Ingram Blog

Animals Helping People

by Becky Walton, MLIS, Collection Development Librarian
Have you seen the “Who Rescued Who” car magnet? Grammar error aside, that decal makes me smile because I often reflect on the relationship between animals and humans. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear stories on the news of a cat waking up his owner in the night when a fire breaks out, or a dog standing guard over his owner who’s in the middle of a seizure, or rats sniffing out landmines.

The evolution of the wolf and wildcat into the pets we know today is covered by some outstanding resources, such as A Dog in the Cave: The Wolves Who Made Us Human by Kay Frydenborg, How to Tame a Fox by Lee Alan Dugatkin, and The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker that I won’t get into here. Instead, I want to focus on titles that look at what dogs and cats are doing to help humans live fuller, happier, more productive, and satisfying lives.

As a child, I loved all animals and was forever on the lookout for them. My first recollection of a service animal is a seeing-eye dog. That was a while back now, and boy have we come a long way, puppy! We know now that companion animals can serve humans in a wide variety of other ways, including: 

  • alerting the hearing impaired to important and urgent sounds
  • assisting people with mobility issues by pulling wheelchairs, turning on/off light switches, retrieving dropped items, and counterbalancing an unsteady person using stairs
  • alerting to dangerous sugar levels or impending seizures (a great resource for seeing this in action is the Netflix documentary “Dogs,” season 1, episode 1)
  • comforting and calming those with mental health issues such as PTSD (these animals are often referred to as emotional support animals) or special needs such as autism (Another Netflix show “Kitten Rescuers” features Thula the cat, who helps her little human Iris Grace. Their friendship is written about in a book mentioned in more detail below.)
  • sitting with and listening to children practicing reading and speaking

In addition to being trained to provide specific types of assistance, companion animals also bring other positive but perhaps less-measurable benefits to humans’ lives. There are some books that have recently published or are coming out this fall that I’m extremely excited to tell you about (and get my paws on galleys)!

Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too by Humane Society Silicon Valley President Carol Novello shares stories of people who have adopted shelter animals and been made the better for it. Fun fact: Novello co-created Mutual Rescue, an organization that promotes human-animal relationships and produces films such as “Eric & Peety,” which is based on Eric O’Grey’s weight loss journey told in Walking with Peety: The Dog Who Saved My Life.

Similar to Mutual Rescue in format, Animal Kind: Lessons on Love, Fear and Friendship from Wild Animals also presents stories of people who have enjoyed the benefits of rescued animals, including that of the author Emma Lock.

Nature lovers will recognize the name Richard Louv. He wrote Last Child in the Woods and Vitamin N. His latest book, Our Wild Calling: How Connecting with Animals Can Transform Our Lives--And Save Theirs, publishing this November, shows how the relationship between people and other animals can improve our mental, physical, and spiritual health and protect our planet.

Social anthropologist Jacky Colliss Harvey explores why humans have a strong desire to share everyday life with animals in Animal's Companion: People & Their Pets, a 26,000-Year Love Story. She traces the history of the human-animal bond back 26,000 years to a cave in France where evidence of a boy and his dog taking a walk together has been uncovered. 

Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love came out a few years ago but is highly relevant for this discussion as it tells the first-person account of someone with disabilities whose life was greatly enhanced by a service dog. Karen Shirk overcame the traumatic onset of her neuromuscular disease with her German Shepherd Ben and founded the service-dog academy 4 Paws for Ability. Underdogs also tells the stories of other families who have introduced dogs to their homes with beautiful results.

Fans of animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell may remember Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog. In this 2017 memoir, McConnell recounts the story of her experience with a troubled Border Collie, which in turn leads her to confront trauma from her past.

Especially fascinating to me are the ways that animals help those with autism spectrum disorder. As a cat lover, my whiskers were all aquiver when I learned of Thula and how she has made Iris Grace’s world a less frightening place. With her devoted Maine Coon by her side, Iris Grace, diagnosed with autism, is now calmer, more focused, and less dreadful of bath time. (Yes, Thula hops in the tub with her little girl!) Read more about this remarkable relationship in Iris Grace: How Thula the Cat Saved a Little Girl and Her Family.

The next two titles are essential resources to have in your library to support parents of children with autism. Friends Like Henry: Everything Your Family Needs to Know about Finding, Training and Learning from an Autism Companion Dog from Jessica Kingsley explores how dogs can help children with autism with a wide range of growth milestones, such as communicating and toilet training. It also gives advice on the general care and training of dogs. The author, Nuala Gardner, has two children on the spectrum and is well-qualified to speak to this topic. Another qualified expert is veterinarian Annie Bowes, who herself is autistic. In her book Dogs and Autism, she discusses how dogs helped her deal with issues related to autism and how others can benefit with these canine alternative treatments.

Why weren’t school dogs a thing when I was a student?! Introducing a School Dog: Our Adventures with Doodles the Schnoodle is the story of Highfurlong School, a school in the UK, and their use of Doodles (who pops up in their Twitter posts! Check out @Highfurlong) to create a safe and calming environment.

There are also many rich titles that provide important information and inspiring narrative about animals helping people but also have the added quality of stunning photography that beautifully captures the joy of human-animal relationships. For example, Extraordinary Dogs: Stories from Search and Rescue Dogs, Comfort Dogs, and Other Canine Heroes showcases more than 50 courageous, dedicated dogs "in uniform" and their inspiring stories.

You can count on National Geographic to deliver some true jewels. Two titles worth noting here are Loyal: 38 Inspiring Tales of Bravery, Heroism, and the Devotion of Dogs, which profiles working dogs who have partnered with soldiers, search-and-rescuers, police officers, teachers, and more and Love Unleashed: Tales of Inspiration and the Life-Changing Power of Dogs, which celebrates the amazing relationships shared with our four-legged friends.

Pit Bull Heroes: 49 Underdogs with Resilience and Heart features 49 Pit Bulls who are helping the world, one slobbery lick at a time. Some of the Pitties are therapy dogs. Some are drug-sniffers. All are big-hearted animals. (Fun fact: Gibbs Smith will donate some of the proceeds from book sales to Pit Bull rescue organizations.)

I’d be willing to bet that you, dear reader, have had the joy of having an amazing animal in your life at one point. And I know you have some patrons who have. Your library may host a reading-to-dogs program. You likely have patrons who visit your library with their service dogs. Many public libraries have animal programs as part of their summer reading club finale. Animals are a large part of many people’s lives and having these titles on your shelves will delight and inspire them.