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Utah State University and animals are synonymous. The school has a dairy research center, a horse arena and sheep and poultry projects.

Welcome the family pet to the state's land-grant university.Starting fall quarter, USU will offer students a minor in companion animals. The study of companion animals - dogs, cats and horses - is a Utah first.

Larry Slade, associate professor and nutritionist in animal, dairy and veterinary science, has been co-teaching a basic companion animals class for four years focusing on the human-animal bond. He said the minor will offer classes in pet care, reproduction and health. It will also offer classes on the therapeutic benefits animals offer humans.

Slade knows firsthand about the human-animal bond. He has seen the smile on the face of a 94-year-old man who could barely hobble with two canes but on a horse found he was "quick as a bird and free as a breeze."

This man and others with special needs are those the program hopes to help. Slade has created a new breed of horse he hopes to use with students in companion-animal classes. By crossing smooth-trotting Tennessee Walkers with ponies, Slade has produced animals that are about 10 inches shorter than the average horse's height of 60 inches. The difference means a lot to the elderly and disabled who find themselves atop a horse for the first time.

"It is important to get into an area where we are not traditionally involved - the social aspects of animal uses," Slade said.

Traditionally, animal study has been mostly about providing meat and fiber for humans, but Weldon Sleight, associate dean of the college of animal, dairy and veterinary science, said the companion animals minor could provide more.

Sleight said the information could provide students with employment opportunities at senior citizen centers, mental-health facilities and other places that use animals therapeutically.

"Animals seem to give people a reason to live or at least give them a higher quality of life," Sleight said.

Slade agrees.

"It really touches you. When I hear remarks and see the reaction of people, it's a very, very rewarding thing," he said. "If we can get people to respect animals as companions and not as a piece of ownership, something we must give to instead of something we want to receive from, that is a step in the right direction."

The companion animals minor is not aimed toward majors in the college of animal, dairy and veterinary science. Sleight expects students from the social sciences, like psychology and liberal arts.

USU is charting on new ground. But Sleight emphasizes USU is not training students to be alternatives to veterinarians, but rather to utilize preventative medicine techniques to keep pets - and people - happy and healthy.