Pets As ‘Social Lubricant,’ Helping Kids With Autism Develop Assertiveness

(Onesharp/Flickr via Compfight)

(Onesharp/Flickr via Compfight)

If you’ve never considered your dog or cat part of your social network, maybe it’s time to start.

A new study from the University of Missouri-Columbia finds that pets of any kind in the home may help autistic children develop crucial social skills.

Gretchen Carlisle, research fellow at the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction in the M-U College of Veterinary Medicine, found that pets serve as a “social lubricant,” making kids more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, responding to other people’s questions or asking for more information.

While researchers have already found that dogs provide great assistance to children with autism, Carlisle explains that her study looks at the possible benefit of all types of pets. These pets also help the greater public interact with autistic kids in social settings. “When children with disabilities take their service dogs out in public,” adds Carlisle, “other kids stop and engage. Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others, but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.” Continue reading

After A Death, Should We Get A Dog? Brain Study Signals ‘Yes’

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

Let’s be clear: I need a dog like a hole in the head.

I’m a recently widowed working mother with a small house, no trust fund and two extremely active young daughters: if it’s Thursday, it must be rock-climbing, piano and Taekwondo before track practice across town. You get the picture.

Still, lately I’ve been thinking the unthinkable: a Maltipoo, Goldendoodle or some other ridiculously named, hypoallergenic, low-maintenance (does that exist?), cute-as hell puppy for my daughters — and for me — to love.

I know full well this is a risky prospect. “There is no rational reason to get a dog,” says my Basset Hound-owner friend. “They are work, expense and add to the list of beings in your home who have needs to be attended to. It is sort of like deciding to have a kid — no rational reason to do that either but big pay off on love, general hilarity and a constant reminder of the joy in everyday small things.” Or, as another friend put it: “What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

“What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

– A dog-loving friend

It’s that truly profound, but tricky to pinpoint, human-pet bond that drives Lori Palley’s research. She’s assistant director of veterinary services at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Comparative Medicine and has recently become fascinated by why people’s relationships with their dogs can be so very significant.

Her latest research, published in the medical journal PLOS ONE, involved scanning the brains of mothers while they were looking at images of their own children and their dogs. Surprise: similar areas of the brain were activated — regions involved in emotion and reward — whether it was the kids or dogs on view.

It was a small study using fMRI: only 14 mothers (dog owners) who had at least one young child. And in case you jump to some conclusion about moms loving their dogs as much as, or more than, their kids, wait: the research also found that in other areas of the brain involved in attachment and bonding, the mother’s brains were more activated when viewing their children.

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. Source: PLOS ONE: "Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. (Source: PLOS ONE: “Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study”)

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When A Doctor Brings Her Dog To The Office

Homer lightens the mood in the pediatric waiting room

By Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein

I’ll admit it. My dog Homer is a pretty pampered prince. He’s rarely left alone. Since he was a puppy, our little Sheltie-American Eskimo mix has been going to work with my husband, who owns a restaurant supply company. There Homer acts like the Wal-Mart greeter, walking up to customers, sniffing them, and following them around the store as they make their purchases.

I first brought Homer to work with me as an experiment a few years ago. I am a pediatrician in private practice. I was renting office space at the time in a building attached to Merrimack Valley Hospital. It was a Saturday morning and I was just going in to see a couple of children. The experiment failed. Homer sat outside the exam room and barked. And barked. And barked.

Since then Homer has matured and I now own my own condo space. So I’ve started bringing him with me on Fridays, my short day. I have to say, he’s useful to the practice. Children who are being seen because their parents used the “L” word on the phone (lethargic) often perk up when they see my little fur ball wagging his tail at the family. I think of it as the fourth vital sign: there’s the child’s weight, temperature, and pulse. Then there’s her reaction to Homer. If a pokey child who is curled up in his dad’s lap springs into action to pet my dog, I take that as a pretty reassuring sign.

Dogs are good for all kinds of things. They can act as companions for the elderly in nursing homes. They help provide therapy in schools for troubled children. I recently read an article in The Boston Globe about a Courthouse Dog Program where dogs help calm victims on the witness stand as they recount traumatic events. The animals are trained to sense anxiety and to try to reduce stress by seeking to be petted. Now a trip to the doctor’s can be pretty traumatic at times, especially if shots are involved. And Homer may or may not sense anxiety, but he sure knows how to seek to be petted. Continue reading

Friends With Benefits: Can Dogs Boost Self-Esteem?

Dogs for your health?

There are no dogs allowed on Corn Hill Beach in Truro from 9-6 in summer. Still, under the sparkling sun yesterday, there they were, the Labradoodles and the terriers, the Dalmations and Golden Retrievers, frolicking in the surf, oblivious to their illegal acts. Their owners, too, appeared oblivious: “Why would anyone ban dogs from the beach?” said one tanned, fit owner throwing a tennis ball to his chocolate lab, Sophie. “I just don’t understand, how can anyone not love dogs?”

Admittedly, I’m not a pet person, and I can think of many reasons dogs should be cleared from a beach teeming with babies and seniors on a hot July day. But based on a new study, “Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership,” published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it appears I’m probably not as well-adjusted as Sophie’s owner, and the millions of other “everyday people,” who are neither sick nor needy, but still consider their pets the best companion they’ll ever have.

The study details earlier research showing pets can indeed help people with specific ailments and illnesses. For instance, the paper says, “research shows that pet owners are less likely to die within 1 year of having a heart attack than those who do not own pets.” Moreover, the authors report: “lonely people are often advised to get a dog or a cat to alleviate social isolation, and even U.S. President Harry Truman purportedly said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” But in these new experiments, researchers suggest that you don’t have to be needy or suffering from a medical condition to benefit from a cat or dog. Continue reading