Bonding with animals is, without dispute, a rehabilitative experience unmatched by another form of therapy for individuals with special needs or disabilities. Research continually indicates that animal assisted therapy helps special needs individuals reach rehabilitative goals, experience greater well-being, and improve physical, social, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. 


Ontario Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health (2012) report Evidence In-Sight: Animal Assisted Therapy

Research suggests that AAT has a positive effect on the physical, emotional and social aspects of children’s development (Friesen, 2009). AAT has been studied in a number of different contexts with children and youth, including in therapeutic settings. Specifically, it has been used for children with autism spectrum disorder or pervasive developmental disorder, in pain management, and in children with emotional or behavioural disorders. 

Potential therapeutic relationship effects Fine (2010) outlined potential benefits to therapeutic alliance. 

1. Clinicians may find the addition of animals in a therapeutic setting beneficial for the following reasons:

  • Animals can act as a “social lubricant” (pp.172) for therapy, making clients feel safe and comfortable in the therapeutic setting
  • Animals can “regulate the emotional climate” (pp. 174) with their enthusiastic greetings; this can help build rapport and help clients feel more comfortable
  • The presence of an animal can help stir a range of emotions which may enhance the child’s ability to explore their emotions in therapy
  • The relationship between the therapist and the animal can demonstrate healthy aspects of a relationship (caring, compassion, etc.) 


2. The presence of animals can affect the perceived environment, making it more comfortable and friendly for clients. 

3. In the treatment of children, the presence of an animal may provide support for the child during emotional conflict. The child may find it easier to develop trust with the animal, as they perceive it to be non-judgmental, prior to trusting the therapist or clinician. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) 

There have been a number of studies examining the effects of AAT on children with a diagnosis of ASD or PDD. In one prominent study, children were exposed to three treatment conditions in sessions with a therapist and pro-social behaviour was measured in each condition (Martin & Farnum, 2002). The conditions were a toy ball, a stuffed animal and a therapy dog. Compared to the other two conditions, children interacting with the therapist and the dog showed a significant increase in pro-social behaviour such as laughing, looking at therapist, giving treats, talking about themselves, and responding to questions with detailed explanations. In another study, children diagnosed with ASD who were in the AAT condition showed improvements in social skills, goal directed behaviour and interpersonal skills compared to children in the control group (Ming-Lee Yeh, 2008). Some researchers suggest that children may be able to enhance their capacity to build relationships by using animals as an initial step to social interactions (Grandin, Fine, & Bowers, 2010). It is important to note that some children are simply uncomfortable around animals, with or without an ASD diagnosis. Therefore, AAT must be considerate of each individual’s experiences and capabilities (Grandin et al., 2010). 

Pain Management 

Researchers have examined the possible impact AAT has on pain perceptions in a pediatric hospital setting. In one study, the AAT group experienced a significant reduction in perceived pain level compared to the control group (Braun et al., 2009). This study involved visitation from a therapy dog to children in an acute care pediatric setting. The authors speculated that seeing a friendly animal would act as an emotional stimulus and cause the release of endorphins, leading to an enhanced feeling of well-being. In a similar study, (Sobo et al., 2006) children reported a decrease in postoperative pain following a single visitation with a therapy dog. In this case, the authors explained that the dog may have served as a distraction from the pain and invoked feelings of comfort in the children. 

Emotional and Behavioural Disorders 

Previous research supports the idea that AAT can have a positive impact on emotional and behavioural disorders. Anderson and Olson (2006) conducted an intervention with six children diagnosed with a severe emotional disorder, in which a therapy dog spent time in their classroom. Qualitative analysis revealed that children experienced greater emotional stability, a more positive attitude toward school, accepted more responsibility for learning and showed more respect to their peers with the presence of the dog. A similar study also showed that children had increased self-esteem as a result of having a dog in the classroom, likely because they felt they had a ‘friend’ to bond with (Zasloff & Hart, 1999). In a study involving children and adolescents who had undergone inpatient psychiatric treatment, the use of AAT involving a dog was measured (Prothmann et al., 2006). Patients in the AAT condition showed a significant increase in ‘general state of mind,’ measured by vitality, intra-emotional balance, social extroversion and alertness. In addition, studies conducted in classrooms where children were not diagnosed with specific mental health issues illustrated the positive emotional effects that resulted from a dog in the classroom. For example, increased self-esteem and self-concept were commonly reported in such studies (Endenburg & van Lith, 2011). It is important to note that age and home environment may have been mediators of this effect. 

