Although relations between humans and companion animals have long interested scholars, scientific research into the therapeutic benefits of these interactions is a relatively new field of study.

The Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is not only adding to the body of evidence about the benefits of the human-animal bond but also reaching out to the local community to increase these interactions through the Center for Animal-Human Relationships.

In January, representatives from the veterinary college and its partners convened to form an advisory group to direct the center’s clinical and research activities. According to its mission, the center provides educational opportunities for veterinary medical students, outreach and service to the community, and the basis for collaborative research on the animal-human interface.

“We aim to discover new knowledge about the benefits people and animals derive from one another and provide opportunities for people to experience the therapeutic benefits of companion animals,” said Dr. Bess Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences. “Our partnerships with other research centers and faculty members interested in the human-animal bond will help make this possible.”

Pierce, a faculty member in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s Small Animal Community Practice and a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve Veterinary Corps, became the center’s director in November 2011. Her particular background and interests are in the area of working and service dog care and animal-assisted activities in military and law enforcement settings.

The center has a growing team of core faculty members and research partners supporting its mission. Its advisory committee represents a collaborative team of experts in various fields, including

  • Dr. Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, professor of clinical services in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences;
  • John Ryan, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences;
  • Sandra Barker, professor of psychiatry and Bill Balaban Chair in Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction;
  • Dr. Cindy Otto, associate professor of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and interim director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center; and
  • Philip Tedeschi, clinical professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work and clinical director of the Institute for Human Animal Connection.

The center also supports training for a graduate veterinarian to pursue additional research and service in the area of human-animal interaction and pursue a master’s degree in the subject, while completing residency training in canine and feline clinical practice. Dr. Zenny Ng, the current resident, has already begun several outreach programs. These include the creation of a new organization for veterinary students to enrich the lives of locals through high-quality animal-assisted activities and visitation, a reading program at the Blacksburg library for children whose self-esteem issues are set aside with the presence of dogs, and a relief fund and pet food and products drives for pet owners affected by the Pulaski County tornadoes in 2011.

The center’s advisory group is in the process of updating its mission and charter. Established in 2004, the center received initial seed money from the Metcalf Foundation of the Eastern Shore of Maryland in addition to other donations and grants.

There are 11 centers that conduct research on the human-animal bond at U.S. colleges and universities, including six at veterinary colleges. Several other institutions have outreach programs that bring animals to communities for therapeutic purposes. In addition, the American Association of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians provides professional support for veterinarians interested in this area and advances the role of veterinarians in nurturing positive human-animal interactions in society.

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