to certify ESAs,” Younggren said. “Forensic psychologists, such as those who give expert testimony on mental capacity in court, often use comprehensive methods to assess patients. These mental health professionals generally don’t have relationships with those they are assessing, are much more objective and are likely to certify ESAs correctly.”


  3. Study suggests pet dogs help kids feel less stressed

    May 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Florida press release:

    Pet dogs provide valuable social support for kids when they’re stressed, according to a study by researchers from the University of Florida, who were among the first to document stress-buffering effects of pets for children.

    Darlene Kertes and colleagues tested the commonly held belief that pet dogs provide social support for kids using a randomized controlled study — the gold standard in research.

    “Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” Kertes said. Kertes reasoned that one way this might occur is by helping children cope with stress. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.”

    For their study, recently published in the journal Social Development, the researchers recruited approximately 100 pet-owning families, who came to their university laboratory with their dogs. To tap children’s stress, the children completed a public speaking task and mental arithmetic task, which are known to evoke feelings of stress and raise the stress hormone cortisol, and simulates real-life stress in children’s lives. The children were randomly assigned to experience the stressor with their dog present for social support, with their parent present, or with no social support.

    “Our research shows that having a pet dog present when a child is undergoing a stressful experience lowers how much children feel stressed out,” Kertes said . “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support.”

    Samples of saliva was also collected before and after the stressor to check children’s cortisol levels, a biological marker of the body’s stress response. Results showed that for kids who underwent the stressful experience with their pet dogs, children’s cortisol level varied depending on the nature of the interaction of children and their pets.

    “Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less,” said Kertes, an assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”

    The children in the study were between 7 to 12 years old.

    “Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing,” Kertes explained. “Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.”


  4. How dogs interact with others plays a role in decision-making

    May 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Canisius College press release:

    Researchers at Canisius College found that the relationship between two dogs living in the same household may impact how much influence they have on each other’s behavior. Dogs who showed little to no aggression towards their housemates were more likely to automatically follow each other than dogs who viewed their canine housemates as rivals. The study results are reported in the latest issue of Animal Cognition.

    To conduct this study, Christy Hoffman, Ph.D., and Malini Suchak, Ph.D., assistant professors of Animal Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, traveled to 37 multi-dog households to test the dogs in their own homes. This was an unusual approach, since most studies test dogs in the laboratory and often pair them with other dogs they don’t know. “We really wanted to look at the impact of the relationship between the dogs on their behavior, and doing that in a setting natural to the dogs, with dogs they already know, is really important,” Suchak says.

    To classify how competitive household dogs were with each other, the owners were asked to fill out a survey known as the Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). Dogs that were low in rivalry never or rarely displayed aggressive behavior toward the other dog. Dogs that were high in rivalry displayed some degree of aggression around valuable resources, suggesting they have a more competitive nature. After their owners completed the C-BARQ, the dogs participated in a simple task. A research assistant placed two plates containing food in front of both dogs. One dog was allowed to approach the plates and eat the food from one plate before being walked out of the room. At that point, the second dog was allowed to make a choice. If the second dog followed the first dog, he arrived at an empty plate. If he didn’t follow the first dog, he went straight to the plate that still contained food.

    Dogs that were low in rivalry were more likely to follow the first dog and frequently ended up at the empty plate. What surprised the researchers was that low rivalry dogs only blindly followed the demonstrator when allowed to make their choice immediately. “Low and high rivalry dogs only differed in the choices they made when there was no delay,” Hoffman says. “When they had to wait 5 seconds before making their choice, all dogs tended to go directly to the full plate.”

    Suchak adds, “This suggests that the low rivalry dogs may have been automatically following their housemates. When we forced the dogs to wait, it was as if the low rivalry dogs actually took the time to think about the situation, and they went straight for the food.”

    The researchers also tested the dogs in a condition where a human removed the food from one plate before the dog made a choice. Interestingly, low rivalry dogs were more likely to follow the human demonstrator when there was no delay, a finding that paralleled what happened with dog demonstrators. Hoffman suggests this may have to do with the personality of low rivalry dogs, “Since the tendency of the low rivalry dogs to follow was seen when the demonstrator was both another dog and a human, competitiveness may be a characteristic of the individual that extends beyond their relationship with other dogs.”

