Voluntary Association Development and The Human-Animal Bond

Ben P. Granger and Georgia V. Granger*


A major voluntary association development in the United States has been the interdisciplinary relationship between social work and veterinary medicine. This development has to do with the human-animal bond and the therapeutic use of companion animals in the lives of people. Both professions are dedicated to the care of living beings, bringing special expertise to the understanding of the human-animal bond.

Voluntary associations are rooted in democratic societies, where citizens can participate in enhancing their own development as well as the development of others. This is based on the freedom of choice, commitment to a central interest, a willingness to engage oneself in this interest, and an awareness of the need for self-help as well as helping others. Democracies are built on the value of the worth and dignity of each person, and the empowering of persons to take action in their own lives.

This worth and dignity, and respect for others, is extended to other living beings and also extended to a respect for the environment or nature. This respect for humans, animals, and the environment (or a reverence for life) is a fundamental condition for survival of a democratic society. Without a reverence for life, it would be difficult to maintain democracy and/or to encourage voluntary associations. Unfortunately, this reverence for life is fragile and can be frequently offended or injured. This is one reason why we have injured humans, animals, and injured environments.

Within this context of a reverence for life, a respect for the dignity and worth of humans, animals, and the environment we have undertaken an effort to study this interrelationship. At Colorado State University we are developing an interdisciplinary center dedicated to understanding human-animal interactions and promoting the human-animal bond in order to improve the quality of life for both people and animals. The center seeks to optimize the positive and minimize the negative aspects of human-animal interactions and the human-animal bond, specifically in the areas of professional and volunteer training (teaching); applied research and evaluation (research); and prototype applications and dissemination of information (service).

Issues to be addressed by the center are (1) pet loss and owner grief, specifically understanding human-animal attachment, loss and normal grief, and the communication and client relations techniques used to deal effectively with pet loss and issues surrounding euthanasia; (2) the therapeutic use of animals in human service settings, specifically understanding how to develop creditable animal-assisted therapy and activities programs that could be replicated in other communities in order to assist in health care delivery; (3) the resolution of animal behavior problems, specifically understanding normal animal behavior counseling techniques; (4) animal welfare and the status of animals in society, specifically understanding the various ethical issues pertaining to the use and/or ownership of animals as well as the circumstances leading to the euthanasia of thousands of companion animals discarded from homes due to abandonment, natural or created animal behavior problems, and unwanted animal pregnancies.

As one component of the center, HABIC (Human-Animal Bond in Colorado) provides animal-assisted therapy and activities in partnership with community health, mental health, education, and human service programs. Through animal-assisted therapy and activities, HABIC is providing rehabilitative assistance to patients in long term care facilities (nursing homes), special needs students within school settings, and in mental health and other rehabilitative programs. HABIC is modeled after the national award-winning program called Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee (HABIT) and is directed by the co-founder and director of that program. A number of journal articles relating to research and evaluation of animal-assisted therapy have been published and regional, national, and international workshops provided.

The Therapeutic Use of Companion Animals

The human-animal bond is a relationship between a human and an animal that involves love, admiration, and trust. The bond is beneficial to both it is a reciprocal interaction. Many pet owners in the United States consider their animals to be "part of the family" and treat them as such, training them to be appropriately socialized and obedient, and accepting responsibility for their welfare.

Animals such as those described, which are normal, healthy, and happy, can benefit humans in many ways. For example, interaction with an elderly person can ease loneliness, provide a nurturing situation, promote socialization, and improve the quality of life for the individual. Use of companion animals as a team with staff, and therapists, can help improve cognition, socialization, reminiscence, as well as trust, memory, sequencing, self-esteem, problem-solving, attention, and concentration. Petting or grooming an animal can assist in the physical and emotional recovery of the patient. Humans of all ages and needs are able to work toward these goals and others, through the therapeutic use of companion animals.

HABIC is working toward these goals through animal-assisted therapy and activities. The human is usually the owner of the animal, although the use of screened and appropriate "loan" animals has proved successful. The human and animal work as a team, along with staff or a therapist within the facility or agency.

The human-animal team is asked to participate a minimum of one hour per week as the team visits or works toward the rehabilitative goals of each patient; the same day and time so the human-animal bond may develop. The human volunteer is the advocate for the animal, demonstrating appropriate behavior to be used with the animal, in using only animals that find this interaction a pleasurable experience.

A responsible owner can usually assess his/her animal as to appropriateness, but all HABIC animals are screened medically and behaviorally, as well as given the Canine Good Citizen test. Medical screening is done by community veterinarians, making sure the inoculations are up to date, that the animal has never bitten anyone, and that the animal is free of any zoonotic disease. The behavioral screening is done by veterinarians at the veterinary teaching hospital and are tested for interaction, manners, startle reflex, and how they respond to a tail or ear pull or a toe-pinch. All of these tests are initial tests to see if the animal is too aggressive or too submissive, and one can more accurately assess the animal's response when in the facility to be visited.

To help understand how this therapeutic interaction works, picture an 80-year-old woman who continues to have TIA's after a major stroke. She is working with a physical therapist and speech therapist toward her rehabilitative goals which are attention and concentration, memory, improving right and left neglect, walking, enunciation and ability to use correct words. She is unable to do any of these very well, basically due to her inability for concentration. A HABIC team is asked to assist in the therapeutic sessions, and meet the patient along with a physical therapist. Immediate responses are very positive, enabling the patient to relax and focus on the dog. The patient's speech and selection of words are still confused, but improve with subsequent visits. Memory was helped by the patient trying to remember a sequence of commands for the dog while it retrieved an object thrown by the patient. Left and right neglect were improved by the animal's ability to drop the object on either the patient's right or left side, encouraging the patient to turn her head and look for the "rolled-up" newspaper, dumbbell, or tennis ball. Brushing the dog was very enjoyable and enabled use of affected limbs, as well as evoked such words as "pretty girl," which improved with use. Walking in a straight line and picking up each foot improved as the patient held a leash and walked the dog. Remembering the dog's name when introducing it to staff and residents involved memory, speech inflection, and enunciation. As the team walked through the hallway, the patient was asked to show the dog where her room was, calling upon memory and problem-solving. The dog and patient continue their visits which are now remembered and looked forward to with great expectation. The visits are a real highlight for the patient and a topic of conversation during the week.


This field of human-animal bonding and the therapeutic use of companion animals is relatively new as far as universal acceptance is concerned. It is anticipated by the authors that those involving themselves in these and similar endeavors will consider the importance of interdisciplinary work and the collaboration of various helping professions in developing this field. The human-animal bond, and the therapeutic use of companion animals has much to offer the areas of rehabilitation and social services. Further information, especially reports on research and projects, can be provided through the Delta Society; the national and international organization, the study of humans, animals, and nature.

* Ben P. Granger, Director, Professor, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO

* Georgia Granger, Director, HABIC, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO