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Strength of the Human-Animal Bond to Help and Heal


August 9, 2017

Mason and Flynn

Mason and Flynn

When Mason was a young boy, he would draw pictures of dogs and cats and keep them with him. As a child affected by autism, his mother said he always had to have something in his hands. But they were a poor substitute for the real thing—until the day his family adopted a yellow Labrador puppy named Flynn. With Flynn by his side, Mason became more communicative about his feelings and experiences. He readily talks about his interests, and is more confident in his schoolwork (recently becoming nearly a straight-A student and taking advanced courses). His mom, Gabrielle, describes him as a forthcoming, open, and happy young man.

Improved social skills are not unusual for autistic children with pets. Dogs sometimes place their owners into situations that they normally would never have been in before, such as meeting other owners at the dog park or socializing with neighbors on walks – both activities in which Mason now participates with Flynn. The academic world continues to study the human-animal bond and gathers annually for a conference through the International Society for Anthrozoology. This year’s gathering was held at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine over four days in June. Researchers, veterinarians, graduate students and interested members of the public gathered to hear presentations under the following session topics: Animals in Society, Research Methods, Animals and Children, Animals and Psychology, Service Animals, Animals and College Students, Animal Welfare, Therapy Animals, Training & Pet Care. Approximately 35 students participated in poster presentations.

Among hundreds of session presentations throughout the conference, topics included: the effects of animal-assisted intervention on stress levels of hospitalized children; dog-assisted intervention in schools for children with special needs; changes in adolescent stress hormones in response to mounted horse therapy; the link between child abuse and animal abuse; functional MRI studies in dog-owning children to see whether the brain perceives them as family members; how anxiety may predict human attachment to cats; the influence of dogs on perceptions of dating profiles; promoting pet welfare through an educational iPad game; and the impact of service dogs on caregivers and family members’ psychosocial well-being.

Clearly, studying the human-animal bond is a growing field and UC Davis is on the forefront of that movement. Dr. Lynette Hart, who has spent her past few decades at UC Davis studying human-animal interactions, was honored with the inaugural Distinguished Anthrozoologist Award for outstanding lifetime achievement in Anthrozoology/Human-Animal Interaction Studies. 

Keynote speakers included: 

Diana Davis, DVM, Ph.D., UC Davis Department of History

DA Giles, Ph.D., Center for Whale Research, Friday Harbor Laboratories

John Madigan, DVM, M.S., DACVIM, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

Paul Mundell, CEO, Canine Companions for Independence

Layla Esposito, Ph.D., National Institutes of Health (NIH/NICHD)

Leonard Abbeduto, Ph.D., UC Davis MIND Institute

For Mason’s family, they don’t need a research study to prove that Mason is better off having Flynn in his life, and vice versa.

“No matter what happens, he’s always got a friend,” Gabrielle said. “He’s always got Flynn. It seems like such a simple thing to say and yet…he just loves that dog. It's something he’s wanted his whole life. Mason and Flynn were meant to be together.”