Animal-Assisted Activity as a Social Experience

Violent behavior continues to be an uncontrollable problem in many societies, including America (World Health Organization, 2004). Most efforts have failed to prevent such behavior by intervening in the lives of children and adolescents at risk of incarceration. However, a few programs have had promising results by trying to change and improve the social, emotional, and cognitive skills of targeted groups (e.g. Beelmann et al., 1994; Schneider and Byrne, 1985).

Animal-assisted activities (AAA), which also target these skills, offer a novel and potentially more effective way to prevent violence (Kruger and Serpell, 2006) because of the unique ability of animals to appeal to children and adolescents (Arluke, 2004), to be highly responsive, and to provide many opportunities for interaction (Myers and Saunders, 2002). AAA provides participants with a variety of animal contacts, ranging from purely spontaneous and recreational to structured and instructional ones that are overseen by shelter workers, volunteers, animal trainers, and paraprofessionals who, rather than setting specific treatment goals, have more general objectives for participants, ranging from attendance and general comportment to caring for and training animals. Despite their variety, all AAA programs allow for and encourage participants to interact and perhaps bond with animals and people in a non-threatening and supportive environment.

Anecdotal and research data on program outcomes suggest that AAA can positively shape the attitudes and behavior of problem youth (Dalton, 2001; Rathmann, 1999). Program advocates, admittedly biased to see success among participants, nevertheless have countless personal reports, many quite convincing at face inspection, that point to AAA’s ability to transform problem youth into happy, responsible, outgoing, verbal, and involved young adults who lead productive lives (e.g. Hill, 2003). Studies of the impact of AAA show more specific benefits of exposure to these programs, including teaching knowledge about animals to participating youth (Zasloff et al., 2003), reducing aggression and recidivism (Dalton, 1995, 2000; Merriam, 2001; Siegel, 1999), curbing anxiety and depression (Woolley, 2004), improving vocational skills (Dalton, 1993–1994, 2005), and enhancing social skills, such as empathy, decision making, patience, task concentration, and interpersonal communication (Dalton, 1993–1994, 2005; Merriam, 2001; Rathmann and Cohen, 2001).

Despite the encouraging, albeit small, literature on AAA outcomes, researchers have failed to examine why these programs may be so effective. However, some attempt has been made to explain the success of animal-assisted therapy (AAT). Since the latter is a related although not identical intervention, understanding why AAT works can shed light on why AAA also works. Katcher (2002), for one, speculates that AAT’s efficacy stems from the liminality of the contacts between animals and people targeted by these interventions, the ability of animals to serve as transitional or projective objects, and the generalization of positive attributions from animals to humans that occur in these programs. While these psychological mechanisms may contribute to AAT’s success, they cannot be easily manipulated, if at all, or deliberately designed into animal programs to bolster their efficacy.

However, interpersonal explanations offer greater opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of animal programs because they can be more easily created, influenced, and shaped by program designers and advocates compared to trying to change the built-in psychological dispositions or abilities of participants. McNichols and Collis (2006), for example, suggest one such relational explanation, stemming from the formation of human/animal relationships in these programs; namely, that therapy animals provide social support to participants. Although it is a start, this explanation may not do justice to the variety of relationships that participants can form in these programs. Research needs to specify what exactly about these relationships, or others that form between participants and their peers and participants and staff members, may contribute to the apparent success of these animal programs.

To understand how interpersonal relationships can contribute to the success of animal interventions, we need a baseline description of what these relationships look like in these programs. Only then can future researchers verify and weigh which, if any, relational features, alone or in combination, make for greater program efficacy with particular target groups. Establishing this baseline calls for a focus on participants’ broad social experience in these programs. This experience includes, but goes beyond participants’ contacts with program animals and whatever formal curriculum and structured plans they encounter.

The nature of this experience and the belief that it helps to transform participants into more civil, trusting, calm, empathic, confident, and responsible people stems from each program’s informal culture, or what staff members believe is the right way for participants to regard and act toward animals, peers, and adults when they attend the programs. Since it is part of program culture, this staff perspective is not recorded but understood and enacted by those present, and passed on to new staff members and volunteers through observation or verbal instruction about how they should view and treat participating youth. Describing this cultural underpinning of AAA programs—the social experience that staff members want participants to have because of its presumed therapeutic benefit—is this chapter’s focus.

