Human-Animal Bond: What My Own Dogs Taught Me
By Ed Sayres
Today we have mounting evidence of the value — to people and their pets alike — of the human animal bond. My personal, albeit unscientific, experience certainly underscores what the research continues to tell us.
Because my dad was a dog trainer and handler, I grew up surrounded by dogs — golden retrievers, German shepherds and bloodhounds. In spite of that, or perhaps because of it, I took for granted the important role that the dogs my father brought home played in my family’s emotional life. It was only as an adult that I learned for myself the power of what I came to know as the human-animal bond.
Years ago, after completing a graduate program in psychology at Sonoma State University in Northern California, I lived and worked in a nearby residence for at-risk adolescents while mulling a career in social work. I lived there with my dog at the time, Sundance, a Golden Retriever I purchased from a breeder in Santa Rosa.
In that residential setting, one of my responsibilities was facilitating group therapy sessions for 15- to 18-year-olds. The kids’ level of participation and discussion in these meetings helped us determine, among other things, their privileges for the upcoming weekend. Considering that we’re talking here about teenagers, the stakes were high.
While I hadn’t been bringing Sundance with me to these sessions, one day she did come along. I don't recall now the reason for the departure from our usual routine, but after seeing the effect she had on the kids in the group, I sure wished that I had thought of it sooner.
Sundance made a significant difference to the individuals in that room and to how we all functioned as a group. She loved the attention and naturally brought out the warmth and compassion hidden under the surface in a room full of teenagers. The kids never tired of stroking and petting her, and her relaxed presence seemed to take the anxiety out of the room and put everyone a little more at ease. From then on, Sundance was a regular in the group.
Years later, Diva, a purebred standard poodle, joined our family, then living in New Jersey. Our choice of breed was very deliberate. As is the case with many families, one of our primary considerations was the need for a hypoallergenic pet, in our case to accommodate my wife Michelle’s severe allergies. Among hypoallergenic breeds, my dad recommended the standard poodle, known to be smart, good-natured and very trainable.
Michelle and I were fortunate that Diva's breeder was none other than the late Anne Rogers Clark, an icon of the dog world. Mrs. Clark was one of the few people licensed to judge all 165 breeds and varieties recognized by the American Kennel Club and the first woman to win Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show as a professional handler.
We met Mrs. Clark through my dad, who by then had known and worked with her for decades. Even with my own experience with dogs and my father vouching for us, Mrs. Clark drove up from Delaware to painstakingly vet both Michelle and me to be sure that we would provide the right home for one of her beloved puppies and that we understood what that special dog would give us as a member of our family. She told us that “there are people and dogs, and then there are poodles,” correctly predicting that ours would sometimes seem more human than dog and become much more to all of us than our family pet.
Mrs. Clark gave us her blessing, and Diva came home.
After Diva completed puppy class – she was about six months old then – she began participating in public education programs at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, a shelter in Madison, New Jersey. By that time, I was running St. Hubert’s, which was founded in 1939 by the prominent dog enthusiast Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge and first run by my dad. At the time, our educational outreach program there consisted of five or six therapy dogs and four full-time teachers who together visited with schoolchildren and elderly people in about 70 different schools and other organizations across the state.
Diva was a gifted therapy dog. While she touched many people of all ages, one example comes immediately to mind after all this time. When she was about seven years old, Diva began working with a few children with autism spectrum disorder. One of them was a withdrawn ten-year-old boy named Aaron. Over the next three months, Diva and Aaron spent time together, getting to know one another and building trust as Aaron became more comfortable with the dog.
True to her breed’s reputation, Diva was fully accepting, extremely patient and somehow knew intuitively what Aaron needed. Sometimes that meant being a gently affectionate companion, and sometimes that meant just giving him some space.
Remarkably, once they established a connection that grew over the course of about three months, Diva helped Aaron begin to develop the ability to express affection toward both animals and people. Beginning with petting Diva, Aaron progressed over time to giving stuffed animals a squeeze, which then led him one day to hug his own mother for the very first time.
These, of course, are just my particular experiences. There are countless other examples out there – you probably have your own as well – involving all types of pets and the individuals who, for different reasons, enjoyed the remarkable benefits of having an animal as a companion.