On a Tuesday afternoon a light rain is falling as a Newfoundland named Cosmo gallops across a field of wood chips to greet a German shepherd, two Labs, and a springer spaniel. As the canine gang careers around the fenced dog park, their owners, dressed in rain hats and rubber boots, shout out words of encouragement or admonishment.

In comes Roxie, a dainty cavalier King Charles spaniel with little brown splotches for eyebrows. Her silky coat is black and brown and mostly white, especially on her feet and tail, but she doesn’t mind much about the wet and mud, nor about being overwhelmed by the larger dogs. She stands prettily as the crowd thunders over to sniff and say hello.

dogs off the leash
While Roxie and a Labrador friend roam free in an off leash park, her owner Sara Ninteman enjoys fresh air and a walk in the woods. (Photo Ingrid Barrentine)

Roxie’s owner, Sara Ninteman ’04, was instrumental in the development of this dog park at Beaver Lake. An employee of the city of Sammamish at the time, Ninteman took charge of organizing local dog owners so they could be represented at city planning meetings during the formation of the park. The volunteers of Dog Owners of Greater Sammamish care for the 2.5 acre off-leash space and provide a network for new dog owners in the community.

Ninteman looks around to see if she recognizes anyone. Canines and their owners are a social group. “Even if you don’t remember the people’s names, you do remember the dogs’.” Since she lives in a condo, off-leash areas like Beaver Lake’s are invaluable for providing Roxie with socializing and exercise to tide her over while Ninteman’s at work.

Beaver Lake is just one of more than 40 off-leash parks in the Puget Sound region. There are 11 off-leash areas in city parks in Seattle, where dogs purportedly outnumber children. And more are in development all around the state, including one in Pullman and a 15-acre site at High Bridge Gardens in Spokane. If you Google “dog parks,” you might just find “Google Dog Park,” a spot in Kirkland reserved for Google employees.

As Washington becomes increasingly “pet-friendly” a complex canine network has surfaced. Doggie daycares, doggie spas, pet boutiques, personal trainers, health food stores, and play and romp groups have nosed into every community. Hotels are accepting canine customers. The Alexis in downtown Seattle, for example, greets dogs with complimentary treats, a designer bed, and doggie in-room dining. Tapping into the social needs of pets and their owners, Kirkland’s Woodmark Hotel offers Yappier Hour, a weekly dog-friendly happy hour.

It’s not just a west-side thing. Recognizing that pet owners want yet more, Pasco veterinarians like Todd Coleman ’04 and his father Charles have opened an animal health oasis with therapeutic massage, acupuncture, nutritional counseling, daycare, an on-site groomer, and even an espresso bar and critter deli.

About 39 percent of all households in the United States have at least one dog. And pet ownership is on the rise. With it comes a greater interest in doing right by our animals. At first look, with the health spas and boutiques, it seems we in Washington have come to indulge our dogs. No animal has seen such a rise as the dog in the household. “They’ve gone from barnyard to backyard to the back door to the bedroom,” says Marty Becker ’80, the chief veterinarian for Good Morning America, and author of numerous books, including Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul.

On this afternoon in Sammamish, the rest of the park is empty. The only action is around the 2.5 fenced dog acres. While it may look like a scene of owners indulging their pups, these people are in fact doing something for themselves. They’re taking a break from their busy lives, socializing with other pet owners, and getting fresh air. As good as these people are for their dogs’ quality of life, their dogs are doing, perhaps, as much for them. Maybe more. Leo Bustad, a WSU alumnus and onetime dean of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine knew this—and pioneered efforts to both study and support the health benefits of human/animal interaction. Becker easily summarizes Bustad’s mission: “Pets don’t just make us feel good. Actually, they’re good for us.”

We kicked off this story by posting a request on the WSU Alumni Association’s Facebook page asking for owners who felt especially attached to their dogs. Almost immediately, we had eight replies. Over the next two days, more than 30 people responded. Kathryn Smith sent us a holiday picture of her Lucy, an Australian terrier/Yorkshire terrier mix who was rescued from a Gold Bar puppy mill in 2009. Lucy is posing in a holiday jacket and in the hands of Santa Claus. Jessica Story ’09 is devoted to her 13-year-old dachshund Gus, whom she carries up the stairs to her room at night and provides with a nightlight.

