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Unleashed: Choosing Health

Unleashed: Choosing Health

Rebecca Johnson researches the impact of animals on our wellness.

Rebecca Johnson grew up with a love of animals. Pets were a constant in her life, and while working as a nurse, she noticed a trend among her patients: those who owned pets were more willing to do the work required for their release than those who were non-pet owners. Pets or animals as a means of motivation became a topic that captivates Rebecca to this day.

Rebecca now works as the Millsap Professor of Gerontological Nursing and Public Policy at MU, where she is also a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Outside of the classroom, Rebecca is the founder and director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, known as ReCHAI, which was created within the veterinary school.

The ReCHAI team, of which Rebecca is the principal investigator, is comprised of undergraduate, masters, doctoral, and post-doctoral members. Their mission is to show that animals can provide social support and be a means of motivation for exercise and other wellness-promoting behaviors. They’re currently conducting several trials to research the positive effects that pets can have on people’s health.

One of the team’s hopes is to reduce PTSD in veterans through therapeutic horseback riding offered at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center, outside Columbia. Another is to help patients who are coping with obesity lose weight by pairing them with a walking therapy dog.

The team is also pairing therapy dogs with the elderly to help increase their mobility. ReCHAI recorded the health benefits of seniors who walked with dogs and, as a counter, also tested the health benefits of people who walk with other people. The dog-walkers showed more improvement than those who walked with friends.

“It amazes me that these people are so motivated to walk by committing to an animal that isn’t their own,” Rebecca says.

Rebecca’s research and determination has helped people and animals within our community build positive health behaviors. “Animals teach us to be in the moment because they are always in the moment,” she says. It’s this lesson, she believes, that aids in the mental and physical improvement of each person who is matched with an animal.

Rebecca has also been awarded the MU Excellence in Education Award for mentoring outside the classroom, and she teaches her undergraduate course, “Human-Companion Animal Interaction,” which won the Humane Society of the United States’ 11th annual Animals and Society Distinguished Established Course Award. Rebecca is also a published author of two books, “Health Benefits of Dog Walking” and “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound.”

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