Working in the World of Human-Animal Interaction Research

Beth Lanning

Beth Lanning, PhD, is I am now a professor, the Associate Chair of the Department of Public Health, the Director of the at Baylor University, and a Master Certified Health Education Specialist (MCHES). Her research interest includes human-animal interventions, especially equine-assisted activities and therapy for trauma recovery, veterans with PTSD and depression, children with autism or cerebral palsy, and at-risk youth children.

My love and respect for animals started long before my professional work in public health. My mom bred, trained, and showed golden retrievers and ran obedience schools for years which meant that I grew up around animals. My mom also trained horses and taught me to ride at age 5. I loved riding from an early age and continued riding throughout my childhood. Horses, dogs, and cats were just part of the family. Middle school and high school years can be a difficult time for a lot of people. For me, it was the high school years that proved most difficult. Several situations beyond my control led to me selling my horse before finishing high school. Self-doubt, insecurity, and uncertainty were now part of my life. Then came a special stray dog named Jessie. God brought her into my life at just the right time. I have always believed that God’s love shines through His animals, and that was especially true for Jessie. She was my “shadow”; my companion who was always there and happy to spend time with me. I am fortunate to have been able to experience the human-animal bond from an early age and witness how animals have the unique ability to improve a person’s quality of life in so many ways.

My professional training is in community/public health. I earned a master of science in education (MSEd) in community health from Baylor University and a PhD in health education from Texas A&M University, and I am an MCHES. In 2000, I accepted a position at Baylor University7 in the community health program (now the Public Health Program). My pretenure research focused on sexual health and quality' of life with a special focus on psychosocial and behavioral health. After being awarded tenure in 2006, I decided to explore bringing my two worlds together: my childhood years with animals and my professional training in public health. I especially wanted to focus on how horses could influence a person’s quality' of life, yet I found little research in that area. Thus, the birth of my research focus on human-animal interaction (HAI) and the benefits of equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) for various populations.

In public health, HAI fits nicely under the One Health concept. One Health is the unique, dynamic health relationship of human, animal, and environment. It is a concept supported and promoted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization. My work has focused primarily' on the psychosocial health benefits of EAAT for military' service members and children with autism as well as for other special populations. Because of my' role in academia as both a professor and administrator, I also conduct research related to animals and college students. I use the classroom as an opportunity to teach students (many' of whom are preparing to work in the healthcare field) about the health benefits of HAI and to encourage them to consider health promotion interventions that include animals in their future work in healthcare and/ or public health.

Currently, there are few public health professionals who conduct research on the psychosocial and physical benefits of HAI within the One Health paradigm. Most public health efforts focus on emerging zoonotic diseases. While this is a critical area in public health, I have enjoyed exploring the social, mental, and physical health benefits of HAI and encourage other public health professionals to do the same. I am fortunate to work in an academic environment that allows me to pursue my work in this area even though it is not a heavily funded area of research. One of my greatest moments of satisfaction occurred sitting in a horse arena with the spouse of a veteran participating in my' EAAT study'. We cried together as she told me the story of her husbands recovery and how thankful she was for a horse program that she felt “saved” her husband. That is why' I conduct research in the area of HAI. It is not about the data or research funding, even though that is important, it is about having an impact on the lives of others and helping improve quality' of life—the essence of public health work.

I would encourage public health and other professionals who have an interest in HAI work to learn more about the topic by' examining the research literature, attending HAI related conferences such as International Society of Anthrozoology' and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, and visiting organizations that are involved in HAI type work. I would also encourage individuals interested in pursuing HAI related research to take courses in research methods and/or collaborate with others trained in research methods. While many of us have personal stories about the benefits of animals in our lives, it is well designed studies and empirical data that are needed to move human-animal interventions from a novel idea to a best-practice choice.

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