    This means that if owners have a high rivalry dog “that dog may be more likely to think for himself, and less likely to blindly follow, than a dog that is less competitive,” says Hoffman. “On the whole, our findings show there is variation in the ways dogs make decisions and that how dogs interact with others plays a big role in how they respond under conditions that require quick thinking.”


  5. Study suggests dogs capable of human perspective

    April 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien press release:

    Humans are able to interpret the behaviour of others by attributing mental states to them (and to themselves). By adopting the perspectives of other persons, they can assume their emotions, needs and intentions and react accordingly. In the animal kingdom, the ability to attribute mental states (Theory of Mind) is a highly contentious issue. Cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna could prove with a new test procedure that dogs are not only able to identify whether a human has an eye on a food source and, therefore, knows where the food has been hidden. They can also apply this knowledge in order to correctly interpret cues by humans and find food they cannot see themselves. This perspective taking ability is an important component of social intelligence. It helps dogs to cope with the human environment. The results have been published in the journal Animal Cognition.

    The so-called Theory of Mind describes the ability in humans to understand mental states in conspecifics such as emotions, intentions, knowledge, beliefs and desires. This ability develops in humans within the first four or five years of life while it is usually denied in animals. Indications that animals can understand mental states or even states of knowledge of others have only been found in apes and corvids so far. Dogs have been tested several times, but the results were poor and contradictory.

    With a new experimental approach, cognitive biologists from the Messerli Research Institute could now provide solid evidence for dogs being able to adopt our perspective. By adopting the position of a human and following their gaze, dogs understand what the human could see and, consequently, know. This ability to ascribe knowledge is only a component of a full-blown Theory of Mind, but an important one.

    Identifying the right informant

    The so-called Guesser-Knower paradigm is a standard test in research into the attribution of knowledge to others. This experiment involves two persons: a “Knower” who hides food, invisibly for the dog, in one of several food containers or knows where somebody else has hided it, and a “Guesser.” The Guesser has either not been in the room or covered her eyes during the hiding of the food. A non-transparent wall blocks the animals’ view of the food being hidden. After that, the two humans become informants by pointing to different food containers.

    The Knower always points to the baited container and the Guesser to another one. All containers smell of food. “To get the food, the dogs have to understand who knows the hiding place (Knower) and who does not and can, therefore, only guess (Guesser). They must identify the informant they can rely on if they have to decide for one food container,” said principal investigator Ludwig Huber. In approximately 70 per cent of the cases the dogs chose the container indicated by the Knower – and thus were able to successfully accomplish the test. This result was independent of the position of the food container, the person acting as the Knower and where the Guesser was looking.

    Dogs can adopt human perspectives

    The only aim of this test series, however, was to independently confirm a study carried out in New Zealand. Clear evidence of dogs being able to adopt our perspective and take advantage of it was provided in a new test developed by the team, the so-called “Guesser looking away” test.

    In this new experiment, a third person in the middle hides the food. This person does not give cues later on. The potential informants were kneeing left and right of this hider and looked to the same side and slightly down. Thus, one of the two persons looked towards the baiter, the other person looked away. “This means that the tested dogs, in order to get the food, had to judge who is the Knower by adopting the informants’ perspectives and following their gazes,” explained Huber. Even in this test, which is very difficult for the animals, approximately 70 per cent of the trials had been mastered.

    Adopting the human perspective leads to invisible food

    Being able to adopt the perspective of a human does, however, not require the ability to understand intentions or wishes. “But the study showed that dogs can find out what humans or conspecifics can or cannot see,” explained Huber. “By adopting the positions of humans and following their gazes geometrically, they find out what humans see and, therefore, know – and consequently whom they can trust or not.”

    In similar experiments, chimpanzees and few bird species such as scrub jays and ravens were able to understand the state of knowledge and also the intentions of conspecifics and modify their own behaviour accordingly. For dogs, there have only been specualtions and vague indications so far. But dogs understand our behaviour very well, for example our degree of attention. They can learn from directly visible cues such as gestures or gazes. Thus, they are able to find food even if their view of it has been blocked. “The ability to interpret our behaviour and anticipate our intentions, which has obviously developed through a combination of domestication and individual experience, seems to have supported the ability to adopt our perspective,” said Huber. “It still remains unclear which cognitive mechanisms contribute to this ability. But it helps dogs to find their way in our world very well.”


