Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Help At-Risk Boys?

If existing behavioural programs aren’t working, can therapeutic sessions with a dog help boys who have problems at school?

A sweet terrier sits on a chair next to her toy
Photo: criben / Shutterstock

A new paper by Abbey Schneider et al (2014) investigates the success of a program designed to help boys who are considered ‘at-risk’ – by matching them up with a specially trained dog and handler.

In Colorado, a group of elementary schools take part in a program called the Human Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC). It is designed to help girls and boys who have problems such as hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, or depression. These children are usually given an Individualized Education Plan to help them in school, and several behavioural support systems are also available. When these supports are not enough, children can be referred to HABIC.

The Animal Assisted Therapy program matches each child to a specific dog and handler, with whom they spend 10-12 sessions. The first is a meet-and-greet, and in this and subsequent sessions the child helps the handler teach new commands to the dog, learns how to give the dog commands it already knows, and also has unstructured time in which they can play with or cuddle the dog. The dog and handler are specially trained to work in the program, and the sessions are designed for each child with specific behavioural and emotional aims.

Dogs are great for a program like this because they are not judgmental, they are available to be petted and cuddled, the child can try out different pro-social behaviours with the dog, and the relationship does not rely on verbal skills. Within the framework of attachment theory, the child can develop a secure attachment with the dog (and the dog’s handler) that will enable them to feel safe and to develop emotionally and behaviourally.

Nine boys took part in this study. The researchers conducted a set of assessments before, during and after the animal-assisted therapy sessions. This included observations of the child and dog interacting that were designed to assess the emotional bond between them, the child’s self-reports about the relationship with the dog, teacher and parent assessments of the child’s behaviour, and data about the child’s absences from school and referrals to the principal for bad behaviour.

The researchers say the“results suggest that children are able to create more emotionally positive relationships with both animals and adults over the course of the intervention.”  In addition, although there was no change in being absent from school, there was a significant reduction in the number of times the boys were referred to the principal’s office for problem behaviour.

Interestingly, teachers did not rate the boys’ behaviour as better in the classroom. The researchers think it is possible their ratings were clouded by previous experiences with the boys. Independent classroom observations could be a useful addition to future evaluations.

A nice thing about this study is that in evaluating emotional attachment between the child and dog, observations were also made of the dog, such as the time spent in close proximity to the boy, and whether the dog’s mouth was open in a happy expression or closed, suggesting tension.

The researchers say one advantage of the scheme is that, while social skills can be taught, the desire to connect emotionally with others is harder to inspire. The dog provides encouragement to the child to connect with another being. It also seems that unstructured time is important for the development of the bond between them, and this is something that warrants future research.

This study is an important formal evaluation of an existing scheme. Without research like this, we would not know if such schemes work or how they could be improved. It is small-scale, and a larger evaluation that included girls as well as boys would be helpful. The results are very encouraging, and suggest that animal-assisted therapy can be beneficial for children with a range of behavioural problems.

The HABIC program is just one way in which animals can potentially help children. For example, work by Maggie O’Haire suggests that a classroom program with guinea pigs can help children with autism as well as their normal peers. This is a fascinating topic and we look forward to future work by these and other researchers in the field.

If you would like to know more about the study, the full paper is open-access (registration required).

Is there an animal-assisted therapy program in your community?

Schneider, A.A.,, Rosenberg, J., Baker, M., Melia, N., Granger, B., & Biringen, Z. (2014). Becoming relationally effective: High-risk boys in animal-assisted therapy Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 2 (1), 1-18.

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