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A Dog’s Best Friend

By Office of Communication Services    Published on 11/01/2017 More stories >>

Bruce is the new
dog on the block in Dr. Yancura’s research.

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.

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 positive.