  6. Not-so-guilty pleasure: Viewing cat videos boosts energy, positive emotions

    July 6, 2015 by Ashley

    From the Indiana University media release:

    tablet computerIf you get a warm, fuzzy feeling after watching cute cat videos online, the effect may be more profound than you think.

    The Internet phenomenon of watching cat videos, from Lil Bub to Grumpy Cat, does more than simply entertain; it boosts viewers’ energy and positive emotions and decreases negative feelings, according to a new study by an Indiana University Media School researcher.

    The study, by assistant professor Jessica Gall Myrick, surveyed almost 7,000 people about their viewing of cat videos and how it affects theirmoods. It was published in the latest issue of Computers in Human Behavior. Lil Bub’s owner, Mike Bridavsky, who lives in Bloomington, helped distribute the survey via social media.

    “Some people may think watching online cat videos isn’t a serious enough topic for academic research, but the fact is that it’s one of the most popular uses of the Internet today,” Myrick said. “If we want to better understand the effects the Internet may have on us as individuals and on society, then researchers can’t ignore Internet cats anymore.

    We all have watched a cat video online, but there is really little empirical work done on why so many of us do this, or what effects it might have on us,” added Myrick, who owns a pug but no cats. “As a media researcher and online cat video viewer, I felt compelled to gather some data about this pop culture phenomenon.”

    Internet data show there were more than 2 million cat videos posted on YouTube in 2014, with almost 26 billion views. Cat videos had more views per video than any other category of YouTube content.

    In Myrick’s study, the most popular sites for viewing cat videos were Facebook, YouTube, Buzzfeed and I Can Has Cheezburger.

    Among the possible effects Myrick hoped to explore: Does viewing cat videos online have the same kind of positive impact as pet therapy? And do some viewers actually feel worse after watching cat videos because they feel guilty for putting off tasks they need to tackle?

    Of the participants in the study, about 36 percent described themselves as a “cat person,” while about 60 percent said they liked both cats and dogs.

    Participants in Myrick’s study reported:

    • They were more energetic and felt more positive after watching cat-related online media than before.
    • They had fewer negative emotions, such as anxiety, annoyance, and sadness, after watching cat-related online media than before.
    • They often view Internet cats at work or during studying.
    • The pleasure they got from watching cat videos outweighed any guilt they felt about procrastinating.
    • Cat owners and people with certain personality traits, such as agreeableness and shyness, were more likely to watch cat videos.
    • About 25 percent of the cat videos they watched were ones they sought out; the rest were ones they happened upon.
    • They were familiar with many so-called “celebrity cats,” such as Nala Cat and Henri, Le Chat Noir.

    Overall, the response to watching cat videos was largely positive.

    “Even if they are watching cat videos on YouTube to procrastinate or while they should be working, the emotional pay-off may actually help people take on tough tasks afterward,” Myrick said.

    The results also suggest that future work could explore how online cat videos might be used as a form of low-cost pet therapy, she said.

    For each participant who took the survey, Myrick donated 10 cents to Lil Bub’s foundation, raising almost $700. The foundation, Lil Bub’s Big Fund for the ASPCA, has raised more than $100,000 for needy animals.


  7. Horsing around — with actual horses — reduces stress hormones in youth

    April 25, 2014 by Ashley

    From the Washington State University media release:

    teens friends punkNew research from Washington State University reveals how youth who work with horses experience a substantial reduction in stress — and the evidence lies in kids’ saliva.

    The results are published in the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin this month.

    “We were coming at this from a prevention perspective,” said Patricia Pendry, a developmental psychologist at WSU who studies how stress “gets under the skin” and the effects of prevention programs on human development. “We are especially interested in optimizing healthy stress hormone production in young adolescents, because we know from other research that healthy stress hormone patterns may protect against the development of physical and mental health problems.

    NIH grant to apply hard science

    Her work is the first evidence-based research within the field of human-equine interaction to measure a change in participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”The beauty of studying stress hormones is that they can be sampled quite noninvasively and conveniently by sampling saliva in naturalistic settings as individuals go about their regular day,” Pendry said.

    Three years ago, the National Institutes of Health began asking researchers to tackle big questions about the effects of human-animal interaction on child development. With the support of a $100,000 NIH grant, Pendry led a research project to engage students in grades 5-8 in a 12-week equine facilitated learning program in Pullman, Wash.

