As interest in Animal-Assisted Interventions (AAI) grows, there is increasing need to differentiate informal activities from formal and professionally directed therapies, including mental health focussed Canine-Assisted Psychotherapy (CAP). There have been no reviews focusing exclusively on CAP and the distinct developmental period of adolescence. The aims of this study were to identify the characteristics of CAP interventions, their impacts and their acceptability, tolerability and feasibility for adolescents with mental health disorders.
A systematic review identified studies incorporating canines into mental health treatments for adolescents aged 10–19 years. Studies reporting qualitative or quantitative psychological or psychosocial outcomes were included.
Seven studies were scrutinised. Intervention characteristics varied, including a range of formats, settings, locations, doses, and facilitators. Information on the role of the canines in sessions was sparse. CAP had a positive impact on primary diagnoses and symptomatology, conferring additional benefits to standard treatments for internalising disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and equivalent effects for anxiety, anger and externalising disorders. CAP was associated with positive impacts on secondary factors including increased engagement and socialisation behaviours, and reductions in disruptive behaviours within treatment sessions. Global functioning also improved. There was insufficient evidence that CAP improved factors associated with self-esteem, subjective wellbeing, or coping. Good attendance and retention rates indicated high levels of acceptability. Moderate to high tolerability was also indicated. Feasibility may be limited by additional training and logistical requirements.
We recommend the development of theoretically informed, standardised (manualised) intervention protocols that may subsequently form the basis of efficacy and effectiveness testing. Such protocols should clearly describe canine-participant-facilitator interactions via a formalised nomenclature; spontaneous (animal-led), adjunctive (facilitator-led), and experiential (participant-led).
There is emerging evidence to suggest that CAP improves the efficacy of mental health treatments in self-selected adolescent populations via reductions in primary symptomatology, and via secondary factors that improve therapeutic processes and quality, such as engagement and retention.