Animal assisted therapy – Medical miracle or emotional fluff?

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

The use of H.A.I. in modern treatments

The use of animals in medicine has been explored using mainly anecdotal evidence and looking at case studies. In the book Pet-orientated Child Psychotherapy (1969), Levinson explained how the counselling sessions with children were enhanced by the use of dogs. While Levinson’s findings helped spur future studies looking at animals and their uses in therapy, at the time there still lacked any hard evidence for promoting the use of animals in therapy with scientific studies (Kruger and Serpell, 2010).

The idea of using animals  in recovery by means of A.A.T requires evidence that it will provide measurable improvements in patients. The area of study surrounding animal assisted interventions still remains primarily theoretical. Many studies looking at the therapeutic benefits of animals discuss the intrinsic value which is anecdotal, not scientific, and therefore difficult to measure or apply to medicine (Kruger and Serpell, 2010).

Philosophy and Sociology Regarding Animal Assisted Therapy

Emotional and Social Support

With the apparent lack of hard, scientific evidence, there are still a huge number of cases where dogs in autistic families are claimed to be beneficial; whether information is collected from parents or monitored by psychiatrists. A case listed on the dogs for the disabled website, (2012), stated that the presence of a dog had improved the child’s confidence in social situations as the dog acts as an ice breaker when interacting with other children. Another case states that the responsibility of grooming, training, feeding and walking a dog has given a child diagnosed with Asberger’s motivation to get out of bed and ready in the morning as well as general overall improved behaviour.

It’s obvious from the personal accounts that the dogs do have a positive effect on the children and the families they are assigned to, but it is not explained why there is a human-animal bond and why this bond is so effective at improving an autistic child’s confidence or motivation.

The ice breaker effect

Hart, (2010), noted that (with dogs in particular) pets are conversation starters, and will often be the sole reason two strangers with a common interest will converse. It has even been shown that animals provide a comfortable topic to discuss, with more people willing to laugh and exchange stories when a dog is present, than when it is not (Messent, 1984).

Serpell and colleagues, (2000), summarised the social effects dogs have with the term ‘social lubricant’. He described dogs to have both human and non-human traits such as a want to interact with people combined with the inability to speak which makes for the perfect interaction. It is the dog’s lack of judgement which allows a child to feel safe when talking to or about it.

A study done in 1998 found that 92% of disabled people given dogs in the study reported a significant increase in their social interactions and 73% of participants made new friends since having their dog (Lane, McNicolas and Collis, 1998). This is one of the ways in which a dog will allow a child to interact socially, which is a core issue among children diagnosed with an autistic disorder (Gillis, Callahan and Romanczyk, 2011).


Biophilia is a term described by Wilson (1984) that describes the innate love of live, and therefore all things living including animals. From an evolutionary perspective, the correct attention to animals would increase the chances of survival in humans. Historically animals provided protection and this reflects how today humans benefit from the relaxing effects from living creatures (Gullone, 2000).

One study shows that a child’s blood pressure was lower when resting and reading with the presence of a dog, compared to resting and reading without a dog present (Friedman et al, 1983). This calming effect can be used to explain why autistic children show signs of better behaviour when they are assigned dogs.

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