Physiological Effects 

There is broad evidence to support the physiological benefits of interacting with animals (Giaquinto et al., 2009), although most of this research has been conducted with an elderly population. Reported benefits include lower blood pressure, lower resting heart rate and improved immune system functioning (Morrison, 2007). The research on physiological effects of AAT involving children suggests an increase in heart rate prior to an interaction with an animal. However, this has been studied infrequently and researchers suggested that this effect could be due to excitement about seeing the animal (Kaminsky, 2010).


References


Anderson, K.L. & Olson, M.R. (2006). The value of a dog in a classroom with severe emotional disorders, Anthrozoos, 19, 35-49.


Braun, C. & Strangler, T., Narveson, J., & Pettingell, S. (2009). Animal-Assisted Therapy as a pain relief intervention for children, Complementary Therapies in Practice, 15, 105-109.


Endenburg, N. & van Lith, H.A. (2011). Influence of animals on the development of children, The Veterinary Journal, 190, 208-214.


Fine, A. H. (2010). Incorporating animal-assisted therapy into psychotherapy: Guidelines and suggestions for therapists. In Fine, A.H. (ed.) Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, third ed., (pp. 169-191). San Diego, CA: Elsevier


Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S.F., Blase, K.A., Friedman, R.M., & Wallace, F. (2005). Implementation research. A Synthesis of the literature. Tampa, FL: University of South Florida, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, The National Implementation Research Network (FMHL Publication #231).


Friesen, L. (2009). How a therapy dog may inspire student literacy engagement in the elementary language arts classroom. LEARNing Landscapes, 3, 103-119.


Giaquinto, S. & Valentini, F. (2009). Is there a scientific basis for pet therapy? Disability and Rehabilitation, 31, 595-598.


Grandin, T., Fine, A., & Bowers, C.M. (2010). The use of therapy animals with individuals with autism spectrum disorders. In Fine, A.H. (Ed.) Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, third ed (pp. 247-264). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.


Kaminski, M., Pellina, T., & Wish, J. (2010). Play and Pets: the physical and emotional impact of child-life and pet therapy on hospitalized children, Children’s Health Care, 31, 321-335.


Kruger, K.A., & Serpell, J.A. (2006). Animal-Assisted interventions in mental health: definitions and theoretical foundations. In: Fine, A.H. (2006) Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, second ed. (pp. 21-38). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.


Martin, F. & Farnum, J. (2002). Animal-Assisted Therapy for Children with Pervasive Development Disorders. Western Journal of Nursing Research, 24, 657-670. Melson, G.F. & Fine, A.H. (2010). Animals in the lives of children. In Fine, A.H. (Ed.) Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, third ed, (pp. 224-245), San Diego: Elsevier.


Ming Lee Yeh, A. (2008). Canine Animal-Assisted Therapy model for autistic children. Taiwan International Association for Human-Animal Interaction International Conference, 10, 5-8.


Morrison, M.L. (2007). Health benefits of animal-assisted interventions, Complementary Health Practice Review, 12, 51- 62. Nimer, J. & Lundahl, B. (2007). Animal-Assisted Therapy: A Meta-Analysis. Anthrozoos, 20, 222-238.


Prothmann, A., Bienert, M., & Ettrich, C. (2006). Dogs in child psychotherapy: Effects on state of mind. Anthrozoos, 19, 265-277.


Sobo, E.J., Eng, B., Kassity-Kitch, N. (2006). Canine Visitation Therapy: Pilot Data on Decreases in Child pain perception, Journal of Holistic Nursing, 24, 51-57.


Zasloff, R.L. & Hart, L.A. (1999). Animals in elementary school education in California, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 2, 347. 

Child and Youth Mental Health

Julie Casey MSW, RSW

Wellness Care Farm

Nourishing Hearts

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