Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Health Related Sciences

First Advisor

Shelly J. Lane

Second Advisor

Sandra Barker

Third Advisor

Diane Dodd-McCue

Fourth Advisor

Teresa May-Benson


Companion animals play a pivotal role in typical human development. It remains unknown how animals affect individuals with developmental disabilities. Based on the knowledge that companion animals help typically developing individuals, this research examined the effects of human-animal interactions on individuals with developmental disabilities.

Human-animal interactions are based on the Biophilia hypothesis, an assertion that an emotional and beneficial relationship exists between humans and nature, in which there is an “innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.” These are the shared, dynamic associations between people and animals, and the effects of those relationships on health and well-being. Sparse research exists, and the field and literature is scattered among various disciplines.

In the first article in this work I examined and synthesized literature related to the effects of human-animal interaction on individuals with developmental disabilities, including companion animals and more formal animal-assisted therapy. In the second article in this work I examined, via direct observation, video recording, and Individualized Education Plan goal attainment, whether animal-assisted therapy (here, occupational therapy intervention incorporating a trained therapy dog) affected playfulness during routine occupational therapy sessions with children with developmental disabilities. Finally, in the third article I examined whether occupational therapy incorporating animal-assisted therapy changed participation during routine occupational therapy treatment sessions with children with developmental disabilities.

Children with disabilities often exhibit impairments in play and participation, and enhancing these areas is likely to further their functional ability. The constructs of play and participation are significant in the lives of children with developmental disabilities, and a foundation of pediatric occupational therapy practice. Together they comprise two of the eight “Areas of Occupation” in the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework. The effects of incorporating animal-assisted therapy into occupational therapy are not well documented, although other disciplines have found animal-assisted therapy to be an effectual intervention.

Human-animal interaction scholars have called for evidence-based effectiveness studies. This research responded to that call, examining the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy from a functional perspective not yet addressed in the literature.


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