The Power of the Human-Animal Bond
by SUSAN GRIFFIN, LMFT AND DENNIS WONG, PHD
Antoine and Veronica, 5 year-old twins, had not seen their mother in 6 months. Mom had developed an alcohol problem which resulted in a car accident with the children in the car. She was charged with child endangerment, a DUI, and enrollment in a 1 year intervention program. Mom had successfully completed 6 months of the program, and was now living in a sober living residence, doing well at her job, and stable enough to start seeing her twins in supervised visitation.
Dad had been awarded full legal and physical custody of the twins, immediately following the accident. Mom’s alcohol problem had already escalated to a point where she and Dad had agreed to a temporary separation. Dad filed for divorce a few months after the accident. While Dad was supportive of Mom seeing the children, he realized that 6 months was a very long time for mother and children to be separated and he was worried about how the twins would react to her. Some of his anxiety was lessened when the twins rushed excitedly to tell him about their orientation!
The family came to Hannah’s house, where the twins participated in the Turtles Travel Too tour while Dad was completing his mandatory orientation for the parents. Antoine and Veronica got to explore all the wonderful child-friendly rooms at Hannah’s House family center, and meet all of the Animal Staff: Tito the Iguana, Lu the 40 year old box turtle, BB the 2-year-old baby Mexican Rosy Boa; Tula the Chilean Rose Tarantula; our Hermit Crab Family; and many others. Of course, they told Dad all about it!
When it was time for the first in-person parenting time for mom, Hannah’s House Human Staff made sure that the twins’ favorite family room was reserved and that their favorite animal — BB — was ready for the visit if the twins chose to include her. Mom and children were awkward when they first saw each other. Mom was sitting on the couch in the room and Antoine and Veronica each chose a stool at the small table near the couch. Antoine turned to the Supervisor and asked him if they could show BB to their mom. As soon as the children discovered that the small snake was already in the room in a small habitat on the floor near the Staff desk, they rushed over to get the cage.
At first Mom was worried about the children touching a snake and very nervous as they opened the cage. She stayed on the couch and watched as the children smiled and held the snake together. They talked to the snake, calling her by name, then stood up and slowly made their way over to the couch. Veronica let Antoine hold the snake on his own as she sat down on the couch of one side of Mom and Antoine and BB took the other side. Both children were talking at the same time; about BB and her habits and personality and how to hand her off and how to hold her. A huge smile spread across Mom’s face as she soaked in the happiness, delight, and joy her children were displaying. She took a breath as Veronica showed her how to hold her hands so that Antoine could carefully transfer the snake to mom’s hands.
All three were focused on BB as the children moved in more closely to mom on either side, hands and bodies touching as the children leaned into Mom. Awkwardness began to dissipate as Mom enjoyed this close physical contact with her children and began to marvel in the ease with which all uncertainty disappeared in the face and body language of Antoine and Veronica. These estranged families reconnected naturally and warmly as BB the Rosy Boa brought them all back together. This is the magic of the human-animal bond.
A number of studies suggest that the presence of an animal can reduce stress and anxiety and promote a feeling of safety, whether or not the threat an individual senses is real. Randall Lockwood, of the State University of New York, asked two groups of subjects to interpret ambiguous line drawings of social interactions. One group included an animal; the other did not. His results indicated that the presence of the animal leads to the interpretation of social scenes as less threatening and improves the perceived character of the people associated with them. A person with a dog, thus, is considered more approachable and less dangerous than someone without one.
We know that stress is one of the greatest contributors to emotional and social adjustment for all children. If we look specifically at children living in chaotic family situations, and/or children with learning difficulties, including those born drug-affected, we see even more profound effects created by even ordinary daily stressors. A researcher named Friedmann measured the blood pressure and heart beats of 38 children over two 4-minute periods during which the child was asked to rest for 2 minutes and to read aloud for 2 minutes. A dog was present during either the rest or reading period. The researchers found that the presence of the dog resulted in lower blood pressures during both the rest and reading period. Additionally, if the dog was present at the beginning of the session, the children had lower blood pressures throughout the experiment.
Animals help children strengthen their contact with the natural world, with the environment. This also helps with the parent-child bond in our agency setting. Positive, unique, special, and with a marvelous ‘ick’ factor that our children delight in and parents pull back from, at least initially. This is a particularly helpful response to utilize when we are working with challenging children. One study conducted by the American Humane Education Society (AHES) in Framingham Center, Massachusetts used animals in the classroom as part of educational modules on health, nutrition, grooming, association, communication and appropriate behavior. The follow-up measures were completed by the regular classroom teachers who reported that not one student who participated in the special animal-assisted educational program was completely unaffected by the program.
A minimum of forty percent of one class to a maximum of 100 percent of another class was judged by their teachers to have learned and retained specific information that corresponded to the AHES unit goals. A minimum of one-half of one class to 100 percent of the other two classes was judged to have gained general understandings and developed new attitudes. Teachers cited sensitivity to animals, understanding animal needs, ability to relate to an unfamiliar instructor, and sensitivity to people among the understandings and attitudes accrued during the course.
Integrating animals into the learning situation is easy and beneficial. The same is true of the family center environment at Hannah’s House. Love, compassion, and empathy are vital concepts for children and parents challenged by difficult changes in the family. This method helps strengthen parenting skills and communication between family members. Animals bring these concepts alive in a compelling manner that truly maximizes learning by tapping into the natural responses inherent in the child/animal bond. It’s like magic to watch what happens as children who are depressed, sad, and anxious begin to freely interact with animals in the animal-assisted program. The children initially feel excited and competent when they first learn to hold one of the Animal Staff, and, within a matter of minutes, happily, enthusiastically, and confidently initiate touch, sharing with others, and learning about care and and feeding.
The experience of warm and positive interaction is vital for many of our parents and children in all of our programs. To schedule a Turtle Travels Too Tour for yourself, your family, or a group you are involved with, email Hannah’s House at firstname.lastname@example.org