We live in a society where we celebrate our dogs; we treat them as family members because, in many ways, they are. So imagine a world where almost everyone has a dog to protect and help hunt, but they are given no care nor provided water, food, or shelter. Their already brief lives are shortened because many contract rabies or other diseases. In fact, the greatest insult you can give someone is to call them a dog—useless.
This is not an imaginary world. It exists in Northern Uganda, a place that author and activist Meg Daley Olmert has taken on as a mission in her life. But to understand her commitment, you need to understand how she got there.
Olmert’s background was in television, where she worked as a producer for the likes of National Geographic, Discovery Channel, BBC, and the Smithsonian. While producing a series on the history of humans and animals for actors William Holden and Stephanie Powers, Olmert’s curiosity about the onset of a new program of animal-assisted trauma therapy was sparked. During an interview with a psychiatrist, she learned that a study showed that when people were talking to their pets (vs. talking to another person), their heart rates and blood pressure decreased. Why did that happen, she wondered and was told that it was due to the pet’s capacity to show unconditional love. “It just didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “It was not the biological cause I was asking about. There was a physiological effect; what caused that? He couldn’t tell me. No one had ever asked that question.”
Coincidentally, the day after this exchange, an article on the study of oxytocin was published in the New York Times. It discussed the hormone, which among other things, stimulates uterine contractions during childbirth, fosters a connection between a mother and child, and strengthens social and sexual bonding. Olmert was intrigued and wanted to know more. She found that oxytocin affected areas of the brain that control social and emotional behavior, creating a sense of calm instead of nervousness and curiosity instead of paranoia. “And it’s in that state of calm and curiosity,” said Olmert, “that you connect instead of retreat and close off.”
If that was the case for a human, what about other mammals–could oxytocin be a basis for the human/animal bond as well? It was in asking that question that Olmert’s career changed. She realized she had found the best story that was never told and shifted her focus to telling it. What followed were attempts to understand the science behind it, which included interviewing specialists and assembling groups of experts.
The result was that the TV producer became an expert on the neurobiology of the human-animal bond and its therapeutic effects. The knowledge gained from 15 years of research led her to write the ground-breaking book Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, published in 2009. “What I learned,” said Olmert, “was that when there is friendly interaction between humans and animals, oxytocin is released in both. Certain species with very similar social brain construction to ours, like the dog, allowed us to come into and socially manipulate their fear and flight zones, which is what domestication is. With dogs, a whole social brain network is created where oxytocin interacts with dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol, and all of these things to bring us into the perfect state of connection.”
So, where does a dog’s unconditional love fit in? “It’s a myth,” says Olmert. “For millennia, we relied on dogs to protect us from enemies without—to bark, growl, bite, and alert. Now, their role is to protect us from the enemies within—the greatest enemy to a social mammal, the one that can kill us, is loneliness. And because we have this evolutionary coincidence of the dog, which has the same social brain chemistry as us, we have this best friend who has four legs and will be there when humans can’t or won’t be the social support we need. So when people say: ‘Well, it’s unconditional love.’ It is not. There’s no such thing. Their ‘love’ is wildly generous, but it isn’t unconditional. You treat that dog badly, it will not be your best friend.”
With the book’s publication, Olmert became the subject matter expert in a field she inadvertently created. It was not surprising this generated articles, interviews, and lecture circuits, including two TEDx talks. It also led to a call from Rick Yount, a social worker who was in the midst of designing a program that needed to show how veterans suffering from combat-related stress and PTSD could benefit from interacting with dogs. By 2011 these conversations helped to create the nonprofit Warrior Canine Connection, which uses active-duty military members undergoing PTSD treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center to train service dogs for placement with disabled veterans.
“Working with dogs lowers symptoms of PTSD better than any other treatments being offered,” says Olmert. “A therapist cannot get in your lap and hug you; yet, touch and physical connection are essential, especially when it’s combat or violence related. Training a dog is basically learning how to communicate with the dog—learning that it requires patience, consistency, timing, and empathy. These traits and skills are damaged when the social brain network is injured. The only way to repair and reboot them is through this type of practice.”
