The Role of Animals in Our Lives

A new Tufts institute will study people's relationships with other species
students with therapy dog at exam time
The Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction will have its official launch on March 3. Here, Olivia Bradley, A18, pets Guinness, a Golden Retriever, during a therapy dog study break at Tisch Library last December. Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 9, 2015

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From seeing-eye dogs to therapeutic horseback riding, animals contribute to our lives in many ways. To understand how significant those relationships are, Tufts has launched a university-wide enterprise, the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI), to advance the burgeoning field of human-animal interaction.

Instead of working in the traditional silos of individual disciplines, the new Tufts institute will involve faculty, staff and students from all three campuses working in research, education and service programs. “We bring together all these different disciplines to put some sound evidence behind what we intuitively know is a wonderful thing: having animals and people interact in positive ways,” says Lisa Freeman, J86, V91, N96, a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine who directs the new institute.

This kind of interdisciplinary work is already happening around human-animal interaction. For example, Laurie Sabol, a reference librarian at Tisch Library, has worked with Tufts Paws for People to bring pets into the library to ease students’ stress during exam weeks. “You go there, and you can see how beneficial it is,” says Freeman, who took part in the program with her Welsh corgi, Penny.

Such feel-good programs highlight a significant challenge in the field: the benefits seem obvious, but there is not always strong evidence to support that conclusion.

To that end, Sabol has partnered with student researchers from the Department of Occupational Therapy in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to survey the hundreds of students who participate in the library anxiety-busters about their stress levels before and after they spend time with animals. This type of rigorous scientific evaluation can add legitimacy to and ensure safety in the field.

In addition to making us feel good, animals can also play a role in engineering, says Chris Rogers, a professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.

“We know that animals are a great way to engage kids and young adults in different activities,” including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, says Rogers, a member of TIHAI’s board of advisors. He has worked with area middle school students to engineer solutions for veterinary problems, such as how to help a partially paralyzed dachshund get around.

Rogers also predicts the impending arrival of consumer-oriented robotics designed to help slowing-down baby boomers with daily tasks. However, dogs may fulfill the same role while offering other benefits, such as companionship, given that they are already successfully employed as assistive aids by those with vision and mobility challenges, notes Rogers.

Tufts interdisciplinary research uniting experts in human-animal interaction, occupational therapy and engineering could lead to more-effective toolkits and other technology to be worn by dogs, such as call buttons for alerting first responders if a person needs medical assistance, or computer tablets that allow for monitoring vital signs and teleconferencing with a medical team. “It’s easy for pets—unlike robots—to navigate stairs and other household challenges,” including going in and out of doors (via a dog door), locating the person in need of help and waking up other household inhabitants, says Rogers.

Projects like these have the potential for social, commercial and public health value, says Rogers, pointing to ongoing research at Cummings School and the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy about how pets could help obese children better understand the importance of healthy calorie intake and exercise.

Deborah Linder, V09, co-associate director of TIHAI, will be investigating this child-pet relationship further in a new research study this summer. “We want to better understand what we hear from clients every day: that their dogs motivate them to be more active and play the role of support or workout buddy,” says Linder. Through the new Tufts institute, Rogers says he could see this work someday leading to collaborations with engineers resulting in “devices that better monitor pets’ eating habits and subtly influence owners’ habits as well.”

There are many possibilities for groundbreaking studies, notes Gary Bedell, an associate professor and chair of occupational therapy and a member of TIHAI’s board of advisors. He points to occupational therapists’ long history of bringing animals into their practice to help people with disabilities (and those at risk of a disability) complete the necessary activities of daily living and engage in those activities that give meaning to their lives. As just one example, Bedell cites animals’ as yet little-understood, but well-recognized, value in helping people “across the life span better express themselves,” from children with autism and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to elders with dementia.

The institute also will focus on research that explores how human-animal interaction can benefit both people and animals. Megan Mueller, A08, G10, G13, co-associate director of the institute, is currently examining how equine-facilitated psychotherapy can reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress, while also assessing the well-being of horses participating in these therapeutic programs. Support from the Tisch College of Active Citizenship and Public Service for Mueller’s work has allowed increased capacity to diversify the institute’s research programs.

The Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction will have its official launch on Tuesday, March 3 at 4:30 p.m. in the Coolidge Room in Ballou Hall on the Medford/Somerville campus. Freeman and Provost David Harris will talk about the institute, and attendees can learn how to get involved and see therapy animals from Tufts Paws for People in action.

The institute is also sponsoring an HAI Scholars Program, which will offer $500 awards for related research, education or service projects by undergraduate and graduate students. Applications for projects, which must involve a faculty mentor, are due April 1 and can be submitted by individuals or groups of students.

“The institute offers the infrastructure for different minds to come together to develop big ideas,” says Bedell. “It’s our hope that through the Scholars Program, students will pilot some of those ideas and prove them worthy of pursuing external funding for larger studies.”

For more information on the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI), visit http://hai.tufts.edu.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu