Photo by Rebecca Holloway, the Center for Human-Animal Interaction
Dogs on Call team members Robin Wilcox and Wrigley, a golden retriever, during a demonstration at VCU Medical Center
Pet owners whose four-legged companions bring joy to their lives may be surprised to learn that Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction (CHAI) conducts research to prove the health benefits that animals provide. Since its establishment in 2001, the center has encouraged interdisciplinary research, clinical practice and educational activities related to that vital relationship.
“I’m excited to work at the beginning point of this field,” says Sandra Barker, the center’s director, also a professor of psychiatry and the Bill Balaban Chair in Human-Animal Interaction. “There’s so much left to be investigated.”
The center has a number of recent and current research projects worth noting, such as a pilot study of the effect of animal-assisted therapy on pain and stress in hospitalized children. Using its Dogs on Call program at VCU Medical Center, CHAI conducted a randomized, controlled trial with pediatric patients, looking at patients’ stress relief from dog contact and from completing an age-appropriate puzzle.
Barker notes that after playing with dogs, children were one-and-a-half times more likely to report less stress and pain than when playing with a puzzle. Results of that study, which involved 40 patients, are set to be published this year in Anthrozoös, the quarterly journal of the International Society for Anthrozoology.
Another preliminary study investigated how campus therapy-dog events may reduce student stress during final exams. “Our pilot study with VCU students so far has shown that choosing to attend such an event and reporting stress relief occurs among a group fully reflective of the ethnic diversity of the university’s student population,” Barker says, noting that the research also indicates that a higher percentage of female students choose to participate.
Regardless of pet ownership, student participants found their stress reduced. While CHAI’s spring-semester trial used a strict self-reporting metric, the fall 2014 sample of 78 students included a physical indicator, as researchers collected participants’ saliva to examine changes in stress levels, with analysis forthcoming. In a comparison activity, called a “family life space diagram,” participants map themselves and others in their household, and researchers make determinations based on the spatial relationships shown. These have confirmed the emotional status of pets in participants’ lives, indicating that dog owners were as close to their pets as they were to their closest human family member.
Another area of research considers the benefits of pets in the workplace — a 2012 report from the center garnered international media attention, from Charlie Rose to the BBC. Findings suggest that bringing pet dogs to work may buffer the impact of stress during the workday for their owners and may also contribute to higher job satisfaction for all employees in the organization, regardless of dog or pet ownership.
CHAI is a registered nonprofit and is supported by volunteers who bring their pets into its Dogs on Call program, as well as donors, from dog-loving individuals to grant makers. A recent grant from the VCU Children’s Hospital Foundation will allow the center to expand Dogs on Call to the new children’s hospital, for example. Many local veterinary clinics support CHAI, as do the paying sponsors of the center’s annual printed calendar.
“This research is building an evidence base for animal-assisted therapy as a complementary therapy,” Barker says. The center is not alone in its pursuits, as institutions throughout the world are also seeking relevant results. “We are all challenged by small sample sizes and limited funding,” Barker adds.
“The field is in its infancy — we are accomplishing a lot on a shoestring.”