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Is Therapy Going to the Dogs? Evaluating Animal Assisted Therapy for Early Identified At-Risk Children

By Leah Faith Brookner

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This study explores the historical context of human-animal relationships and examines the important ways that humans benefit from various types of interactions with domesticated animals. Therapeutic approaches that incorporate animals have been shown to have multiple benefits, including improved physical and mental health. Although this area of study is still largely overlooked in scientific fields of study, including social work, Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) has become increasingly prevalent in various mental health settings. Despite its popularity and anecdotal support, research on the benefits of AAT with children is minimal; there are no studies examining the ways in which this approach impacts children under the age of five.

Thirteen preschool-aged children from a community-based early intervention program participated in a 16-week pilot study on AAT. The children were considered at-risk for potential behavioral, emotional and psychological challenges due to a constellation of factors, including developmental delays, poverty and early childhood trauma. This research includes case studies for each of the participants, with detailed information about the children as well as an account of their therapeutic experiences during the 16-week program. Thematic Analysis was used to analyze the data. Broad themes emerged in two main areas: demographic factors and intervention strategies. Each of these themes is explored in depth to highlight the most salient features of the cases and effective therapeutic processes.

Findings indicate that the population studied shared various characteristics, including poverty, trauma history and complex family sessions. Preschool-aged children with risk factors do benefit from Animal Assisted Therapy in different ways based upon their histories and presenting behaviors. Children who present with internalizing behaviors, fear and disengagement, respond favorably to therapeutic cross-talking and physical touch; children with aggression and externalizing behaviors respond positively to clear limits, identifying feelings in the therapy dog and physical touch; and children who present more typically for the age and development, respond well to various forms of therapeutic interventions that incorporate the dog. Recommendations for therapeutic animal-based approaches are made based on the findings of this research.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2018
Pages 257
Department Social Work and Social Research
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Social Work and Social Research
DOI 10.15760/etd.6231
Language English
University Portland State University
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal-assisted therapies
  2. open access
  3. Youth-at-risk
  1. open access