Kristin Terpstra’s ’03 family includes two yellow Labradors, one of whom is a certified Crisis and Therapy Dog and the other a search and rescue canine.

Some have purebreds, some have rescue dogs, some have shelter mutts. Eva Day Wulff worked her shelter-adopted dog Pongo into her McCall, Idaho, wedding last summer. She sent us a picture of him in his tuxedo. When Kacie Ash-Malone graduated in 2004, she left Pullman with a diploma and Blue, the dog she adopted from the Whitman County Humane Society.

While the alumni gamely admit they are gaga for their dogs, that the pets sleep in their bedrooms and go with them on vacation, they also deny being extreme. They eschew diamond dog collars and demanding diets and consulting odd animal experts. Those owners are out there, too, says Greg Ingman ’81. The Burlington, Washington, veterinarian recently had a pet owner ask him to X-ray her dog’s abdomen because the pet psychic she called said her dog had stomach pain.

Some people have approached Washington State University with requests to clone their dogs, says Charlie Powell, spokesman for the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine and owner of Boston terriers. This may be one of the ultimate examples of that deep human-animal attachment, he says, but it’s not within the college’s mission of benefitting human and animal health. Besides that, cloned animals so far have not been identical to the original in personality or appearance, he says.

On the other hand, people will pay the WSU animal hospital thousands of dollars for approved medical treatments including chemotherapy, pacemaker implants, cataract surgery, arthritis treatment, laser surgery, and ultrasound. Lately the resources and medical treatments for pets have come close to paralleling those for humans.

On January 6, well before dawn, Marty Becker arrived at the New York City studio of Good Morning America for the rehearsal of his segment on top new pet products. Two hours later, holding Griselle, a grey kitten with white paws, he turned to host George Stephanopoulos, who cradled a Chihuahua named Buddy, and discussed stain remover, plant-based cleaners, toys, flea control, and a genetic home test for for herding dogs to determine if they are sensitive to certain drugs. The last item was created by WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, “My alma mater,” Becker proudly told Stephanopoulos and a few million viewers.

Becker has been a regular on GMA for 14 years. He’s also the veterinarian for Parade magazine and the Dr. Oz television show. He’s written and co-written a number of books. On top of all that, he’s a practicing veterinarian who works with two north Idaho clinics.

He grew up in southern Idaho on a farm complete with chickens, livestock, dogs, and cats. “It was like the ark unloaded there,” he says. “I wanted to be a veterinarian at six or seven. And my plan was to be a mixed animal practitioner like the ones I admired.”

He enrolled at WSU and was admitted into vet school as a junior. “So I was pretty cocky,” he says. “I would sit at the back of the class feeling pretty good about myself.” Then one day an unfamiliar instructor stepped to the front of the room. “He was the oddest looking guy,” says Becker. With an oblong head, big ears, and a shock of red hair, “he looked like Alfred E. Newman from Mad magazine.” Becker turned to the guy next to him. “I said, ‘Who is this weirdo?’ and he said ‘That’s the dean.’”

Leo Bustad ’41, ’49 lectured the students about physical and emotional benefits of pet ownership, then described his program, the People-Pet Partnership, which he created at WSU to promote the humane treatment of companion animals and study the human-animal bond. He asked for volunteers to help match senior citizens with animals that needed homes. Becker was converted. That day he moved to the front of the class. He wanted to work with companion animals and their owners. “I realized that this was every bit about the soul as it is the science.”

Bustad grew up in Stanwood, Washington. In high school, he judged cattle and developed an interest in animals. As an undergraduate in Pullman he studied agriculture. In 1941 he joined the U.S. Army and fought in Italy and Germany. He was a prisoner of war in a Nazi camp in Poland for 15 months. After the war, he enrolled as a graduate student in animal nutrition. In 1949, he completed his DVM at WSU.