    She approached the coordinator of PATH (Palouse Area Therapeutic Horsemanship) at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, which had been offering a therapeutic riding program for over 30 years. Pendry has been riding and working with horses since she was a child and reacquainted herself with therapeutic horsemanship when she began to look for her next research project at WSU.

    Higher hormone levels pose potential risk

    She said stress hormone functioning is a result of how we perceive stress as well as how we cope with it. Stress is not just what you experience, she said, but it’s how you interpret the size of the stressor. A child in front of a large, unfamiliar horse may experience more stress than when he or she encounters a smaller, more familiar animal.Working with PATH director Sue Jacobson and Phyllis Erdman from the WSU College of Education, Pendry designed and implemented an after-school program serving 130 typically developing children over a two-year period that bused students from school to the barn for 12 weeks.

    Children were randomly assigned to participate in the program or be waitlisted. Based on natural horsemanship techniques, the program provided 90 minutes weekly to learn about horse behavior, care, grooming, handling, riding and interaction.

    Participants provided six samples of saliva over a two-day period both before and after the 12-week program. Pendry compared the levels and patterns of stress hormone functioning by measuring cortisol. The results were exciting, she said.

    “We found that children who had participated in the 12-week program had significantly lower stress hormone levels throughout the day and in the afternoon, compared to children in the waitlisted group,” she said. “We get excited about that because we know that higher base levels of cortisol — particularly in the afternoon — are considered a potential risk factor for the development of psychopathology.”

    Evidence to support human-animal work

    Pendry said the experimental design underlying the study gives more scientific credit to the claims of therapeutic horsemanship professionals, parents and children who have reported a positive impact from these types of programs. In addition, she hopes the results will lead to development of alternative after-school programs.While the research focused on prevention, Pendry said she believes it could provide a starting point to look at the impact on children of high levels of stress and physical or mental health issues.

    “Partly because of NIH’s effort to bring hard science to the field of human-animal interaction, program implementers now have scientific evidence to support what they are doing,” she said.

    Learn more about the Department of Human Development in the WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources sciences at http://hd.wsu.edu.


  8. Dogs mood offers insight into the health of their owners

    October 7, 2013 by Ashley

    From the Newcastle University media release:

    seniors with dogMonitoring a dog’s behaviour could be used as an early warning sign that an older owner is struggling to cope or their health is deteriorating.

    Experts at Newcastle University, UK, are using movement sensors to track normal dog behaviour while the animals are both home alone and out-and-about. Providing a unique insight into the secret life of man’s best friend, the sensors show not only when the dog is on the move, but also how much he is barking, sitting, digging and other key canine behaviours.

    By mapping the normal behaviour of a healthy, happy dog, Dr Cas Ladha, PhD student Nils Hammerla and undergraduate Emma Hughes were able to set a benchmark against which the animals could be remotely monitored. This allowed for any changes in behaviour which might be an indication of illness or boredom to be quickly spotted.

    Presenting their findings at the 2013 UbiComp conference in Zurich, project lead Ladha, says the next step is to use the dog’s health and behaviour as an early warning system that an elderly owner may be struggling to cope.

    “A lot of our research is focussed on developing intelligent systems that can help older people to live independently for longer,” explains Ladha, who is based in Newcastle University’s Culture Lab.

    “But developing a system that reassures family and carers that an older relative is well without intruding on that individual’s privacy is difficult. This is just the first step but the idea behind this research is that it would allow us to discretely support people without the need for cameras.”

    Behaviour imaging expert Nils Hammerla adds: “Humans and dogs have lived together in close proximity for thousands of years, which has led to strong emotional and social mutual bonds.

    “A dog’s physical and emotional dependence on their owner means that their wellbeing is likely reflect that of their owner and any changes such as the dog being walked less often, perhaps not being fed regularly, or simply demonstrating ‘unhappy’ behaviour could be an early indicator for families that an older relative needs help.”

    How the technology works

    In the UK, around 30% of households own at least one pet dog, totalling an estimated 10.5 million animals.

    Designed to provide an indicator of animal welfare in an age when dogs are increasingly left alone for long periods of time, the team created a hi-tech, waterproof dog collar complete with accelerometer and collected data for a wide range of dog breeds.

