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Love of animals enhances students' academic disciplines

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by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Spring is senior seminar season at Bethel College. For four students, this spring was also a chance to apply their love of animals to both scholarly pursuits and a desire to help people.

It’s not unusual, of course, for animals to be part of senior research – from microorganisms to zebra fish to tons' worth of beef cattle. What was different this year was having “companion animals” – specifically horses, dogs and/or cats – as a vital component.

Shayne Runnion, social work major, grew up on a farm/ranch near Phillipsburg, Kan., where she has been riding horses since she could walk and training them since she was 10.

Runnion came to Bethel four years ago intending to major in elementary education, but was quickly attracted to social work when, she says, she wasn’t enjoying her education classes as she thought she would, and when she realized “people do talk to me.

“Finally, I decided I had a call to work with people, even if it wasn’t in the ‘traditional’ sense,” she says. When it came time to do her senior seminar, “I wanted it to be something that combined social work and horses because that’s my long-term goal – a place of my own to do Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) of some kind.”

For her project, she studied five developmentally disabled clients of Horses to Humans of Wichita, which has a mission to help people “discover their own paths to healing and betterment through partnering with horses.”

Her results, she says, proved her hypothesis that clients would appreciate this kind of therapy and recommend it for others, which all of them did.

Practically, her work made her better acquainted with EAT. She plans to train this summer to be certified as an equine specialist, who can then work alongside a mental health specialist at an organization like Horses to Humans, before eventually going on for her master’s degree.

Natalia Vanover, Mountain Lake, Minn., another social work major, decided to look at “what kind of grief responses people experience when losing a pet.”

Her interest stemmed from a “great relationship” with her own pets – she and her husband, who are recently married, now have two dogs and a cat, and had the experience of losing another cat recently – and her realization that “more and more people consider [their pets] members of their family.

“I got my first pet – a hamster – when I was in third grade,” she says. “My first ‘big’ pet was a cat, when I was 12, that’s still living.”

She first wanted to do research on whether interacting with a pet would affect human tress levels, but discovered “it’s really hard to measure stress.” She began talking with her professors about other ideas for projects using animals.

One of them suggested looking at “disenfranchised grief,” which hadn’t been studied much – “a type of grief where society doesn’t recognize the relationship or the loss,” Vanover says. “Others don’t realize how close people feel to their pets – people feel like others don’t really understand their grief.”

Vanover interviewed 10 people who had lost a pet in the past five years, asking them “open-ended questions, so they could elaborate on what they felt.

“I wanted to figure out what role social workers could play in helping people deal with grief around pet loss,” Vanover continues. “Examples would be support groups, or being a resource or referral for vets and vet staff, possibly working in a vet clinic.”

Vanover also plans to go on for graduate work and says she has interest in being on a veterinarian’s staff someday.

Two other Bethel seniors majoring in science took advantage of the willingness of the staff at the local animal shelter, Caring Hands Humane Society in Newton, Kan., to work with college students.

When biology major Lizzie Shelly of Lenexa, Kan., was considering her senior research project, she also hoped for one that involved companion animals. She found Caring Hands and its behavior specialist, Lori Smith, very willing to accommodate her.

“I like animals, first of all,” Shelly says. “I also took Animal Behavior in my freshman year and I liked the computer program we used [to measure] animal behavior, JWalker. I wanted to use it again.”

She decided “to see if there was correlation between how long a dog had been at the shelter and how uncomfortable it was around strangers. I would take someone from Bethel as the ‘stranger’ and go to Caring Hands.

“I’d bring a dog into the visitation room and then film the interaction between the stranger and the dog for five minutes.”

She observed a total of 31 dogs, with no pattern to breed or gender, though she would sometimes ask her stranger if s/he preferred to play with a small or a large dog.

Her results showed no correlation between variables such as time in the shelter, age, sex or reason the dog was brought to Caring Hands and the dog’s comfort with strangers.

That may indicate that, at Caring Hands, at least, the enrichment program Smith runs for the animals is effective in making them more adoptable, but further studies would need to be done with other shelters, Shelly says.

Her vocational interest is “eventually going to vet school,” she says. In the meantime, she’ll be seeking out a job at a vet clinic to gain some experience.

Ashley Klein, Newton, is completing a double major in psychology and natural sciences. Like Runnion, she came to Bethel thinking she’d pursue one vocational angle – web coding and web design – but was quickly hooked by the discipline of psychology.

In addition to her courses on human behavior, Klein also took animal behavior classes, including an independent study in her junior year on “canine cognition behavior and evolution,” which helped her figure out “what I wanted to do with my senior seminar. I already knew I wanted to do it with dogs.

“My entire life has been about dogs,” she continues. “I’ve had a lot of good experiences with dogs in my life. Dogs live with us. They are ingrained in a lot of our lives. I thought it was interesting that we don’t have a lot of literature about the behavior of dogs themselves – ‘Pavlov’s dog’ is about human behavior.”

She set up project with “the intention to look at if the preference dogs have for their owners, in other studies, is toward humans in general or the owner specifically, compared to how they react in a situation with a stranger dog or another dog.”

She used a modified form of the Ainsworth-Strange Situation, originally developed to study attachment between human mothers and infants, with 10 pairs of dogs and owners and her dog Lily as the “stranger dog.” She could find no previous similar studies that had looked at dogs reacting to other dogs.

Her results weren’t as definitive as she hoped (she had planned for double the pairs but that didn’t materialize for a number of reasons) but was encouraged by some of the implications, particularly for helping animal shelters and individuals figure out ways to help dogs that spend long periods of time alone, such as during a work day.

Even as she was conducting her research, Klein began an internship at Caring Hands Humane Society, working with the behavior specialist there.

She plans to keep that up and add more hours this summer, and she’s looking down the line at graduate programs such as one in canine cognition at Duke University – with a goal of making life better for both companion dogs and the people who love them.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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