His next stop was the Hanford National Laboratory, where he performed radiation research on animals. From 1965 to 1973, he led the radiobiology and comparative oncology labs at the University of California, Davis. After years of seeing animals as research subjects, he started noting the benefits of human/animal relationships. During visits to Europe in the late 1960s and early 1970s he observed animals used in human physical therapy. That’s when he turned his focus to the human-animal bond.

In 1973, when he arrived in Pullman, his “little haven in the hills,” to be dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Bustad started defining problems the school could address. The main issue was obvious and ugly. “In 1974, 15 to 18 million dogs and cats were killed in animal control centers [today the number is down to four million],” he said in a talk recorded in 1993. “There was wide-spread irresponsible animal ownership.”

Pets were somewhat disposable, he said. “Only a minority of people gave obedience training to their animals.” Dogs were like juvenile delinquents running wild through their communities. Children had little exposure to information about raising animals, disabled people had no access to assistance animals, and very little research had been done on how animals and humans could serve each other, he said.

With the help of several WSU collaborators, including Linda Hines and Terry Ryan, Bustad developed a pet program for school children, created the People-Pet Partnership at WSU, and promoted research into the human-animal bond.

By the mid-70s he had encountered brothers Michael J. McCulloch, a psychiatrist, and veterinarian William McCulloch. They all noticed how animals had a positive impact on their owners’ health and happiness. They agreed there was much more going on not only psychologically, but also physiologically, but could hardly find any scientific research to inform their theories. So they started what became the Delta Society, a nonprofit resource for human and animal practitioners.

Bustad and the McCulloch brothers discovered easily-measured benefits to humans having animal contact, including lowered blood pressure and increased endorphins. Their work laid the foundation for what is now a large nonprofit organization that supports therapy with animals and research into the physical and mental health benefits of having animals. Today the Delta Society, headquartered in Bellevue, Washington, trains volunteers and pets for hospital visitations, helps medical professionals incorporate animals into their therapy practices, and provides people with disabilities information about obtaining and living with service animals.

Last spring a Labrador and a golden retriever trained at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord before heading off to Iraq to assist therapists and psychiatrists working with deployed soldiers. The stress-relief dogs often break the ice between the soldiers and the mental health professionals. It is a program Bustad would have been pleased to see.

When he died in 1998, Bustad left a legacy of support for companion animals. He left a cadre of people, too. Terry Ryan worked with him as program coordinator. She wrote some of the Delta Society’s early training materials. In 1990, she authored the Puppy Primer, and has since written more than ten books on dog training. She now travels to Japan, Korea, England, and Australia consulting and training instructors to work with people and animals.

Along with people’s attitudes towards their animals, their interests and understanding in training them has evolved, says Ryan. At first there wasn’t much information for pet owners. Most disciplined their dogs with a rolled-up newspaper. Today, there’s a whole field of study helping humans communicate with canines.

Pet owners will hire Ryan, who owns Legacy Canine Behavior and Training in Sequim, to perform in-person behavior consultations. “I can help people change their dog’s environment to modify their behavior,” she says. She tailors her training to the owners and their dogs. For some playing off-leash is good, she says, but “it can also make a worried dog very worried.” Every dog is different.

Bustad also played a part in creating opportunities for owners like Portlander Kathy Wentworth ’76, who adopted a black lab from Guide Dogs for the Blind. She and her pup are a certified therapy team working with hospital patients rehabilitating from surgery and strokes.

And Bustad inspired students like Becker, who went on to practice in Idaho, becoming known as much for his business decisions as his veterinary work. Becker looked at convenience stores and applied the same notion to his practice. His clinic operated from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. so people could see him without missing work. He also offered one-stop shopping at his clinic with a retail area, an adoption service, and pet grooming. “It’s what you see in a PetSmart now,” says Becker. He became a resource to the veterinary community.

