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Dogs on Call

Dogs on Call

VCU researches the benefits of animal bond.

When Tiger the poodle died, he had lived a long and happy life. But his human companion, William Balaban, wasn’t prepared for the impact his dog’s death would have on him.

“I stayed in bed for two weeks watching TV. Whenever a dog food commercial would come on, the tears would come,” Balaban said during an early December visit to Virginia Commonwealth University’s MCV Campus. “After a while, my friends said, ‘It was only a dog.’ Then my family said, ‘Come on!’”

Finally, he had a revelation. He called the Southern California Veterinary Association and asked how to establish a scholarship. Thirty minutes later, he had a call from the University of California, Davis. The scholarship was set, he showered, got dressed and started to function normally.

“I was totally cured,” he said.

That was the start of an almost-three-decade push to encourage more research about the medical benefits of human-animal interaction.

The spring before the scholarship ceremony, UC Davis officials assumed the new fund would be called the William Balaban Scholarship. Instead, Balaban asked meekly, “Could I name it after my dog?”

The Tiger Memorial Scholarship became the first student-aid fund at the UC Davis vet school named for an animal. In May 2007, Balaban traveled from his new home in Roanoke, Va. — “It has everything I need to be happy, the St. Francis Service Dogs and the Virginia Tech vet school” — to California to meet the 30th recipient of Tiger’s scholarship.

After his career as a television producer/director came to an end, Balaban began to pursue his second calling. He became a consultant with the Delta Society, the leading international resource for the human-animal bond. He volunteered at the UC Davis vet school, giving lectures on topics such as “What a client wants” and “Assistance animal medicine” and started to amass an amazing collection of 1,500 tapes and DVDs showing animals in the media, as part of a research project. He plans to donate the collection to VCU’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction upon his death.

Today, Balaban is still a huge believer in research and the power of innovation. Since his first gift, he has directed money, time, ideas and advice toward many organizations in hopes of encouraging progression in the study of the human-animal bond.

About two years ago, a mutual colleague in the field introduced Balaban to Sandra B. Barker, Ph.D., the director of VCU’s Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

The center, part of the VCU School of Medicine, was created in 2001 to enhance patient well-being through pet visitation, to provide students with educational opportunities and to conduct research on the health benefits of human-animal interaction. Recent center studies tested the influence of animal interaction on human stress hormones and recorded humans’ brain waves when interacting with therapy dogs. The center is totally reliant on private and corporate donations to continue its work.

That type of research is what Balaban hopes to foster.

“This field has not progressed as far as I think it should have,” he said. “Giant half-steps don’t cut it. We need to find people who are willing to pursue original research. There are so many areas that haven’t been researched, and Sandy is starting to investigate some of those areas. On TV, I had over 100 ‘firsts’ — some were ludicrous, but they were firsts. I’m trying to do the same thing here, to get people to do new things.”

For example, Balaban hopes to work on a project to study the impact of pets in the workplace with Randy Barker, Ph.D. He is a professor of management in the School of Business, a member of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction’s executive committee and Sandra Barker’s husband and frequent research collaborator. Balaban and Randy Barker have also discussed the innovative idea of designing a full-service veterinary facility situated among an array of businesses where employees could drop their pets off for day care or medical care and have the opportunity to visit throughout their workday.

Balaban thinks the field is ripe and ready for exploration. Barker and others like her, he said, need the support of their universities and the public, who ultimately would benefit from this work.

“Original master’s thesis studies completed in the 1980s are still being cited in today’s journals,” he said. “That’s why this center can come up with stuff to amaze people.”

Photo: Bitz, a 6-year-old German shepherd, is the current companion of Bill Balaban and the latest in a string of dogs to call him their friend.

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Updated: 04/29/2008