Bruce is the new dog on the block in Dr. Yancura’s research.
“Happiness is a
warm puppy.” Loriena Yancura quoted Charlie Brown creator Charles M. Schulz on
one of the many benefits of interacting with pets in the syllabus of her class
“Going to the Dogs: Companion Animals in Social Science, Medicine, and
Humanities.” This innovative Honors course drew students with multiple
disciplinary interests to explore myriad aspects of the universal bond between
humans and animals.
In this class
students studied various types of canine companionship, from traditional
service dogs for the visually impaired to bomb- and drug-detecting dogs to the
more recent enlistments of pets to help reluctant readers in elementary schools
or to calm and soothe people with anxiety disorders or PTSD. The class
incorporated cultural and medical studies as well, examining the ways companion
animals have been represented in media and the ethics of animal research.
Companion dog Phillip helped students by fostering a pleasant class atmosphere.
Dr. Yancura, a
professor in the department of Family and Consumer Sciences who also studies
family caregiving for older adults, used to bring her own companion dog Phillip
to visit people living with Alzheimer’s disease. She has seen how interacting
with an animal seems to brighten patients’ mood and enables some of them to
remember cherished animals in their past. She has also brought Phillip and now
her new dog Bruce to her courses on the UH Mānoa campus. Students have
reported that having a well-behaved and friendly dog in class helps them learn
by fostering a pleasant class atmosphere—“Dogs create a kind of homey
feeling”—and reducing stress—“It was a sigh of relief to have a little friend
come along and brighten up the mood.” They have also reported that a dog’s
presence in class helps them relate to the professor and even boosts their
desire to attend class.
This work all
contributes to Dr. Yancura’s larger research goals, for which she has received
a five-year grant from USDA NIFA, of studying ways of improving people’s mental
and physical health in Hawai‘i through human–animal interactions. As she
explains, “A great deal of anecdotal and subjective evidence points to the
influence that animals, particularly dogs, have on reducing the biological and
psychological effects of stress in humans. However, there is surprisingly
little empirical proof of this influence in social settings.” Dr. Yancura’s
research aims to fill this important gap by performing research studies to
explore the impact of companion dogs in the workplace, schools, and
institutional settings. And that impact, from indicators thus far, is very