WSU Researcher Seeks To Understand Effect Of Dog-Human Interaction On Social Skills

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annmarie cano
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DETROIT — It may seem intuitive to believe that working with animals has a positive effect on people, but a Wayne State University researcher is trying to determine the nature of that effect, and whether it holds true for various groups.

“Because it’s so face valid, a lot of people believe it’s common sense that these things work,” said Annmarie Cano, associate professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “But there are a lot of things common sense tells you that don’t pan out when tested scientifically.”

She recently received a $152,000 grant from two sources to study if instructing incarcerated teens to train animal shelter dogs in basic obedience skills will improve the teens’ social skills and quality of life. The funding comes from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health and Mars Inc.’s Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition.

“(Randomized Controlled Trials) of an Animal-Assisted Intervention for Adjudicated Youth” will involve 128 subjects from the Macomb County Juvenile Justice Center. Facilitators from Teacher’s Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together, a nonprofit organization, will meet twice a week for 10 weeks with youths ages 14 to 17. Using dogs with minor behavioral issues from local animal shelters, participants will be taught in one-hour sessions how to approach a dog, how to tell if the animal is afraid, why animal cruelty is wrong and the benefits of treating animals well.

A control group will receive the classroom training and will walk the dogs two hours per week; the rest also will attend the classes and will be assigned to train a dog two hours per week to get them ready for adoption. All participants will talk about their own experiences with dogs in a nonjudgmental fashion. In the training group, person-dog pairings will be the same for each session. Training will begin with basic commands and progress to higher-level tasks.

Teacher’s Pet founder and study co-investigator Amy Johnson said 98 percent of animals the group has trained have been adopted in the past two years. Cano said Johnson was anxious to see if the program worked for incarcerated youths.

“As an animal lover, that intrigued me too,” Cano said. Her team, which also includes Rita Casey, associate professor of psychology, searched the literature and realized that although small case studies exist, no tests had been done to determine whether these kinds of programs work with such a population.

“There are a lot of TV shows where they show prisoners — adults and teens — working with dogs,” Cano said. “It’s very heartwarming and exciting, but no controlled studies have been run to see if this works for everyone involved or only for certain people.”

Despite the relatively small age range, she believes her group includes a wide variety of developmental factors, including home background and type of offense.

To measure the effects of interaction with the dogs, Cano’s study will use standard measures for depression, sadness, anxiety and anger, as well as how participants’ empathy skills for dogs and people change over time. Her team also will measure individual attachments to the dogs.

Because many at-risk youths come from homes where attachments to others are problematic, Cano hypothesizes that developing attachments to dogs will help participants feel better about their own skills and about themselves as human beings, while giving them a different perspective and perhaps making them more likely to consider someone else’s perspective before acting out again.

“Many of the crimes that got them there in the first place involved not taking someone else’s perspective, either from not knowing how, not wanting to or some other reason,” Cano said. “We’re hoping that attachment to and constant work with the dogs will drive improvements in social skills and quality of life.”

The study also seeks to uncover why such interactions work.

“We want to know if it’s just because people feel good, or if perhaps something important is being changed in the relationship or social skills of those inmates or incarcerated youths,” Cano said. “We’d like to add some legitimacy to this kind of intervention, so that more agencies that work with at-risk youths can use this type of program to help them.”

Cano said, however, that her study is merely a first step in that process, as it involves just one site and one group of teens, and may not be generalizable elsewhere. Future studies, she said, could test other groups and individuals, including adults with attachment problems, such as veterans who have suffered combat trauma, or drug addicts.

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