Date of Award:

2013

Document Type:

Dissertation

Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department:

Psychology

Advisor/Chair:

Susan Crowely

Abstract

Research from various fields has demonstrated the benefits of human-animal interaction for physical and mental health. Recently, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) has become increasingly popular in a variety of healthcare settings--including inpatient mental health care facilities. However, there is limited research investigating the efficacy of AAT in outpatient sites. In addition, the impact of animals as an adjunct to psychotherapy treatment remains mostly uninvestigated. Therefore, it is necessary to empirically explore what therapy animals may contribute to specific treatment interventions with specific populations. The present study was a randomized control trial examining the psychological and physiological effects of adding AAT to a modified mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) for clients experiencing psychological distress, including anxious and depressive symptoms. It was hypothesized that AAT would be particularly complementary to mindfulness-based interventions because the therapy dog would provide a focus for attention to the current experience and exemplify acceptance and "being," enabling the understanding and practice of the main aspects of mindfulness. Subjects (N = 21) were randomly assigned to the MBSR or MBSR + AAT group and then completed an intervention consisting of six 50-minute individual therapy sessions. Each session included didactic and experiential components modified for delivery with or without a certified therapy dog. State and trait mindfulness, state and trait anxiety, psychological distress, blood pressure, and heart rate were assessed at each session. Results indicate that all participants experienced fewer anxiety and depressive symptoms, decreased psychological distress, and increased mindfulness skills from pre- to posttreatment. Additionally, state anxiety, blood pressure, and heart rate decreased within sessions. No significant difference was found between the control and experimental groups, indicating that interaction with a therapy dog had no impact on symptom reduction, skill acquisition, or client satisfaction in the current study. Future studies need to increase methodological rigor by including multiple therapist/dog teams and increasing sample size. Moreover, researchers must examine more thoroughly the role the dog might have in altering the social environment, such as reducing stigma surrounding mental health services and enhancing the therapeutic alliance.

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