The Extraordinary Bond Between Animals and People

Home & Family, Pets
on February 23, 2003

Tramp the dog was Scott Davis’ best companion as he was growing up. He entered Davis’ life on the boy’s seventh birthday, and from the beginning, the black, curly haired dog knew to whom he belonged.

The two were inseparable as Davis explored fields around his western Colorado home, fished mountain lakes, played cowboys, and hunted crawdads in irrigation ditches.

More than 30 years later, Tramp’s memory still brings a fond smile.

Indeed, about 60 percent of Americans consider their pet a member of their family, and scientists worldwide are documenting the very real physical and psychological benefits that animal companions can bring.

“Animals are just very accepting,” says Nancy Dapper of the Delta Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding the link between animals and human health. “They love you no matter what.”

In some cases, the bond between pets and their people can be extraordinary, as these examples show.

Night alarm

Abby Shaw was furious with her cat, Maggie, and with good reason: The feline had begun disturbing Shaw in the middle of the night.

“She was waking me up all night long,” says Shaw, who lives in Prescott, Ariz., (pop. 33,938) with her husband, John, and another cat named Bart. “She would come up and lick my face, and if I didn’t wake up, she would nip my nose.”

Shaw already had seen a doctor because she felt tired all the time and couldn’t figure out why. Now, it seemed, the cat was the problem.

Shaw called her daughter, Karen Shaw, to ask for help. But Karen, a physical therapist by trade, suspected something more and suggested her mother undergo testing at a sleep clinic. Sure enough, experts found that Shaw has sleep apnea, a disorder that causes sufferers to stop breathing when they fall asleep.

People with apnea often stop breathing for a minute or more—sometimes hundreds of times a night—then wake up gasping for air. The disorder can cause dangerous sleep deprivation, leading to depression, headaches, and even deadly accidents.

Often, apnea is so disturbing that a spouse instantly knows what’s wrong. But John Shaw has hearing problems, so he never noticed his wife’s struggles.

But Maggie the cat did. Each time Shaw started to struggle for air, Maggie was right there, making sure she was okay.

“She was troubled, she was nervous, and she was determined to wake me up,” Shaw says. “I’ve had to make my apologies to her.”

Maggie was special since the family adopted her as a tiny kitten 12 years ago, Shaw says.

“She seems to have an innate knowledge of what’s right and what’s balanced,” Shaw says. “She’s just an extraordinary cat. Sometimes I think she’s smarter than I am.”

Maggie is now a permanent fixture in the Shaws’ bedroom. Each night she watches as Shaw dons a breathing mask and turns on the machine that pumps oxygen into her lungs while she sleeps.

“Every night she checks to make sure that I put it on. If I don’t, she would sit up by my pillow and look at me, she’d get nervous,” Shaw says. But once the machine is on, Maggie’s job is done—and she settles in at her owner’s feet for a well-deserved rest.

Passion for horses

As a young girl, Liia Becker rushed home after school to spend hours with her horse, Smitty, riding bareback through the fields around her Maine home, or taking walks, the giant horse trailing behind like a dog. “He followed me everywhere,” Becker says. “We had this incredible bond.”

Smitty was her best friend, she says, for 22 years until his death. “His big shoulders handled my joy, my sadness, and everything in between,” she says. “He listened to me and always accepted me with love. In return, I loved him with all my heart. I was truly blessed to have had him in my life.”

Now, she’s returning the favor by taking care of horses in need, some of which have been abused or neglected. Many end up staying on at Tide’s End Farm, the riding center Becker runs in her hometown of Georgetown, Maine (pop. 1,020).

She handles every animal with the same understanding Smitty gave her, and the horses respond. “If you give nicely to them they give two-fold back,” she says.

Becker speaks from experience. She started riding at the age of 7 and left home 10 years later to compete in dressage, a technical and very disciplined form of riding, and eventing, an intense sport comparable to an equine triathlon. The hours of required training taught her how to communicate with the gentle giants.

“The horses make a lot of sense if you get in their heads,” she adds. “They’re very honest.”

She still thinks about Smitty each day, but she has developed a close bond with her stallion, Runswick Sultan, a rare Cleveland Bay she found about eight years ago grazing in a misty pasture in Wales.

She spends hours working with him and sometimes keeps him company when he naps in the morning. He returns the favor, nipping gently at the air near Becker, imitating the way horses naturally groom each other.

Becker’s calling may be taking care of needy horses, but they take care of her, too, she says. “They’re my family, they’re my career, they’re my life,” Becker says. “They always have something to teach me.”

Kyle’s best friend

Kyle Coggins always wanted a dog but couldn’t find the right one. Kyle, 12, who has cerebral palsy, struggles with balance and is overwhelmed easily, so his parents worried that a dog might knock him over or be too much to handle.

Then one day, the Coggins family of Alpharetta, Ga., (pop. 34,854) happened to be at the veterinarian’s with their cat when they met a female brown-and-black mutt that had been found wandering the streets.

“She was very calm when she approached him,”Anne Coggins says. “It was immediately the sweetest thing. He wanted to take her home right away.” Kyle named her Whispers, a name his mother thought odd at first. Now, she knows it’s appropriate because Whispers is so quiet and gentle with him.

Four years later, the family can’t imagine life without their canine “guardian angel,” as Coggins calls her. The 150-pound boy and 15-pound dog are inseparable. She trails him around the house, follows him fishing, and sleeps curled up beside him. If anything goes wrong in the middle of the night, Whispers paces between Kyle’s room and his parents’ until Mom or Dad gets up to check on him, Coggins says.

Indeed, the little dog seems to know instinctively what Kyle needs, whether it’s a moment of happy rough-housing or consolation on a difficult day. Her gentle, winning ways got Whispers named 2001 Companion Animal of the Year by the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association.

“She’s just been the greatest thing in the world,” Coggins says. “If he’s unhappy, she’s right there, with her head in his lap, looking at him like, ‘I love you so much.’”

It’s not a one-way relationship. Kyle takes care of Whispers, carefully doling out her dog food each day. But his favorite time is when he comes home from school and the little dog is waiting for him, ready to put her head in his lap to be petted. The family says her barks and howls even sound like she’s expressing her affection.

“She says ‘I love you!’” Kyle says, imitating her “doggy speak.”

Whispers’ instincts seem to go beyond her special relationship with Kyle. On trips to Kyle’s school, she acts especially calm with the other special-needs children. She also pays special attention to Coggins’ elderly mother, who has severe Alzheimer’s disease, whenever she visits.

“There’s not a boundary or a wall that keeps her from being able to love, unlike a lot of us who have trouble because somebody is different,” Coggins says. “That’s her gift. She can touch their lives in a way that I certainly never can.”

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