Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction – Columbia

The relationship of humans and their pets dates back millennia. That special human-animal bond, which started when the first caveman enticed a canine ancestor to team with him on a hunt, is as important if not as immediately utilitarian today.

smiling woman receiving award

Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction receives the Rising Star of Entrepreneurship Award at a ceremony in Jefferson City. The award was presented by Max Summers (right), state director of MO SBTDC.

With the continual graying of our 21st century population and the ever-burgeoning population of animal pets in our society, a University of Missouri nursing professor focuses her research on the practical applications and health benefits of interaction between humans and animals.

Dr. Rebecca Johnson founded the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction in 2005. As a joint effort of MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the Sinclair School of Nursing, ReCHAI is true to its name.

Among its many programs and research efforts: PALS (Pet Assisted Love and Support for seniors), an innovative online training program to promote animal-assisted activity for older adults; PAWSitive Visits, an animal visitation effort at senior housing facilities; and Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound, a community project to walk shelter dogs and increase physical activity of human participants … children and adults.

Animals have always played a major role in Johnson’s family life, since her formative years in rural northern Illinois. During her early career working as a hospital nurse, she frequently saw many extended-stay elderly patients whose overriding concerns were not for themselves but for the pets waiting for them at home.

young blonde woman with two dogs

As part of the ReCHAI programming, Professor Johnson teaches a three-hour undergraduate course – Human-Companion Animal Interaction (Psych 2830). Johnson encourages students to bring their pets to class at the MU campus. Jessica Ludwig brought her long-haired dachshunds Oscar and Truman.

In many of those cases elderly people who could no longer care for themselves were forced to give up their pets. Those patients faced the double-whammy of moving to a new environment and losing a loving and trusted companion.

“So the Center is a culmination of what I have observed during these many years, and what I have learned in studying the growing body of research in the field of human-animal interaction,” Johnson explains.

ReCHAI developed from a serendipitous meeting in 1999 between Johnson and Joe Kornegay, then dean of the MU veterinary school. Their persistent efforts and those of Cecil Moore, former chair of veterinary medicine and surgery department, led six years later to the formation of ReCHAI.

However, soon after starting the Center Johnson discovered she needed more than her expertise in the field of human-animal interaction to make it a success. She found she needed training in budgeting and operational management. She also needed a business plan to attract the donations needed to support the Center and its services.

That’s when a colleague at the veterinary college, development officer Greg Jones, pointed her to an enterprising resource on campus … the Small Business and Technology Development Center at the MU College of Engineering.

“I had no business experience. So, I needed mentoring to create the Center, to plan for its future and to manage its resources,” recalls Johnson. “This was the main obstacle, which was wonderfully overcome by my affiliation with the SBTDC.”

Charlotte McKenney, assistant director of ReCHAI, brought Gordon setter Miss Holly for a visit to the residents of TigerPlace, a senior living home in Columbia. The activity was part of the Center's PAWSitive Visits program, which arranges weekly scheduled visits between senior residents and a variety of companion animals.

Charlotte McKenney, assistant director of ReCHAI, brought Gordon setter Miss Holly for a visit to the residents of TigerPlace, a senior living home in Columbia. The activity was part of the Center’s PAWSitive Visits program, which arranges weekly scheduled visits between senior residents and a variety of companion animals.

She soon started working with Jim Gann, business development specialist with the SBTDC. He initially helped her develop a written business plan for the Center. The plan was necessitated as Johnson met with potential donors who asked to see a documented plan before contributing to her Center. They needed reassurance their gifts were going to a viable effort.

“We assisted Rebecca with such a plan, and as a result, she was able to gain funding from benefactors who strongly believe in her work,” says Gann.

Among those benefactors is The Roetheli Lil’ Red Foundation. Joe and Judy Roetheli, creators of the Greenies dog biscuits, gave $400,000 to ReCHAI in 2007. The Roethelis sold 750 million of the canine treats from 1998 to 2006 when Mars Inc. bought their company.

two women with black dog

Charlotte and Miss Holly with another resident of TigerPlace.

Donations from other sources followed. Once donors began contributing to ReCHAI, Gann and a colleague — Bill Stuby, a specialist with the Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Centers — also assisted Johnson with other business elements.

“Jim has been absolutely invaluable in helping me forge the Center,” explains Johnson. “Very concretely he helped me with the business plan, has provided continued guidance on HR matters, and together with Bill, financial advice.”

As a result of the entrepreneurial guidance from the SBTDC, Johnson says: “It has been wonderful to see the widespread support of the programs that we have developed. It’s exciting to find that donors and corporate sponsors are very interested in partnering with us to further the work, and it’s rewarding to see that we are helping people and animals to interact beneficially.”


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