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You’ve got a friend in me: Ohio State community weighs in on animal-human bonds

Spending the upcoming festive season with a significant other is one way to enjoy the holidays, but another — perhaps cuter — way to celebrate is with man’s best friend.

The bond between humans and animals is quite special, said Joelle Nielsen, an Ohio State veterinary social worker and program coordinator for Honoring the Bond, an organization that recognizes and supports the relationship between animals and their owners.

“There’s research out there that talks about the bond and even the mental-health benefits,” Nielsen said. “Our animals, they give us unconditional love, and that’s not something we consistently get from humans … the animals are there for us regardless.”

To Hannah Smith, a fourth-year in strategic communication, having a constant companion in the form of Eli, her 2-year-old Labrador-collie-pitbull mix, has made for a fun past year and a half. The first-time owner experience has been transformative, Smith said.

“Eli is the first dog I have ever had and he is the best,” Smith said. “He definitely can read me almost better than I can read myself. When I am sick he stays by my side all day and when I’m super active he’s still right there. He can tell my mood by the tone of my voice and acts upon that.”

Hannah Smith and her 2-year-old Labrador-collie-pitbull mix Eli. Credit: Courtesy of Hannah Smith

The connection is special for many reasons which can vary across the board, Nielsen said. For some of her clients without any children of their own, the pets can step in place.

“Many owners will say to me, ‘This is like my child,’” Nielsen said. “The attachment for some people is very much like a member of the family.”

It’s no wonder, dogs react to their owners in a manner that mirrors how children respond to their parents. A 2013 study published in the journal Plos One found that these similar behaviors are rooted in what is called the “secure base effect,” a type of bonding that happens when dogs or kids consider their protectors to be a steady point that instills them with confidence, safety and comfort.

Although she had only cats growing up, Emily Reed, a fourth-year in psychology, has been getting acquainted with her new puppy, Ollie, a Cavalier-King-Charles-spaniel-poodle mix who has a knack for brightening up anyone’s day.

“He’s kind of like a child for me … he’s a member of the family definitely,” Reed said. “I work at a pet store with all of these puppies, I fall in love with puppies all the time from a miniature poodle all the way up to a Great Dane, but I still want to go home to [Ollie].”

Though Nielsen said a close connection with an animal is good, it’s still difficult to decide who the better companion is.

“I don’t want to say that one is better than the other,” Nielsen said. “I think they are both important, if you had to choose one or the other, I think that’d be a hard one.”

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