The Importance of Contact in Canine Interventions
06 Jul 2021
At UBCO, we have a program (B.A.R.K.) where students get to play with dogs while they also chat with the dog handler and other folks visiting the session. Many studies have shown that people feel better after they visit these sessions and studies of similar programs at other institutions have found the same. It seems clear that these interventions are helpful, but is the dog really important? Couldn’t it be the association with dog handler and peer attendees driving the effects of these interventions?
To answer this question, we split people into three groups:
- Participants instructed to keep their hands on the dog for the duration of the session.
- Dog was present but the participants had no physical contact with the animal.
- No dog was present. A dog handler led the session.
Participants in all three groups reported feeling better (e.g., happier, less stressed) after the session. But there was a greater benefit when a dog was present, even if the participants had no physical contact with the dog. The greatest benefit was for the group that had sustained physical contact with the animal for the entire session. In short, playing with the dog was helpful.
So, why is playing with the dog helpful? There are two possible explanations. One is that the participants felt better because they felt connected to the dog. This is consistent with the biophilia hypothesis, which proposes that people have an affinity for all nature and other life. Another possibility is that people felt better because contact with the dog helped them connect with their peers during the session, and that peer-to-peer connection caused the boost in immediate wellbeing.
Because none of the conditions had a dog but no people, we can’t disentangle these two explanations. But I think that there is probably a bit of both. I know that I personally find it a lot easier to connect with a stranger when there is a dog involved. I also know that playing with dogs makes me feel good, even when no one else is around.
If this study sounds interesting to you, you can read the published paper. I’ve also authored a supplemental document that describes all the analyses we conducted (including some that were not reported in the full paper), including R code and output.
I feel pretty great about this study. I think we did a good job engaging in open science practices. The study was preregistered. Although we did not share the data, the code and output are shared in the supplemental document. So the data can’t be reused, but the results can be verified. You can’t do the analyses on your own computer, but you can see what the results would be if you could. I haven’t seen supplemental documents like these very much and I think they’re pretty great. If sharing data is not an option, this has got to be the next best thing.
Binfet, J. T., Green, F. L. L., Draper, Z. A. (2021). The importance of client–canine contact in canine-assisted interventions. Anthrozoös. https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2021.1944558.