DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.


Animal-Assisted Mental Health for at-Risk Youth

Theory and Practice


            The exact date man began to domesticate animals and use them as pets is unknown, but there is little doubt that animals have played a significant role in the development and psychological economy of the human organism (Levinson, 1969). The earliest forms of art contained animals. Almost every nation has some reference to the medicinal powers of animals and/or certain body parts of them. The Bible, Genesis 1:26 in particular, confirms the pre-Biblical notions of animals as servants, helpers, and even possible healers. Animals have been used for food and clothing, worshiped, sacrificed, domesticated as pets, feared, and loved for centuries. It is not surprising that animals have been perceived throughout history to contribute to human mental and physical health (Fine, 2010).

            The first recorded use of animals being used to enhance the mental health of young people was in 1792 at the York Retreat in England. It was an asylum for mentally ill patients run by Quakers, where common farm animals were used as an alternative to restraints and drugs (Fine, 2010).

            All therapeutic interventions involving animals to enhance the mental health of young people, revolve around the assumption  there is something about animals that powerfully attracts and motivates humans, especially children (Fine, 2010). Many children today live in a chaotic world full of turmoil. Children look to pets for support in dealing with the stresses of life. Animals can also bring comfort, safety, attachment, and love to children who do not get it from the humans in their lives. Animals can also teach children lessons in life such as the significance of love, death, grief, sexuality, and elimination (Robin & Bensel, 1985).

            Animals make excellent companions. They do not segregate, discriminate, are non-judgmental, and are free of prejudice (Calcaterra et al. 2015). Children perceive animals as willing participants in a relationship which is outside of the complications and expectations of normal human relationships (Friesen, 2009). Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP), animal assisted-interventions (AAI), and animal-assisted activities (AAA) are becoming increasingly more important in work with children (Frieson, 2009). Animal-assisted therapy and AAP have previously used animals to augment existing treatment options with no real definitive guidelines. But, in the last 30 years, the Delta Society, one of the main organizations certifying therapy animals, has developed a clear definition of AAT that is commonly accepted by therapists (Deitz, Davis & Pennings, 2012). The Delta Society defines AAT as,

     “A goal-directed intervention in which an animal, that meets

     specific criteria, is an integral part of the treatment process.  

     Animal-assisted therapy is directed and or delivered by a

     health/human service professional with specialized expertise

    and within the scope of practice of his/her profession” (Delta Society, 2012, p.8). The Delta Society defines AAA as “goal-directed activities that improve a client’s quality of life through the use of the human-animal bond” (Delta Society, 2012, p.8)."

            The presence of a dog during therapy can act as the “social-lubricant” between child and therapist (Levinson, 1969), however, the presence of dogs has physiological benefits as well. The presence of a dog has helped at-risk children overcome behavioral, physical, emotional and verbal distresses (Friesen, 2009). Dogs have made a great contribution on school children who suffer from extreme emotional disorders (Anderson & Olson, 2006). The presence of dogs in the classroom has been found to contribute to student's overall emotional well-being, and more positive attitudes toward school and school administration. (Freison, 2009).

            Since Boris Levinson pioneered and documented his studies back in 1969, much has been written on the benefit of animals in the lives of at-risk children in therapy, classroom, detention facilities, and home life. In 2003, Barker et al., published a list of 84 studies and peer reviewed articles in which the primary focus is on the benefits companion animals have on various populations, including children. This list has prompted many carefully documented studies which suggest research into the human-animal bond is a multi-disciplinary field worthy of more attention (Jalongo, 2005).

            The term “at-risk” is widely used and has a strong intuitive meaning. However, “at-risk” is defined in many ways. In general, “at-risk” refers to poor life outcomes, such as committing crimes, being unwanted, neglected, suffering from disabilities, abused, failure in school, death of parents, economic dependency, or even incarceration (Moore, 2006). Using animals in the lives of “at-risk” youth can ease loneliness and combat the heartbreak of neglect and abuse (Anderson & Anderson, 1999). Animal-assisted activities can also help open communications lines, develop trust, decrease anxiety and stress, and motivate children to become active participants in social activities (Connor & Miller, 2000).

            Young people involved in animal-assisted activities, such as training dogs, are learning valuable life skills and are learning to create a human-canine bond. Incarcerated youth at Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colorado, developed a program in which the inmates train rescue dogs for agencies serving those in need, such as handicapped individuals and terminally ill patients. The program boosted the morale of both inmates and staff members, while offering a valuable service to those in need and rescuing dogs on death row (Osborne & Bair, 2003).

            Children and teens court-ordered to volunteer at animal shelters have learned responsibility, empathy, and kindness. The animals, forgotten and abandoned by the world, help children who are forgotten and abandoned by their families to feel needed and loved (Anderson & Anderson, 1999).

            The benefit of animals in the lives of at-risk youth has been documented time and time again, in study after study. However, when considering AAA in the lives of at-risk children, multicultural considerations and health issues exist. Ethical considerations must be dealt with when it comes to using animals with children (Svensson, 2014). Some Middle Eastern and South-East Asian cultures believe dogs to be unclean (Jalongo et al., 2001). Allergic reactions to pets must be considered as well, however, only 6% of people seen by allergists in North America have allergic reactions as a result of animal dander, (Elliott et al., 1985).

            Cusack, (1988), writes, “animals can be vitally important for the fringe groups of society; at-risk children, prisoners, the physically challenged, and the mentally ill.” He also emphasized that “perhaps most important, pets seem to bring out the best in us.  If there is a capacity for affection, compassion, for empathy or tenderness overlooked by our human fellows, a pet has the uncanny ability to ferret it out.”  In their book, Between Pets and People:  The Importance of Animal Companionship, Beck & Katcher, (1983), conclude that “when people face real adversity, affection from a pet takes on a new meaning. The pet’s continuing affection is a sign that the essence of the person has not been damaged.”



DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.