“Meet the Anthrozoologist” Interview with Dr. Nancy Gee

In this edition of “Meet the Anthrozoologist” we were lucky enough to chat with Nancy Gee, formerly the Human-Animal Interaction Research Manager for the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition and currently a Professor of Psychiatry & Director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia, USA.

How did you start doing research in anthrozoology?

I have participated in dog training and dog sports since childhood.  Some years ago, I trained my dogs in agility and along with enjoying a great deal of competitive success, I found that the process enhanced my bond with them.   This bond served us well when two of them easily passed a therapy dog test.  Having been well trained and comfortable being around people outside our family, it was almost natural for them. I began taking them to visit a senior citizen’s home, and many different types of schools at a variety of educational levels.  One of the preschools was in the campus building where I worked, and the staff asked me if my dogs could be integrated in their curriculum, since they were just so popular with the parents and the staff as well as the children. During our preschool visits, I observed a number of emotionally moving interactions between the dogs and students.  The scientific side of me was asking: “Are these anecdotal experiences unique, or is there something more to this?” So, I began conducting experiments in the preschool settings looking at the impact of the presence of the dogs on the children’s physical and cognitive activities. I began publishing this work and later, I started attending the workshops Waltham organized with the NIH. One thing led to another, and here I am.

Is there anyone who you particularly admire in a professional capacity?

Clearly, we should give hats off to some of the early researchers who were the trailblazers for us, such as Erika Friedmann, James Serpell and Sandra Barker among others. I happen to be acutely aware of Sandra Barker’s contribution, since I am now her immediate successor, but I am genuinely impressed by all that she accomplished here at VCU.  She built the Centre for Human-Animal Interaction and our 84 team Dogs on Call program from scratch. It has been a massive undertaking! The programme is highly respected, and has a tremendous impact on the quality of life not only of patients and their families but also the hospital and university staff.

I think it’s important to highlight Erika Friedmann as well.  We all know her from her early research to her more recent contributions, but to give you a sense of her impact beyond the field, I was once working a crossword puzzle (interestingly, while at ISAZ) and her research findings on dogs decreasing blood pressure was the answer to one of the questions.  Her research has obviously reached beyond the world of anthrozoology to the general public.  Beyond the merits of her own work, Erika is a true mentor, growing the field by supporting and collaborating with many different researchers and students conducting a wide range of projects.

I’ve absolutely enjoyed working with Layla Esposito and Jim Griffin at the NIH. Our field needs people who fundamentally understand the idea that maybe there is something special about this human-animal bond, and who want to figure it out systematically, and these two do.

And I deeply respect people who appreciate the animal side of this equation. I completely agree with Aubrey Fine who posits that it is not enough to maintain minimal animal welfare standards.  It is our responsibility to ensure that the animals we work with have a good quality of life. They need to enjoy what they are doing. That brings me to Kerstin Meints and her work on the Blue Dog project, which has been hugely important in helping kids and parents understand dog signaling as a way of reducing dog bites.

What’s the focus of your research at the moment?

I’m fundamentally interested in the ways interacting with animals may impact human cognition, human health and psychological wellbeing. My work tends to be across the developmental lifespan: I have worked extensively with preschool kids, university students and I also wrote a systematic review on HAI in older adults with Megan Muller. What’s great about being at VCU is that in addition to our work in the VCU Health System, we are also involved in events at the University, so looking at the impact of animals on students can remain within my repertoire.  At the hospital, I look forward to investigating the “when, where, how, and why” behind the dogs’ impact on various patient populations and medical staff. Sandy Barker has done some great work in this area and I look forward to building on that, extending our understanding. I really feel that I’m in a great place with so many research projects to choose from.  My hardest decision is going to be deciding what to do next!

That is a great place to be! What’s your biggest success to date in your professional career?

Having this opportunity to undertake an endowed chair position and Direct the Center for Human-Animal Interaction, to take a leadership position for the Dogs on Call program at VCU is amazing, and I’m very excited about where it can lead. I’ve got two incredible people who work in the center: Jessica Hall (Program Coordinator) and Eva Cross (Volunteer Coordinator), and I’m lucky enough to have Sandy Barker as an advisor and ongoing volunteer in the Center. I’m thrilled to have ongoing access to her institutional knowledge, her keen insight into HAI and her friendship.

