New Study to Focus on Best Practices in Animal-Assisted Therapy
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The University of British Columbia has received a grant from the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Pet Partners to study best practices in animal-assisted therapy.
Specifically, Direct Experimental Assessment of Therapy Dog Handlers on Child and Dog Behavior During Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) will aim to determine how different therapy animal handler styles influence stress behavior in both children and dogs during animal-assisted therapy sessions.
“Therapy dog handlers are trained to be active in sessions and interact with the participants and the dogs alike, however the handling procedures can be inconsistent, and often not even measured across sessions,” said Megan Arant, MS, principal investigator. “It is possible that the handler variation of in-session procedures with their own therapy dogs is also influencing the participants through altering the way the dog is presented as well as altering the dogs’ own behavior, which could cause discrepancies in the therapeutic effect. Therefore, it is beneficial to create a consistent standard for how handlers are instructed to interact with their dogs in AAI sessions to ensure homogeneity.”
The study aims to provide empirical data on how to improve outcomes of AAI sessions, the researchers said.
“The study focuses on one largely neglected area, namely how the owner-handler of the therapy dogs interacts with their own dog in the session, and subsequently influences the dog’s behavior and the therapeutic effect of the session,” researchers added. “By targeting handler behavior and manipulating factors such as leash restriction and food delivery, the researchers will provide meaningful evidence that can push the field of AAI further forward and create better session outcomes for many different populations while highlighting the well-being of the therapy dog.”
The researchers will recruit 21 therapy dog teams and 21 children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). A within-subject group design with repeated measures will be used to determine the outcomes of typically-employed handler styles. While the study’s design will include an analysis of differing handling styles, all interactions with the therapy animals will uphold the highest possible considerations of animal welfare as well as Pet Partners’ therapy animal standards of practice, according to officials.
Investigations of effects of these common handling styles will be conducted through behavioral observations using the validated OHAIRE-V3 coding system and salivary cortisol measures, officials said.
Arant and co-investigators Alexandra Protopopova, Ph.D., University of British Columbia, and Erica Feuerbacher, Ph.D., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, expect that the most restrictive handling of the therapy dogs will have negative effects for both dogs and children with ASD, officials said. Officials predict that restrictive handling will result in less therapeutic benefit of the dog for the child as measured by behavioral coding and salivary cortisol. Officials also predict that restrictive handling will result in increased stress and salivary cortisol concentration of the dogs.
“Pet Partners has long been the gold standard for therapy animal handler training, and this study will help provide scientific evidence to guide handler best practices to maximize the benefits of the intervention,” said Annie Peters, president and CEO of Pet Partners, which is dedicated to demonstrating and promoting the health and wellness benefits of animal-assisted interventions. “We are proud to partner with HABRI in supporting human-animal bond research that will help inform best practices and foster consistency in the profession.”
“While research demonstrates the benefit of animal-assisted therapy for helping children with ASD through reducing anxiety and stress and helping improve social skills and behavior, consistency in handler procedures is needed and scientific research can help determine what is most optimal,” said Steven Feldman, executive director at HABRI. “HABRI is grateful for the partnership and support from Pet Partners for this important research, which will help more broadly account for the therapeutic effects of therapy dogs.”
HABRI is a nonprofit research and education organization that is gathering, funding and sharing scientific research to demonstrate the positive health impacts of companion animals.