19.2 Method

An ethnographic approach is uniquely suited for this descriptive, rather than explanatory, task. Naturalistically positioned to unearth data with a high degree of internal validity, the ethnographer immerses him- or herself in the everyday social world of the group under investigation and uses unstructured interviewing and observation, as well as document and record analysis, to discover the beliefs and group processes underlying the local culture (Harris et al., 1997). This approach is especially good at discovering cultural insights because the ethnographer’s rapport with respondents and firsthand observation of their behavior as it unfolds makes it easier to examine and understand issues that are politically or emotionally sensitive as well as those that are hard to articulate, let alone quantify on survey questionnaires.

Using this approach, the author studied four AAA programs for at-risk children and adolescents with a wide range of behavioral and emotional problems and one AAA program for incarcerated young adults. Two programs had participants train service dogs for the disabled, two had participants train shelter dogs for adoption, and one had participants visit and care for farm animals. These sites were chosen because of their reputation for being the best of their kind (i.e. they were long established, internally evaluated, and well documented), according to leading scholars and practitioners having knowledge of specific animal programs across the country.

A total of 116 staff members and targeted youth were studied. The staff (n = 35) included program directors, treatment managers and supervisors, volunteers, interns, psychologists, school or facility administrators, and teachers. Children and young adults (n = 81) included those incarcerated (n = 6) and those deemed at risk (n = 75) because of emotional and behavioral problems, among who were 17 females, 64 males, 33 African Americans and Latinos, and 48 whites, ranging in age from three to 25 years.

The author was given full access to observe animal activities and to interview participants and staff members in all programs. Approximately 80 hours of observations were conducted between September 2004 and April 2005. Observations were general, describing the culture of each program, especially as it pertained to teaching participants, formally and informally, various social skills, attitudes, and knowledge. During class or activity time, participants were observed as they interacted with staff, played with peers and animals, practiced dog training, took animals for walks, and cleaned up after, groomed, and fed animals. Observations also were made of informal interactions among participants, and between participants and staff members, as the former arrived and departed programs, and during timeouts and food breaks.

Forty-nine taped interviews (including 28 staff members and 21 participants) were conducted along with countless untaped, impromptu conversations. Given their different perspectives and experiences, both staff members and participants were interviewed in order to cast a wide exploratory net that could tap into aspects of these program cultures that might underlie their presumed effectiveness. Staff members were treated as key informants who had an interest in understanding the perspective of children and adolescents in their programs and had extensive firsthand experience observing and talking with them; in addition, many had prior training in social work or psychology that equipped them to make insightful observations about program dynamics and participants’ experiences. The interviews were unstructured and open ended, making it possible to probe respondents’ perspectives while allowing them to take the interview in unplanned directions. This enabled the author to explore their beliefs about the programs—more specifically, how and why they believed that AAA “worked” to benefit participants.

Finally, program records were scrutinized for self-assessment forms and results, background information about participants, training manuals, publicity, news coverage, and written communications from former participants. In-house program evaluations, when available, were also inspected.

All data gathered through observations, interviews, and secondary sources were transcribed and subjected to grounded theory analysis (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), a technique that inductively reviews data to identify general group beliefs and experiences. The findings discussed below represent the major relational themes that resulted from this analysis.

There are two apparent limitations to the present study that turned out to benefit its exploratory goal. For one, program staff members were advocates for AAA and had a vested interest in seeing their programs “work.” Their spirited interest in seeing what they regarded as positive changes in participants and their general interest in the operation of their programs hardly made them objective evaluators, but it did make them eager to help the author at every step of the way and, more importantly, to help the author gather insight into why their programs might benefit participants. For another, program participants were not randomly assigned to each program; they were often, but not always, selected by staff members for being ready and motivated to benefit from and function in these programs, selected by facility administrators because they exhibited “good” behavior in classes, and/or were self-selected because participants wanted to work with animals. As the “cream of the crop” they were not typical of their peers, but they offered the greatest likelihood of program success as variously defined by staff members and institutional administrators. If any AAA programs achieved sought-after changes in targeted youth, the ones studied here would do so, then making it possible to investigate and theorize why they might be effective.