    “In order to set the benchmark we needed to determine which movements correlated to particular behaviours, so in the initial studies, as well as the collars, we also set up cameras to record their behaviour,” explains Ladha.

    Analysing the two datasets, the Newcastle team were able to classify 17 distinct dog activities such as barking, chewing, drinking, laying, shivering and sniffing.

    The team also assessed the system against different breeds.

    “This had to work for all dogs,” explains Ladha, “so health.”

    Hammerla adds: “This is the first system of its kind which allows us to remotely monitor a dog’s behaviour in its natural setting.

    “But beyond this, it also presents us with a real opportunity to use man’s best friend as a discreet health barometer. It’s already well known that pets are good for our health and this new technology means dogs are supporting their older owners to live independently in even more ways than they already do.”


  9. Why won’t she leave him? Abused women often fear for pets left behind

    September 25, 2013 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois media release:

    abused woman domestic violenceVeterinarians and women’s shelters can make it easier for abused women to decide to leave their homes, particularly when the abuser is using a beloved pet as part of a campaign to control his partner, reports a new University of Illinois study.

    He made me stand there and . . . watch [him kill my cat]. And he was like: That could happen to you, one woman in the study said.

    These incidences are very symbolic of what the abuser is capable of doing. He’s sending the message: I can do something just as severe to hurt you,” said Jennifer Hardesty, a U of I associate professor of human development and family studies.

    For the study, Hardesty interviewed 19 abused women about their decisions on what to do with their pets when they were seeking help from a shelter.

    A recent study found that 34 percent of women had delayed leaving out of concern for their pets because their abuser had threatened and harmed the animals in the past, Hardesty noted.

    “For abused women, a pet can be a treasured source of unconditional love and comfort—maybe even protection—in a time of transition. Many are strongly bonded to their animals,” she said.

    Hardesty stressed that not all abused women are strongly bonded to their pets, and not all abusers target pets as part of their campaign to control their partner.

    She does recommend that shelter personnel ask women if they have pets in their home, if they need help placing the pets somewhere, and if something should be done to protect the animals.

    At present, only a few shelters welcome pets. In response, the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine is pioneering a program that provides a safe haven for pets until women in shelters can find housing and reclaim their animals.

    “It would be ideal if the pet was able to stay with the woman at the shelter, but you’d need a reasonably well socialized and non-aggressive animal for that, and it would require a major shift in facilities and training for shelter personnel,” said Marcella Ridgway, a clinical associate professor in the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine.

    According to Ridgway, the U of I program provides up to 30 days of care for pets of women staying at two local shelters. Although many people have a stereotypical idea about pets that have been exposed to violence, the veterinarians typically encounter animals with subtle indicators of a problem, such as having fallen behind on vaccinations or heartworm checks.

    “Student volunteers care for the pets and arrange visits between the women and their pets. These students may have some knowledge of interpersonal violence, and they see this as a way to help. Some are able to see the animal come in and then witness the reunion at the end so it’s quite fulfilling for them,” said Cheryl Weber, student services coordinator and grief educator at the college.

    Hardesty advised that domestic violence shelter staff:

    • Inform women seeking shelter about safe haven programs and other emergency resources for pets, preferably before they arrive at the shelter
    • Provide opportunities for women to discuss their pets
    • Incorporate pets into active safety planning efforts
    • Educate and train staff about sensitive approaches that acknowledge that women have different bonds to their pets
    • Collaborate with community partners to develop safe haven programs or other safe options for pets

    Ridgway recommended that veterinary professionals:

    • Help spread the word about safe haven programs and emergency resources for pets
    • Become educated and promote awareness about the links between domestic violence and pet abuse
    • Be knowledgeable and nonjudgmental with clients who disclose domestic violence
    • Address pet health care issues in an honest and thorough but nonjudgmental manner, using a triaged approach to avoid overwhelming clients
    • Assist clients in consideration of rational choices for long-term planning for pets
    • Collaborate with community partners to develop safe haven programs or other safe options for pets
    • Contribute to broader professional discussions about effective veterinary approaches to domestic violence, including routine screening

    “Programs like this one empower abused women. When a woman who has been victimized makes a decision to protect a beloved pet, she’s not a victim, and that’s important,” Hardesty said.