My just-ended five-year stint as the HAI Research Manager for WALTHAM was another outstanding experience that helped to prepare me for my current position.  I had the opportunity to develop a five-year plan designed to fund a revolving series of projects based on targeted research areas, including HAI in education, and HAI among older adults.  We distributed over $2 million USD to fund projects through the WALTHAM portfolio and the WALTHAM/NIH Public Private Partnership.  Some of those projects are still ongoing, and are continuing to produce meaningful HAI publications.  I had the chance to collaborate with some of the finest HAI researchers in the world, and I simply cannot say enough positive things about my time at Mars/WALTHAM.  The people there are smart, friendly, welcoming and some of the finest colleagues I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with – thank you Sandra McCune, Karyl Hurley, Kathy Kruger, Darren Logan and so many others!Working on the systematic review paper with Megan Muller was a massive undertaking and I really enjoyed the process. Megan is delightful to work with, and I’m very proud of the paper we published in Anthrozoös.

And of course, there are successes outside of jobs, research, and publications that are extraordinarily meaningful to me. For instance, witnessing some of the human-animal interactions I’ve seen over the years is touching in a way that’s difficult to describe, but meaningful at the core of my being.

I’m hoping you could tell us about the flip side of this success: could you give us an example of a failure and what you’ve learned from it?

I think the more you fail, the more successful you will be, because when you’re not failing, that means you’re not challenging yourself. I remember very early on in my career, I wrote a manuscript that I worked long and hard producing.  I thought it was brilliant, but it got rejected. I felt that the wind had been completely knocked out of me, as if I couldn’t possibly succeed if that paper wasn’t loved by others as much as I loved it. I put it aside for a while to gain some perspective (a practice I highly recommend).  When I looked at the reviewers’ comments again after a few days, it still stung to read them, but by evaluating them carefully I discovered that the manuscript was not perfect (as I had thought) and was able to improve and re-submit it.  When it was ultimately published (in that same journal), it was a much better paper, and I was a much better researcher.I learnt that writing is an ongoing process: I’m always learning how to improve my writing.

The other thing I carried away from the experience of rejection is the importance of being supportive when you are on the other side. Whenever I review a manuscript, I make a point of being positive and saying something good about the paper or the study. Ultimately our goal as reviewers is to improve the quality of published research. In some cases, it may be challenging to improve a manuscript to the point where it is publishable, but even so, I think we can be positive and helpful to the person reading our comments.

How do you think the field of Anthrozoology will develop in the future?

I think we are on an impressive trajectory and I don’t see it levelling off any time soon. The field has a number of stakeholders really interested in seeing it be successful, from the researchers, to the practitioners, and the pet product companies. The public in general also appreciates and understands the value of animals.  But this appreciation can also be our biggest challenge: a large percentage of people around the world are pet lovers, which creates a larger risk of positive publication bias than many other fields may experience.   HAI researchers must be sensitive to this, and not be afraid to talk about negative and null results.

As Erika Friedmann has said, pets are not a panacea. I think we should work to create the best match between pets and people, so that both the human and animal benefit from the relationship. We don’t want to get so caught up with the idea, for instance, that dogs are good for children on the autism spectrum that we place a dog with a child who just doesn’t like dogs. We need to fully understand those situations, so we can create that best match.

Is there anything that surprised you in Anthrozoology?

In my early work with preschool kids we had been looking at things like motor skills and following instructions to evaluate whether having the animal there would be beneficial to learning. Then I added a memory test as a whim to see if there might be an impact on cognition.  What we saw, which absolutely blew me away, was that when the dog was present the preschool kids performed better on the memory task. For a long time, I thought this was because they were attending to the task better- in fact I wrote that in the paper. The dog is motivational, in other words, and it’s helping them to pay closer attention to the task.

But now, in research collaborations with Patricia Pendry and Kerstin Meints, we’ve been looking at executive functioning (an important aspect of cognition) of different populations, and we’re finding that executive functioning is improved by interacting with a dog.  Does this mean that dogs make us smarter?  I never thought I’d say this, but maybe!

Could you speculate what could be the underlying mechanism?

I think what could be happening is that having a dog around is fun, relaxing and it changes your physiology to some degree. Perhaps you’re secreting less cortisol, more oxytocin, your HRV goes up, HR goes down and overall you become less stressed and experience an elevated mood. Under these circumstances it makes sense that your cognition is free to do a better job.  It goes back to the bio-psycho-social model.  There is no question that there are a number of things contributing to this potential improvement in cognition and we need more research in this area.

Are there any books/ papers you’ve read recently that you found interesting?

Two of my favorite HAI related books, that I’ve enjoyed enormously were Hal Herzog’s book – “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals” and Irene Pepperberg’s book “Alex and Me”.   If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend both!

What are your interests when you’re not working?

I love to take my dogs, two miniature poodles, on long walks, which they love. In fact, now that we’re in Richmond, we are exploring all the many parks and waterways and other dog-friendly venues. I also love raising tropical fish, playing tennis, I dabble with woodworking and I love to read!

This interview was edited for length and clarity.