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Our Best Friends: Professor Explores Our Bonds With Animals

Aubrey Fine

Maybe the pet doesn’t talk back, but looks in your eyes and realizes what you’re going through. I think, at the end of the day, it’s companionship. It’s friendship. It’s why we have animals.

Aubrey Fine is a veritable Dr. Doolittle.

The clinical psychologist and education professor has a cockatoo, two golden retrievers and a bearded dragon at his family’s home in La Verne.

“There is never a boring moment. Without them, there would be a hole or a void in my life,” Fine says.

Although he may not speak the same language as his animals, there’s a good reason why Fine’s home resembles a menagerie. The New York Times has called Fine one of the nation’s pioneers in using therapy animals to help treat children with emotional, social or physical problems. He has written one of the key textbooks on animal-assisted therapy. And now Fine has published a book that explores the benefits that animal companions offer to their human owners.

“Our Faithful Companions: Exploring the Essence of Our Kinship with Animals” is written not just for psychologists and veterinarians, but also for parents and prospective pet owners.

“It mixes science with storytelling, and it follows a lot of people’s lives. We have some very solid chapters on human-animal relationships,” Fine says. “We redefine what we see as the human-animal bond, the psychological benefits.”

One example of this mix of science and storytelling is a chapter called “Magic, Can You Help Me Find Pooh Corner?” The chapter explores the biology of cancer and how animals have helped people battle the disease. It’s a very personal chapter for Fine because it also tells the story of his wife, Nya, who was diagnosed with breast cancer just days after they got Magic, the first of their golden retrievers.

“That little puppy lay with her as she recovered and never lay on the breast that had surgery,” he says. “But the neatest thing that puppy did is that they would hold hand in paw together during that recovery time. Nine years later, they still do it every day at least for a few moments. It’s a wonderful physical symbol of connection.”

The chapter’s title comes from the puppy’s name, but also from a conversation Fine had with a physician who helps care for patients facing death or serious illnesses. The psychologist asked the doctor why she thought chronically or terminally ill patients found animals so helpful.

“‘They don’t need Eeyores in their lives,’” Fine recalls the doctor saying. “So I flipped it. Wouldn’t that be interesting if Pooh or Pooh Corner is a place in your mind where you are fulfilled? So the whole chapter is about how animals help you find that place.”

Fine stumbled into the field of animal-assisted therapy. He never had a pet growing up in Montreal; his mother had objected vociferously when he brought a mouse home. It wasn’t until 1973 – well before he got his doctorate at the University of Cincinnati – that he got his first pet: a gerbil.

At the time, Fine ran a program for children with learning disabilities, which covered a broad range of issues that today would include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and Tourette syndrome. Fine thought the children would enjoy seeing the gerbil and brought the animal to class. One young boy promised not to move if Fine let him hold the gerbil.

“I never forgot that, because all of a sudden, a very, very active child, who was very impulsive, sat there very calmly and let a small gerbil into his palms,” he says. “And the gerbil became the class mascot. From there I discovered something called animal-assisted therapy.”

Animal-assisted therapy was in its infancy then. The first book published on the subject came out in 1969, and the first research paper in 1980, Fine recalls. The latter found that people who had animals in their lives were capable of living longer after a heart attack.

“Since then, we’ve done research that looks at blood pressure, regulation and breathing,” Fine says. “Research has also shown that petting dogs also reduces cortisol, which is the stress hormone. Since 2001, lots of research has come about looking at neurochemistry.”

Tests have shown that having pets around helps their owners produce serotonin and oxytocin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that affects moods, while oxytocin is called the “love hormone,” because it helps create bonds between mothers and their infants. But the benefits go both ways, Fine says.

“If an animal wants to engage with you, petting that animal actually reduces its cortisol levels and produces oxytocin,” he says.

Today, animal-assisted therapy is an accepted practice. Dogs are employed to help survivors and emergency personnel cope with the emotional trauma of a tragedy, such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the Newtown school shooting. Recently, mental health teams used a Labrador retriever to help staff at the medical examiner’s office in Snohomish County, Wash., after a landslide killed more than 20 residents.

“Forty years ago, if I had taken a golden retriever to Boston [after the bombing], they would have said, ‘Whoa! What are you doing bringing a dog here for?’” Fine says. “Today, you’re watching on television, and many people go, ‘Oh, yeah, there are the golden retrievers. There are the dogs helping people through tragedy.’”

In addition to classes on educational psychology and child development, Fine also teaches a popular class on human-animal interaction.

“We spend a lot of time talking about animal welfare issues. These are not little magic tricks that you play with. You have to be concerned about the quality of life of the animals you bring into the classroom,” he says. “What are the safeguards that need to be put into place? How do we measure to make sure the animals are healthy, without stressing them and enhancing their quality of life?”

Pets can not only teach us lessons in the classroom, they can provide lessons in the family home, he adds.

“Animals allow us to share love in a very different way from humans. Teenagers sometimes are a little bit hands off hugging their parents. But they’re not afraid to show that affection to animals,” Fine says. “So there’s really that whole repository of opportunities that animals provide us that teach us life lessons, including sad lessons, like the loss of someone you loved.”

Pets also can help children through difficult times, such as when parents divorce.

“Who do kids turn to? Who do kids talk to in bad times? They have their cat or their dog come into their room. They’ll cry and seek solace,” Fine says. “Maybe the pet doesn’t talk back, but looks in your eyes and realizes what you’re going through. I think, at the end of the day, it’s companionship. It’s friendship. It’s why we have animals.”

Published on September 11, 2014

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The Impact Map shows how Cal Poly Pomona alumni are making a difference in Southern California and around the country. Explore the map or share your own impact.

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