  10. Study suggests interacting with dogs can help improve mood

    June 18, 2013 by Ashley

    From the Washington State University press release via EurekAlert!:

    DogLindsay Ellsworth is prescribing a new, mood-boosting therapy for teenagers in drug and alcohol treatment: shelter dogs.

    On Friday afternoons, about four dogs from the Spokane Humane Society take a field trip to Excelsior Youth Center as a group of teenage boys eagerly await their arrival. Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate in animal sciences at Washington State University, organizes the meet-ups where participants can help brush, feed and play with the dogs.

    “We found one of the most robust effects of interacting with the dogs was increased joviality,” she said. “Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were ‘excited,’ ‘energetic’ ‘and happy.’

    The relationship between dogs and humans is prehistoric, but Ellsworth’s study is the first of its kind to demonstrate how dog-interaction activities improve mood among teenagers living in residential treatment centers.

    A method to the gladness

    Once a week, during the daily recreation time at Excelsior, Ellsworth breaks about eight participants into two groups. One group plays pool, video games or basketball provided in the treatment center. The other group interacts with the shelter dogs for about an hour.

    Before the activity, participants identify 60 mood descriptors on a scale of one to five on what is known as the PANAS-X, a self-reporting method organizational psychologists use to scale and study emotion. After the activity, the participants fill out the same scale.

    Those who spent time with the dogs not only showed an increase in joviality, but also positive affect (in psychology, the experience of feeling or emotion), attentiveness and serenity. Meanwhile, overall sadness decreased, Ellsworth said. Many participants are also being treated for ADHD, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

    “I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished,” she said. “It was something you could observe like night and day.”

    When Ellsworth asked the boys what they like most about working with the dogs, some of their written responses included, “giving dogs treats and showing a lot of love to the dogs” and “I like to have time with the dogs because (it) lets me get my mind off things” and “I loved playing with Junior.”

    Robert Faltermeyer, executive director of the youth center, and the staff are hopeful this kind of science-based program could be established as part of treatment centers’ structured activities.

    “It’s an opportunity for kids in a real chaotic life, making unhealthy choices, to focus in on a specific task with an animal,” he said. “It empowers them to make positive changes even on the simplest scale of correcting the animal’s behavior.

    “I think those exposures build some internal capacity for them to say, ‘Hey, I think I’m capable of changing my life,'” he said.

    A chemical response to companionship

    The National Institute on Drug Abuse is actively looking for science-based behavioral interventions to help those struggling with drug abuse, and the accompanying lack of affect, respond more fully to the stimulus of day-to-day activities, Ellsworth said.

    She hypothesizes that dopamine, a natural feel-good chemical human brains produce, is released in the boys’ brains as they anticipate the dog interaction. Social companionship with the dogs may also stimulate opioid release.

    Using natural stimuli like dogs, she said, could help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain’s chemistry has been altered through drug use. Animal behaviorist Ruth Newberry, Ellsworth’s doctoral advisor at WSU, agrees on the potential for treatment.

    It could be a really novel, cost-effective and beneficial complement to traditional treatments. This could be a win-win innovation for everyone involved,” Newberry said, “including the dogs.”

    Ellsworth hasn’t been able to scientifically track the impact on the dogs, since so many are adopted over the course of the trials. However, she said research has shown dogs in a limited social environment, like a shelter, are more responsive to humans.

    Any sort of activity that provides an opportunity for shelter dogs to socialize with humans and other dogs outside of the kennel environment is great, and that is the value that the shelter sees in these dog-interaction activities, too.” Ellsworth said.

    According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, more than 5 million animals enter shelters annually in the U.S. With more than 5,000 independent shelters nationwide, Ellsworth believes these types of behavioral therapy programs could be widely implemented.

    Ellsworth’s interest in the dog and human connection emerged through her work with the University of Washington Conservation Canine Program, the Smithsonian Zoo and adolescent medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

    The WSU alcohol and drug abuse research program helped fund the dog-teen interaction study.

    Starting this summer, Ellsworth is increasing the number of visits to Excelsior to twice a week. In this phase of her research, she’s also interested in understanding how dogs can influence teenagers’ engagement in group therapy and cooperation in structured activities. She hypothesizes that the more compliant and engaged teenagers are with structured programs, the more likely they are to reap the benefits of treatment.