Academics and Research

Social work conference makes the case for increased human-animal interaction

The Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC) at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work hosted its second biennial conference for social work practitioners on May 12. Titled “Animals on the Mind: Social Neurobiology of Human-Animal Interactions in Research and Practice,” the conference featured presentations by experts in the emerging field of social neurobiology. Philip Tedeschi, director of IHAC, welcomed attendees by noting the timeliness of the conference’s theme.

“This topic is very important,” Tedeschi said. “The new work being done in the area of social neurobiology helps measure the ways animals impact humans specifically.”

More than 500 practitioners, researchers and students attended the conference. Topics included animal-assisted intervention for children with autism and pet therapy for hospitalized military veterans.

World-renowned animal expert Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, provided an overview of behaviors that animals exhibit when they are fearful, anxious or content. Grandin described how having autism has given her greater insight into how an animal will react to its environment.

“I’m a total visual thinker,” she said. “I tell people that to understand animals, the first thing they have to do is get away from written words. They have to think, ‘How do the animals perceive things?’” She went on to explain how her observational skills led her to implement a variety of improvements in livestock handling and animal welfare.

In another presentation, Lisa Freund, chief of the child development and behavior branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Development, noted that “social neuroscience really takes a multilevel approach: It integrates the brain and its neural pathways, as well as interpersonal and situational influences on behavior, anatomy and genetics.” Freund explained how biological evidence helps prove how and why the human-animal relationships many of us take for granted are beneficial.

Additionally, Freund pointed out that knowledge about structural similarities between animal and human brains demonstrates the complex kinds of social interaction that can occur. She referenced a study that took functional MRI scans of human and dog brains; each demonstrated similar responses when processing vocalizations that corresponded to different emotions. This kind of research has been used to substantiate theories about the benefits of human-animal interaction.

“As we identify more neurobiological aspects that explain parts of human-animal interaction, human-animal interaction becomes a more accepted form of therapy across many disciplines,” Freund said.





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