grandmother with granddaughter and dog

Human Animal Interaction

Pets can impact our physical, emotional well-being, social relationships and community connectedness 

Studies supported by Waltham and the National Institutes of Health show how human-animal interaction can benefit teenagers' social skills and people struggling with mental health issues.

Positive results from three new studies on human-animal interaction (HAI) were presented recently at the triennial conference of the IAHAIO in Chicago, IL. The studies, supported by funding from Mars and WALTHAM, examined how pets impact our physical and emotional well-being and our social relationships and community connectedness. 

Interaction with Horses Boosts Adolescents’ Social Skills

A study at Washington State University revealed that interacting with horses improved young adolescents’ self-awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, decision-making, and relationship skills, and provided insights into the interplay between the children's emotional and physiological responses. The study consisted of 64 young teens, aged 10-14 years, who were assigned to either an experimental or control group. Those in the experimental group participated in an 11-week equine-facilitated learning program designed to increase social competence through a series of once-weekly, 90-minute sessions of individual, team, and group-focused equine-facilitated activities. Those in the control group were observed as a comparison and were offered the learning programme at a later date. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol were collected prior to the programme and throughout the riding session. Using a self-report survey, the participants' levels of positive and negative emotion were measured immediately before mounting the horse, ten minutes later, and immediately after dismounting. At the end of the session, independent observers rated the teens' positive behaviours, such as following direction and accepting feedback, and negative behaviours, such as being argumentative or hyperactive. Those teens who demonstrated positive behaviour during the first riding session were more likely to see improvements in their social competence over the full 11-week programme period, and those who had produced increased levels of cortisol in response to riding were more likely to report negative emotion and behaviour, suggesting that strategies to regulate participants’ physiological responses are needed to maximise the positive effects of equine-facilitated learning programmes. In addition to funding from Mars and WALTHAM, this study was also supported by funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Dog Interaction May Provide Help for People with Dementia

New research from the University of Maryland suggests that structured interaction with dogs could be an effective approach for preserving and even enhancing the mental health and physical function of people with dementia. The study involved 40 elderly adults with dementia residing in assisted-living facilities and found a reduction in depression following a pet-assisted living programme involving regular interaction with a dog. The study also indicated a trend for improved physical function as a result of the pet-assisted living programme. Participants in this study had two, 60-90 minute sessions a week for three months in which they were encouraged to interact with the visiting dog. A control group was encouraged to reminisce about their experiences with researchers and other residents in a way that involved both social skills and small motor skills.

Pet Ownership Improves Social Relationships and Connects Communities

According to new research by the University of Western Australia, pet ownership helps improve social networks and access to social support, with pet owners more likely to get to know new people and make new friends. This international study involved a telephone survey of a random sample of more than 2500 adults from Perth (Australia), San Diego, Portland and Nashville (US). Dog walking was found to be one of the top five ways to meet new people and, overall, more pet owners than non-pet owners got to know new people since moving to their current neighbourhood. Additionally, the research found that people who walk their dog achieved sufficient physical activity on more days a week than people who don’t own a dog