The present study was a randomized controlled trial examining the psychological and physiological effects of adding animal-assisted therapy (AAT) to a modified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR) for clients experiencing psychological distress. It was hypothesized that AAT would complement mindfulness-based interventions because the therapy dog will provide a focus for attention to the current experience and exemplify acceptance and “being,” enabling the understanding and practice of the main aspects of mindfulness. Participants (n=21) were randomly assigned to an MBSR or MBSR+AAT group and then completed an intervention consisting of six 50-minute individual therapy sessions. Each session included didactic and experiential components modified for delivery with or without a certified therapy dog. State and trait mindfulness, psychological distress measures, blood pressure, and heart rate were assessed at each session. Results indicate that all participants experienced fewer anxiety and depressive symptoms, decreased psychological distress, and increased mindfulness skills from preto post-treatment. Additionally, state anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate decreased within sessions. No significant difference was found between the control and experimental groups, indicating that interaction with a therapy dog had no impact on symptom reduction, skill acquisition, or client satisfaction in the current study. However, moderate to large effect size estimates indicate clinically significant differences between groups, with higher ratings for the MBSR+AAT group on therapist efficacy, recommending the training, and participating in future treatment. Future studies need to increase methodological rigor by including multiple therapist/dog teams and increasing sample size. Moreover, researchers must more thoroughly examine the role the dog might have in altering the social environment, such as reducing stigma surrounding mental health services and enhancing the therapeutic alliance.
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