On a gray and cold December morning, Strudel, a mixed-breed outfitted as a lighted Christmas tree, and Blazer, a greyhound dressed as Santa Claus, illuminated the lives of adolescents and children at Valparaiso's Special Education Learning Facility.
Once the festive canines entered the high school and elementary rooms, the students, who range from severe to profoundly disabled, smiled and laughed. A teenage boy slightly outstretched his fingers from his paralyzed hand and gently stroked Blazer. A quiet girl giggled and hugged Strudel. Another teenage boy kissed Blazer's back.
"(These children are) exposed to something non-judgmental," said Diana Chupp, who with her husband Larry, owns the professionally trained dogs and serve as members of Human Opportunities for Pet Experiences, a chapter of the Delta Society, an organization that encourages animal-based therapy. The Valparaiso Kennel Club sponsors HOPE. The Chupps also bring their dogs to nursing homes, as well as to pediatric and intensive care units in Valparaiso.
The benefit that animals bring to human physiological and psychological health is not a new phenomenon. Starting with Borris Levinson's 1969 book "Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy," the value of the animal-human bond has faithfully been addressed, said Alan Beck, a Dorothy N. McAllister professor of Animal Ecology at Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine. Beck also acts as director of Purdue's Center for the HumanAnimal Bond.
"At a time when life is so unnatural and environmental enrichment is so lacking," Beck said, "it's wonderful to have a reminder of (human's) earlier times with nature's contact."
By increasing pheromones, the chemical humans produce when they experience happiness or sadness, and providing social interaction, pets help to strengthen the immune system and boost happiness. Studies also have found decreased blood pressure, greater overall health and less loneliness in people who own or are exposed to animals.
Veterinarian Jack Stephens, who founded California-based Veterinary Pet Insurance, said humans tend to carry expectations of other people.
"With a dog we have none of that," Stephens said, and, like Beck and Chupp, he emphasizes that animals offer what human beings sometimes cannot: unconditional love and acceptance.
After a bout with oral cancer, Stephens established the VPI Skeeter Foundation, a non-profit advocating awareness of and promoting the animal-human bond.
He lives as an example of pets' benefits.
As he underwent radiation and chemotherapy, Stephens found he wasn't alone. He said his dog Spanky knew his moods. The Miniature Pinscher's walks forced Stephens to exercise. Spanky also entertained him, in turn taking his mind off his illness.
After Spanky died, Stephens obtained Skeeter, whose passive personality greatly differed from Spanky's bundle of energy. But the result remains just as effective.
"I call (Skeeter) a sissy," Stephens said with a laugh. "But Skeeter has other attributes that make him a joy in my life. He has a calming effect."
Since there is no judgment in this bi-species relationship, stress decreases. The media and medical communities have noted how stress can trigger illness, since it weakens the immune system - an assertion with which Molly Farrell, a veterinarian at the Hammond Pet Hospital, agrees, noting small and large pets' positive effects boost immune function.
Farrell said making the decision to have a pet, and what type, depend on a person's personality and his or her schedule. If someone maintains a busy life, perhaps a goldfish would provide a better choice. Yet caring for a fish still helps to lift its owner's spirits.
Pam Hurst, a veterinary technician with the IAMS company, points out pets stimulate interaction and altruistic care and promote social responsibility in children.
"It is a beautiful (and) remarkable thing to see," Hurst said
Jillian Osborn of Whiting, author of the children's book series "The Mouse That Lived in My Shoe" has suffered from pericarditis since childhood. She said her cats have helped boost her physical and emotional health. In October, she received two female kittens that she named Pixie and Anu.
Concurring with Stephens, Osborn believes animals sense when people are sick.
"(Pets) just help the outlook a lot " brighten the day," Osborn said.
To find out more information on the bond between pets and humans, check out these Web sites:
VPI Skeeter Foundation
The Delta Society