The Wallis Annenberg PetSpace Leadership Institute supports collaborative research on the bond between people and dogs

By Kamala Kirk

Alma Guzman and her newly adopted dog, Ethel, at Annenberg PetSpace.
Credit: Wallis Annenberg PetSpace

For centuries, humans and dogs have shared a special bond. Dogs are the oldest domestic animals, and in addition to providing companionship, they perform a variety of integral roles such as assistance (service and therapy), detection (search and rescue), as well as protection and apprehension (military and law enforcement).

In 2017, Wallis Annenberg PetSpace founded the Leadership Institute to develop curricula that supports education relating to the human-animal bond, convene gatherings to discuss public policy surrounding domestic animals, promote multidisciplinary scholarship, and serve as a platform for the dissemination of the outcome from these activities.

Wallis Annenberg PetSpace is an interactive community space that offers pet adoptions, educational programs, and supports collaborative research on the bond between humans and animals.

“The Leadership Institute focuses on a variety of topics related to the human-animal bond,” said Donna Fernandes, PhD, director of Wallis Annenberg PetSpace. “Our current class of fellows met in February 2020 to discuss how human-dog interactions benefit us medically, psychologically or through their service as working dogs.”

The Leadership Institute convenes Leadership Fellows from world-renowned institutions to collaborate on furthering the understanding of the human-animal bond. Each class of Leadership Fellows is selected by the director of Wallis Annenberg PetSpace with input from senior staff.

“The role of the Fellows includes giving a presentation at the symposium, participating in dynamic group discussions with the other fellows, and contributing to a paper for a symposium volume,” Fernandes said. “They might also be asked to give a public lecture at Annenberg PetSpace or assist in the preparation and review of curriculum materials for our education programs for middle and high school students.”

Two symposiums have been held to date, with a third likely to be held in Spring 2022. The first group of Leadership Fellows met for a two-day retreat in Palm Springs in March 2017 with the charge of deliberating on the science of the human-animal bond.

“The outcome of their work was a wide-ranging multidisciplinary paper covering the early domestication of dogs, dog-human co-evolution, the emergence of individual breeds, and the role of domestic dogs in modern ecological settings around the globe ranging from truly feral to completely domesticated,” Fernandes shared. “The paper was published in March 2020 as a perspective article in the journal Animals.”

Presentation and discussion topics at the 2020 Symposium included the physiological and psychological changes that occur during human-dog interactions, as well as the selection, training and welfare of companion animals and service dogs. As a product of the retreat, Leadership Fellows are collaborating on 14 papers to be published as a research topic entitled, “Our Canine Connection: The Benefits, History and Future of Human-Dog Interactions” in Frontiers in Veterinary Science in Spring 2021.

“As our present research highlights working dogs, current events are becoming quite relevant to this study,” Fernandes said. “Our Fellows’ research is covering topics including working dogs detecting COVID-19 and important support from therapy dogs. On top of an increase in adopted dogs providing companionship during times of isolation in the past year, these relationships and bonds we share are more significant than ever before.”

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