19.3 Findings

Results reported in this chapter describe the kinds of social experiences encountered by participants in AAA programs. More specifically, in the programs studied, youth were exposed to close relationships with animals, close relationships with humans, softened hierarchies, new perspectives, easy successes, and manageable challenges. Also considered are the ways these experiences might benefit participants.

19.3.1 Close relationships with animals

Programs provided participants with opportunities to experience close relationships with animals (Sanders, 2003), whether this involved creating, sustaining, or releasing them. Before entering programs, many participants had pets, but these prior connections were emotionally shallow compared to those established with their new animals. Most who reported having owned dogs had instrumental, rather than affective, relationships with pit bulls or Rottweilers where the animals were treated more like objects than conventional pets. Their new animal relationships, unlike their former ones with pets, were intrinsically rewarding, relatively long term, and involved considerable emotional stake; unlike their former relationships with humans, these animal connections were unambivalent and unabusive.

Qualities unique to animals help to build these close relationships with participants. Many participants touch or are touched by animals very quickly and very often, compared to their experiences with humans where touch is awkward, rare, or unwelcomed. One staff member noted: “Even if the teacher develops a relationship in time with the kids, they’ll start to get closer to you, talk to you, and they might touch you, but they’re still not touchers. So the fact that they touch dogs is really a remarkable accomplishment in a short time. By the second week of school you start to see kids touching dogs.” In return, participants allow the dogs to touch them (e.g. being licked, pawed, jumped on, or leaned against). Participants also “get something immediately back” from most dogs that they define and experience as positive, such as attention or affection. If nothing else, dogs at least respond in some way to the child’s presence. This is not true, though, with most farm animals. Sometimes, there is no response, as with a sleeping pig or indifferent horse, and signs of outward or undeniable affection are even harder to come by. For children with boundary problems, this reticence may allow them to establish relationships when that is problematic for them with humans. Also, the reticence to be demonstrative can be an advantage to those with histories of being emotionally overwhelmed by people who appear to invade participants’ own boundaries.

Fostering close relationships, some participants identify with the animals’ plight and future. Unlike the service dog programs where animals do not have troubled medical or social histories, the farm animal and dog obedience programs use abandoned, abused, or otherwise mistreated animals. One staff member observed: “They all were abandoned or something terrible happened. It’s so appropriate because here are these kids that are all misplaced and here are these animals that are misplaced.” “They all have stories,” said one program psychologist. Histories of animals are part of the oral cultures of these programs. Participants may ask where animals come from, why they are injured, or how they learn such bad behavior, at which point staff members explain their histories. “If kids ask, ‘How did Carmen get here?’ then the story will be told, if the person knows the story.” In one program, the staff posted each animal’s “story” on its stall for the children to read.

By connecting these animal stories to their own histories, staff members expect participants to take comfort in their own situations and have hope for the future. For example, a staff member talked about a girl in her program, saying: “With Diane, she can see that Honey’s (abused horse) life got better from the situation that it was in. And that gives Diane hope. That just hits a nerve. She had a horrible background just like Honey, and she can have some hope that things will get better for her too…some sense of future, which abused kids don’t have.” Another staff member added, “They are troubled dogs who will work with troubled kids, where they can help each other have a good future.” Participants see that staff members do not give up on these animals until they are safe and cared for, and that perhaps they will be protected and loved too. In the words of one program director, “I won’t give up on finding them homes, ‘See, we didn’t give up!’ We can find good homes for them and they now have good lives. And it is a lesson I want the kids to get—we don’t give up on troubled animals or troubled kids.”

