What a story – “The Empathetic Dog”

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Benjamin Stepp, an Iraq war veteran, sat in his graduate school course trying to focus on the lecture. Neither his classmates nor his professor knew he was silently seething.

But his service dog, Arleigh, did. She sensed his agitation and “put herself in my lap,” said Mr. Stepp, 37, of Holly Springs, Miss. “I realized I needed to get out of class. We went outside, I calmed down. We breathed.”

During his two deployments to Iraq, Mr. Stepp endured a traumatic brain injury and multiple surgeries on his ankle, and most days he suffers excruciating pain in his legs and lower back. He says he also returned from the war with a lot of anger, which wells up at unexpected times.

“Anger kept us alive overseas,” Mr. Stepp said. “You learn that anger keeps you alive.”

Now that he is back, though, that anger no longer serves a useful purpose. And Arleigh, a lab and retriever mix who came to Mr. Stepp from K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that trains service dogs, has been helping him to manage it. The dog senses when his agitation and anxiety begin rising, and sends him signals to begin the controlled breathing and other exercises that help to calm him down.

Pet owners and trainers have long been aware of a dog’s ability to sense a human’s emotions. In the last 10 years, researchers, too, have begun to explore more deeply the web of emotions, both positive and negative, that can spread between people and animals, said Natalia Albuquerque, an ethologist who studies animal cognition at the University of São Paulo in Brazil and the University of Lincoln in England.

The spread of emotions between animals and people, or between animals — what researchers refer to as emotional contagion — is an emerging field of science. But “there are still many unanswered questions we need to address,” Ms. Albuquerque said.

Studies have shown, for example, that piglets appear to become stressed by seeing and hearing other piglets that have been placed in restraints. Horses, too, appear to respond differently to people who smile or snarl; the horses responded to a snarling facial expression with an increased heart rate.

Other research found that dogs and people had a similar response to hearing the sound of a human baby crying. In the study, researchers exposed 75 pet dogs and 74 people to one of three distinct sounds: a baby crying, a baby babbling and radio static. Each sound was played for more than 10 minutes, and then researchers checked their salivary cortisol levels, an indicator of stress. read more…

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