What’s The Science Behind Human-Animal Interaction?

Megan Mueller, associate professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, poses for a photo amidst teaching a child development class focused on human-animal interaction in the spring of 2013. In the background, a trained facility dog demonstrates commands with his handler. (Alonso Nichols/Tufts University)


Dr. Megan K. Mueller is the Co-Director of the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction. She leads the Tufts Pet and Well-Being Lab. Mueller has been in the saddle for as long as she can remember, and her relationship with horses is one of the reasons why she is so passionate about her research today. 

“I was always a horse crazy kid. I took my first lesson when I was five. My parents always thought I would take a few riding lessons and get it out of my system, but unfortunately for them they were wrong about that,” Mueller says. “I just loved it, and never stopped. I’ve always loved animals and have been an animal person. But horses in particular are such a nice mix of the relationship component that you have with the animal, as well as the skill building aspect that  teaches lessons embedded in the horse experience. I really think that shaped my childhood quite a bit, and made me really interested in a career with animals.”

Photo courtesy of Megan Mueller

During high school, Mueller thought she would become a veterinarian. But as she began her undergraduate studies, Mueller became interested in psychology and how the human brain works, specifically regarding social relationships. She decided to major in psychology, and later studied child development in graduate school. Mueller received her PhD from Tufts in 2013. At the time, the veterinary school was in the process of expanding their human-animal interaction research, so she was able to jump into her career immediately after receiving her PhD. 

“In grad school, I became really interested in particularly childhood and adolescent activities and how they can relate to skill building and social and emotional skills. I think in large part, driven from my background in horses and knowing what an important experience that was for me. During graduate school, I stumbled upon this emerging area of research called human-animal interaction, that really focused on the psychology of human animal relationships, and I thought that this was the perfect way to combine my interest in psychology with my interest in animals, and I’ve never looked back. I started to pursue that. I am particularly interested in how relationships with animals can positively impact child health and well-being through various ways.”

One aspect Mueller focuses on is ownership—she studies how human relationships with companion animals can benefit children. 

“I often think back to my experience with horseback riding, and how those types of experiences give you this opportunity to not only build your social and emotional skills, but also to feel confident about your ability to do something hard and persevere and be able to succeed. I think those skills translate outside of the barn,” says Mueller. “I think it’s something that a lot of us have experienced in our own lives, and I am really trying to understand the science behind it all.”

Photo courtesy of Megan Mueller

Mueller says that human-animal interaction is something really unique, specifically equine-related interaction. She says that kids, particularly kids who have faced challenges, often excel with human-animal interaction as it gives them the opportunity to succeed and build on that success. 

The Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction has around 12 to 18 students per year. The program has been in place since the early 1990s, and offers a 12-month program with classes related to research methods and statistics that focus on evidence-based practice and the science relating to animal welfare and policy. Additionally, there are courses that discuss topics such as policy analysis, human wildlife conflict, lab animal research, farm animals, and companion animals. 

One project that Mueller is currently working on is conducting research into teenagers who face social challenges. With the pandemic, children have been facing an influx of isolation and loneliness. Muller is looking into the extent of which pets can be of support for those children.

“I really love this project because I think it’s a really important topic right now. Feeling socially connected is a core part of how we function as humans. If we can better understand the role that pets can play in supporting that, I think that has the potential for impact. There’s often a broad global outcome—this big question of how can pets contribute to reducing social isolation,” she says. “So what I try to do is break that down into manageable questions that we can address with an individual study. For example, one of the questions we are looking at right now is how might teenagers seek out their pets when they’re stressed, and does contact with their pet—we’re studying dogs—reduce anxiety.”

To get data, Mueller and her team have given a group of teenagers wristbands to measure their heart rate and other physiological parameters that indicate stress. The teenagers then report when they feel stressed, whether or not they choose to interact with their dog during that time, and if that interaction will help relieve their stress. 

“We have another study where we’re looking at a huge data set of over 10,000 kids and we’re assessing whether having a pet in the home can be protective for feeling lonely or stressed,” says Mueller. “We are using a data set that’s being collected by the National Institute of Health. They’re collecting the data across the country for this huge study that is publicly accessible so we as researchers can access the data. We asked them to include some items about whether there was a pet or not in the home so we have that data. Right now, we are looking at the first year of data but the kids will be followed over the next 10 years so we will be able to see over time if there’s any patterns that emerge. We’re interested in development, which happens over time.”

Photo courtesy of Megan Mueller

Mueller hopes to be able to conduct more research into the interactions between human and horse. Recently, she had a masters student who researched the experience for horse owners caring for older horses, looking into the caregiver burden and the psychology of those relationships. Mueller says she specifically wants to look into the horse and rider relationship in the context of competition. 

“One of the things I always talk to my students about is that horses are in this interesting place of being kind of a pet but also kind of not a pet. We don’t buy and sell our dogs but we do with horses, so it’s really unique. They’re kind of a financial investment, but they’re also kind of a pet. It makes our relationships with them complicated and interesting,” says Mueller. 

“A lot of us are so intrinsically motivated by animals and so interested in them. It’s almost like they’re a part of what makes us human. Somehow our relationship with animals is what makes us human. I think animals can bring us together in ways that maybe we don’t recognize. For example, you’re walking down the street with your dog. Someone is more likely to say hello to you than if you’re walking down the street by yourself,” says Mueller. “It’s a shared experience that you have with other people, so it’s almost a way that brings us all together. In the best case scenario, what we’re hoping for is that our relationships with animals help us be the best people that we can be, and we’re trying to figure out what are the conditions that make that possible.”