Janelle Casson says it never gets any easier when her husband deploys as a U.S. Army combat engineer. But after four tours of duty in the last 12 years—assignments ranging from a year to 15 months each in Iraq—she and her four children eventually fall into a well-learned routine. “You have a muscle memory of how it feels to be without him and what we all need to do to keep moving forward,” she says.
Even Ebony, the family’s 9-year-old Scottish terrier-schnauzer mix, takes the deployments hard, moping about the house and keeping to herself. “It takes a couple of weeks for her to come to terms with the fact that dad is not here,” says Casson, of Killeen, Texas. Ebony inevitably forgoes her normal bed in the master bedroom to seek comfort sleeping alongside one of the children.
Fourteen-year-old Elijah, the oldest, is the main support for the dog, which joined the family when the boy was 5. “He’s been Ebony’s primary caretaker” whenever his father is away, says Casson. “He feeds her and takes her on walks. He just fell into the role of taking care of her, much the way [many military] kids fall into other typically dad roles when they’re gone.”
Ebony is probably helping Elijah, too. Recent Tufts University research finds that a strong relationship with a pet is associated with better coping skills in children who are managing the stress of having a parent deployed. The study came out of the new Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction (TIHAI), which seeks to discover exactly how animals help us better handle physical and emotional stress, commit to fitness and educational goals, overcome physical disabilities and recover from psychological trauma.
Animals have been a part of our lives for thousands of years. We started keeping company with them as soon as we realized that dogs could help us hunt, cats would exterminate the rodents pilfering our grain stores and horses offered transportation.
But that’s not the whole story. Why do we continue to embrace these domesticated animals like members of our family, even though they no longer fulfill our pragmatic needs? The new Tufts institute, launched in 2015, is examining the importance of our relationships with other species. But instead of working in the traditional silos of fields such as veterinary medicine, human medicine and psychology, TIHAI draws on faculty, staff and students from myriad areas of expertise.
“We bring together all these different disciplines to put some sound evidence behind what we intuitively know is true: animals can enhance our lives in so many ways,” says Lisa Freeman, J86, V91, N96, a professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine who directs the Institute.