Many participants connect their own abused, homeless, or abandoned backgrounds to those of program animals. A participant in one of the farm programs articulated these parallels, saying: “The thing I liked the most when I came here, you have these animals around you that I kind of identified with. Like it’s a place where they live and I lived in a children’s home. So it’s kind of like a children’s home and an animal’s home. So I just kind of see similarities—they live here and they get taken care of by Michelle and all the other people, the helpers and staff. And then at the children’s home, you get taken care of by adults as well.” Participants also see similarities between the behavior of their animals and their own behavior. For example, it is common for shelter dogs to need “calming down.” One youth made this connection with a dog he was training: “Molly loves to bolt, she loves to run and jump, and she’s getting worse. She gets really hyper and excited. She does it right when you open her cage. And you’ve got to be ready to hold onto that leash or she’s going right by you. So she is a behavior problem because I can’t get her to calm down immediately. I need her to focus. That’s a challenge, but it will be fine. You know, when I started here I guess I gave everybody a hard time too. I flew off the handle really easy, but people tell me I don’t do it so much anymore.”

The result is that very close, even intense, relationships often develop between participants and their program animals, an intensity particularly revealed when participants let go of animals when they leave programs or when animals are placed with clients or adopters. The head of the juvenile detention center connected to one program recalled: “There was a young man here who was detached from his family and he got involved in the dog program. After about four months of training a dog for adoption the family came to take the dog away and the kid broke down in tears. And we had never seen any kind of emotion like that nor had his family. It goes back to that relationship between the youth and his dog.”

19.3.2 Close relationships with humans

Most participants have a history of relationships with friends or family members that often or almost always lacked nurturing, support, trust, caring, and open communication. Although AAA programs are ostensibly about human/animal interaction, as much or more of the interaction in these programs is between humans. These human contacts offered participants a chance to form and maintain satisfying and consistent close relationships with program peers and adults, making it possible to sample the emotional benefits that come with such connections and perhaps seek similar relations in the future.

Participants commonly develop relationships with peers in their programs. Dog programs encourage participants to help each other train animals by pointing out and correcting peers’ mistakes; teamwork and joint problem-solving behavior often result. Particularly in programs with older youth, dog training provides challenges that test problem-solving ability and often lead to joint solutions among peers. For example, on one occasion, three participants mulled over how to lessen a dog’s aggressiveness, sharing their thoughts about what the dog’s perspective was and why it was so aggressive. As part of a team, participants also learn to sanction peers who do not work hard in their programs. Such sanctioning rarely became divisive. More typically, they understood peer sanctioning as a sign of mutual respect and regard for the program, the animals, and the staff; in other words, it was a sign of fellowship rather than a symptom of social breakdown and distance. Peer relations also flower in these programs because participants are allowed to socialize with each other by talking, playing, teasing, or roughhousing. Whatever their impetus, these program-based peer relationships sometimes lead to strong friendships between two or more participants that carry over to their dorms.

Participants also can form close relationships with staff members. The latter believe that they relate better to participants than do most other adults in the facility. Because of this presumed special connection, many participants appear to develop a strong rapport with the staff. One of the older youths singled out how trust between peers and staff allowed the former to depend on the latter. He claimed: “Personal relationships are really important. There is a trust level here. We are kind of a tight family, I guess you can say. They rely on us, and I like that. [The program] gives me lots of confidence. And I’ve never had those feelings before.” Once established, a trusting relationship allows participants to feel that the staff understands them and will do the right thing by them. This rapport permits participants to reveal things to staff members that they cannot tell other teachers or administrators; doing so will get them into trouble (e.g. having a gun) or be too personal (e.g. having girlfriend problems).

Close relationships with staff members are often forged indirectly by teaching participants interpersonal and emotional skills, such as nurturing. As staff model these roles, their relationships with participants often become more intimate. The latter may realize that they, and not just the animals, are being nurtured. Participants get the “message that they (staff) are going to take really good care of you (participants),” just as they do with program animals. Participants also see staff members nurturing them, which increases the sense of trust between them. They see that staff members are “human beings, not just teachers, who care for the kids.” Consequently, many participants “feel like they can open up to the adults, ask questions or just feel more comfortable because there is a lot of anger about the authority stuff” (i.e. staff in their group homes). One girl experienced so much conflict in her group home that she did not want to leave the program, preferring to stay there where she felt more comfortable and safe. Unsurprisingly, many staff members claim they function as substitute parents for participants. In this role, the staff is viewed as “family,” with participants sometimes staying in touch with them long after leaving their programs.

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Feb 16, 2017 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Animal-Assisted Activity as a Social Experience
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