Exploring the human-animal bond in an animal-assisted therapy program for at-risk youth

Jennifer L. Terpin (2004)

This study explored the role of the human-animal bond within an animal-assisted therapy program that targeted at-risk youth. The human-animal bond is conceptualized within the framework of human attachment theory. A review of the human-animal bond, attachment theory, and current relevant research on animal-assisted therapy is provided. The literature revealed a need for exploration of short-term interactions with animals, such as those that occur in animal assisted-therapy programs, as opposed to long-term interactions that occur in pet relationships. A short-term measure of the human-animal bond, The Human-Animal Bond Scale (HABS) was developed for purposes of this study. The scale includes a self-report measure as well as a behavioral observation component for participant observers. An animal-assisted therapy program was also developed, implemented and evaluated. The program was held on-site at a local humane society and targeted maltreated youth as participants. It was hypothesized that a positive relationship exists between the socioemotional functioning of the participants, primarily self-esteem and empathy, and the strength of the human-animal bond. Therefore, as the human-animal bond increases, socioemotional functioning is expected to improve. Statistical findings did not reveal a relationship between the human-animal bond and socioemotional functioning. Individual case data was suggestive of improvements in self-esteem for a majority of participants. The strength of the human-animal bond was high for all participants and increased over the course of the program. An unexpected finding included noteworthy self-reports regarding the interactions between the human participants. These interactions were deemed positive by the participants and may have led to an increase in socialization between the humans in the program. Future researchers are encouraged to continue to examine the quality of short-term interactions between humans and animals. The inclusion of more thorough screenings for participants of related studies, both humans and animals is suggested to maximize positive outcomes. It is also recommended that quantitative and qualitative designs with the use of comparison groups be utilized so as to increase the statistical significance of results. Follow-up studies may lend to the reliability and validity of results as well. Future researchers may also wish to include a measure of socialization, especially if socioemotional factors are highlighted. And finally, it may be advantageous to examine the effects of human contact in addition to animal contact, and how they may both be related to positive outcomes.