Which brings us halfway around the world to Northern Uganda and the Comfort Dog Project. Olmert’s expertise had been noted by someone else who was at that same time gaining notoriety. Her name was Sarah Schmidt, and in 2012 she founded an animal welfare charity called BIG FIX Uganda after observing that there was no veterinary care in an area where rabies was extensive and hate and fear of dogs as carriers was equally rampant. She also noticed that, even though everyone had dogs, they were left to their own devices. Nevertheless, Schmidt set up a veterinary hospital, offered free spaying and neutering, vaccinated over 90,000 dogs, and began an education program to save them.
Schmidt’s involvement in Northern Uganda also gave her a glimpse into a world where, dire as life was for the animals, the villagers were also going through a grim existence. They had lived through a horrific 20-year civil war where almost 30,000 boys and girls were kidnapped and forced to carry out raids, beat and kill civilians, or were used as domestic servants or sex slaves. Abductees who were able to flee returned to villages where they were shunned and treated as pariahs. It is estimated that 70% of people in Uganda have PTSD and severe trauma. Predictably, many attempt or commit suicide.
So when Schmidt made that call in 2017, Olmert learned that two years prior, there had been a recognition that Uganda’s reviled humans and canines might be able to benefit each other. They expanded their mission to rescue the fractured people through an animal-assisted therapy program similar to the Warrior Canine Connection. Called the Comfort Dog Project, it consisted of a 20-week dog training program that taught war trauma survivors how to create loving bonds with dogs.
Ten weeks into the program, when measurements were taken on the program’s outcome, it was discovered that these ‘trainers’ (called Guardians) were dancing and playing with their dogs and calling them their sisters, brothers, or even children. The presence of the dogs soothed the survivors and allowed them to talk about their war experiences, leading to a 100% reduction in PTSD symptoms and an improvement in their general health. Graduating Guardians went from being traumatized, rejected people to being employed providing community health services, working in rabies clinics, school programs, etc.
Olmert was impressed enough to start including these findings in her writings and lectures. BBC even did a short film on one of these connections: the story of Filda Akumu, a young woman abducted when she was 13. After escaping, she was ostracized by her village, suffered trauma and depression, and became suicidal. Through the Comfort Dog Project, Filda was partnered with a dog who was abandoned as a puppy. “This dog saved my life,” she says. “if it wasn’t for him, I would be dead.” The two, who helped each other heal, have gone on to help others.
“Now, the very interesting part of this whole thing,” says Olmert, “is that the genetic studies of the dogs of Northern Uganda show that they’re the most ancient dogs on the planet and have never been domesticated. They have no modern dog DNA in them. And sociologically, they’ve never been befriended; in fact, quite the opposite. So we have the rare experience of the most ancient, least domesticated dog on the planet coming together with people who have never domesticated dogs. With all of the studies that have been done about how dogs were first domesticated, this is what was left out—dogs did more than protect us and help us hunt. They saved our hearts and minds. That’s their greatest contribution and one we can’t take for granted. When I went to Uganda and saw it for myself, it changed me. I am now a different person.”
The person who Olmert is now writes articles, goes after funding, and collaborates with researchers interested in confirming the importance of canine connection therapy. She is being encouraged to write another book. “All I ever wanted from my first book was that I would have really interesting conversations with really interesting people. And it has delivered in spades.”
She also currently serves as Science Advisor to the Warrior Canine Connection Program in Maryland and as Science Advisor and board member for The Comfort Dog Program of Northern Uganda. Of her association with the two powerhouses in her life, Olmert says: “Both Rick (Yount) and Sarah (Schmidt) are good dogs, which is the highest compliment I can give. They are humans that deserve all the praise any human can have.”
Well then, Meg Olmert, all we can say is you, also, are a really, really good dog.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.