Through it all, Becker’s greater interest remained the human-animal bond. It led to that first Chicken Soup book, a publicity tour, appearances on television, and now regular columns. His daughter Mikkel Becker ’08 is following in his footsteps. After finishing her communications degree at WSU, she went into business as a dog trainer and author, contributing to Scholastic Magazine, among others. “Between us, we reach over 300 million people a month,” says Marty.

So much has changed in how humans care for their animals since Becker started practicing in the 1980s. “We don’t just want them healthy,” he says. “We want them happy.”

There’s still much to understand about what goes on between us and our pets, says animal behaviorist Janice Siegford. Now at Michigan State University, Siegford has studied a range of animals from Mongolian gerbils to weaner pigs. While working on her PhD in neuroscience at WSU, she also saw clients and taught classes in animal behavior. A segment of her work includes research on the behavior and welfare of companion animals.

She also has a cat and two dogs, “Yes, the dogs have a bed in the bedroom,” she admits. “They also have a futon in the basement.”

As our society matures, so does our interest in the animals around us, says Siegford. “In any affluent society, people tend to expand their sphere of living beings they consider ethically important. And the harder we look, the more similarities we tend to see between them and us.”

Border collies, she notes, have been shown to know more than 300 words. You can tell one to get the small red ball, and the trained dog will pick the right object out of hundreds. And though our language and dogs’ language is very different, dogs learn to pick up on physical human cues like pointing. “Wolves can’t. Apes can’t. But dogs do,” she says.

In some ways, the animals in our homes are a means of reconnecting with animals in general. Consider that dogs and cats and horses have the greatest number of rules, regulations, and investigations to protect them, she says. “One thing keeping that from farm animals is that we never get to experience these animals face-to-face.” It doesn’t hurt that our home companions have facial expressions, she notes. “People feel more compassion for a dog with a widely mobile face than, say, a chicken.”

Nonetheless, while the status of the pet at home has developed, so has our societal interest in the welfare of other animals, says Seigford. And maybe for the welfare of others in general.

Darcie Wolfe ’88 says that even though her job, four children, and husband keep her busy, her house would be incomplete without dogs. The picture is confirmed as I look in her front porch window to see a black-lab mix on the sofa, a little boy with an armful of toys on the floor.

As Wolfe answers the door, the dog comes forward, another tiny dog between its legs. Making introductions are Jingee, the lab, a trembling beagle-mix named Betsy, and Max, boy, aged three. The dogs check me out, touching their muzzles to me as I crouch down. Max comes over and puts his hand on my back to check me out as well. Then we all go into the kitchen and Max is allowed to offer each pup a cookie, which they delicately lift from his hand.

Jingee joined the family in April 2010. Wolfe found her at an animal shelter and learned that because of her health issues (she has trouble digesting protein) the shelter workers had given up on adopting her out. The day she picked her up, the news was announced on the intercom and from all over the shelter came the sound of cheers. As Wolfe talks, Jingee stands behind us, her salt-and-pepper muzzle up and her tail corkscrewing.

Betsy, who has tucked herself away somewhere, wasn’t a planned adoption. Her owner had died last year and she was living behind the counter at Wolfe’s veterinarian. She has a myriad of issues— including constant timidity, limited hearing, and occasional incontinence. Though she was cared for at the clinic, Wolfe had to give her a home.

“She didn’t bark for her first month here,” says Wolfe. And at night, she’s fearful. Betsy quickly worked her way not only into the master bedroom, but into the bed, under the covers. Jingee was a little jealous, since she’s not allowed on the bed. Wolfe compensates each night by giving the bigger dog some extra attention. “When it comes to animals, I am a softie.”

Dogs in her home do get spoiled, she says.

A large yard, frontage along a lake, and a laundry room with built-in cabinets and drawers dedicated for dog things, simply complement a life of couch-sleeping, companionship, and table scraps. “They don’t have long to live, but if I can give them three good years, I’m happy.” The dogs give Wolfe and her family so much in return. “Unconditional love. Constant company. Entertainment. And,” she says, looking sidelong at Max, “they don’t talk back.” While they consume her time, they are offering the best of lessons. “They’re teaching my kids about putting others’ needs before your own.”