An autistic child becomes more interactive while petting the classroom’s pet hamster. The stress level of a soldier with PTSD decreases when he’s around his service dog. An overworked office worker decompresses, smiles, and laughs after watching a funny cat video on YouTube.
What is the relationship between human happiness and animals? Ask Maggie O’Haire ’08, an assistant professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, whose research focuses on the remarkable interactions that take place between humans and animals.
“I’ve been fascinated by how much animals pervade our lives,” she says.
O’Haire’s research on the subject started at Vassar. Her independent psychology projects and papers focused on human-animal bonds, and during her senior year, she discovered a nearby gem—Green Chimneys in Brewster—a school that uses animal-assisted therapy for emotionally, behaviorally, and socially challenged children.
“Because Vassar instilled in me the willingness to be bold and to try new things, I set up a meeting with the clinical director there. I asked if they needed any help with research and asked whether I’d be able to set up an internship there,” O’Haire says.
She got the internship at the school, which has its own wildlife rehabilitation center and horseback riding facility. O’Haire helped out weekly with everything from brainstorming on how to measure the results of animal therapy on students to preparing documents to send to students’ families.
What followed next, O’Haire says, was a Fulbright Scholarship—based on a proposal written with help from Lisa Kooperman, assistant dean of fellowships and pre-health advising. Shortly after graduation, the scholarship took her to Australia, where she developed a project to evaluate the impact of animals on children with autism in a classroom setting.
“Had I not done that, I would certainly not be where I am today,” she says of the Fulbright opportunity.
Using low-maintenance and portable guinea pigs, the eight-week study entailed teaching the children how to care for and interact with the animals. Organizers then measured physiological data coming from wristband monitors on the children. As documented in a New York Times story, the study showed the guinea pigs had a positive impact on the autistic students.
“When the animal was there, children were coming out of their shells and being more social with their peers. We saw reduced problem behaviors and more social skills,” O’Haire says, noting that the study ended up taking longer than expected to complete. “That project for my Fulbright grew bigger than expected, so I ended up staying in Australia and completing my Ph.D. there, all on the same topic—the effects of animals on children with autism.”
After leaving Australia, O’Haire landed in Indiana at her current position at Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond. She’s continuing her studies with autistic children, including one with dogs performed in a neuropsychiatric setting and another that compares the therapy benefits of different species of animals.
She’s also leading a study that focuses on military members and their service dogs.
“I’m looking at the effects of the dogs on those individuals and their families and general life. We don’t have any findings on that yet, but the anecdotal data suggests that it could be useful to have these animals in those homes,” O’Haire says.
Other studies include one that looks at the effects of bringing therapy dogs to college campuses, focusing on how they can help decrease stress levels and enhance student performance. O’Haire says she was happy to see Vassar getting in on the trend with its inaugural VC Dog Day this September. She’s participating in a nationwide study—Canines for Childhood Cancer Project—that examines the benefits of therapy dogs on children hospitalized with cancer.
“We have interesting research that shows that just the presence of an animal can make a difference. If you’re petting an animal, we know it can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, but we also now know that just having an animal there changes your perception of the room and the people in it,” O’Haire says.