Is animal-assisted therapy barking mad?
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
We truly do not deserve dogs. Many of them live up to the title of man's best friend, looking after their human chums with unconditional love.
There are many stories of bravery from pooches - such as Todd, the golden retriever who defended his beloved human, Paula Godwin, from a rattlesnake, receiving a venomous bite in the process. Todd made a full recovery after 12 hours in an animal hospital, thankfully, and he has received the Dog of the Year award for his bravery.
Many dogs face danger in the name of service for humans, whether it is on the frontline with soldiers or catching criminals with the police. There are guide dogs who help the blind and visually impaired, and intelligent dogs who can sniff out trouble (such as drugs) or are used in search and rescue operations.
And increasingly so, dogs are used as part of therapy. But is it barking mad to include our furry friends in our treatments?
According to Psychology Today, there is both good news and bad news. First, the good: the overwhelming majority of published studies have reported that animals make excellent therapists. For instance, when animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is used on children suffering from autism spectrum disorders, the results have been seemingly impressive. Maggie O’Haire, associate professor of human-animal interaction at Purdue University, reviewed 14 clinical trials, measuring 30 different outcomes variables. There were “statistically significant” improvements on 27 of the 30 outcomes for autistic children using AAT.
And now, the bad: many of the clinical trials on AAT effectiveness are "so methodologically flawed that their conclusions cannot be trusted". Many of the studies use sample sizes that are too small, and they also lack no-treatment control groups. The scientific literature on the subject suffers from the "file drawer effect" - the experiments with the positive results were published, whilst the ones that did not work are rarely published.
The research into the efficacy of AAT is still in its infancy. Molly Crossman, a Yale doctoral candidate, wrapped up one study involving an eight-year-old dog named Pardner, examining human psychological distress and the effect (if at all) of human-animal interaction. She cited a "murky body of evidence" showing a variety of results; positive short-term effect, no effect at all, or even higher rates of distress.
According to the Washington Post, using animals in mental health settings is nothing new. In the 17th century, for example, mentally ill patients in England were encouraged to interact with animals on the grounds of a Quaker-run retreat. Sigmund Freud also used one of his Chow Chow dogs called Jofi in his psychoanalysis sessions. However, it didn't become a research target until the 1960s when American child psychologist Boris Levinson began writing about the positive effect his dog Jingles had on his patients.
There needs to be more evidence into the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapies - and it needs to be more robust. Dogs are man's best friend, but we are not quite sure yet whether they are man's best therapist.