This application is submitted to RFA-HD-12-105: The Role of Human-Animal Interaction in Child Health and Development (R03). Adjudicated adolescents residing in juvenile detention centers exhibit a host of behavioral and mental health problems including internalizing and externalizing behaviors, frequent fighting, and academic failure. The public and social cost of dealing with this group of adolescents is extremely high. Many of these adolescents lack prosocial skills, such as empathy, that might aid in their rehabilitation. Intervention programs that promote empathy and other prosocial skills in an experiential manner may provide youth with the tools to better manage their own emotions and deal with others in a more appropriate manner, thereby preventing future problems. One promising class of experiential intervention that has received a great deal of attention is animal-assisted intervention (AAI). Yet, existing research studies have not tested these interventions in a controlled manner. There is a great need to rigorously test AAIs as a tool to enhance empathy in adjudicated adolescents, especially since states and vicinities are instituting these programs without controlled testing. The purpose of this proposed study is to test the efficacy of an AAI to improve empathy and social functioning skills in 128 adolescents residing in a juvenile detention center in Michigan. Our central hypothesis is that an AAI that teaches adjudicated youth to train animal shelter dogs for adoption will promote empathy and prosocial behavior. We propose a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to compare the outcomes of the AAI with a control group that will receive animal education and dog-walking experience. Thus, our rigorous comparison will allow us to test the effects of the AAI against an animal-contact and education control. Such a test has not been conducted before. We also hypothesize that building a secure attachment will be a mechanism for these effects because the adolescents will have a safe relationship from which to learn empathy skills. Participants will be randomly assigned to the AAI or the control group and will complete self-report and observational measures of empathy and other measures.
The aims of the proposal are to: 1) test the efficacy of the AAI to improve self-reported and observed empathy toward humans, 2) examine secure attachment toward the dog as a mechanism for this effect, and 3) explore the extent to which the AAI also reduces externalizing and internalizing symptoms. This proposal's aims are consistent with the RFA's call for the empirical testing of interventions based on theoretical and empirical research on the beneficial role of animals in child health and development. Furthermore, the proposal will form the basis of a long-term research program centered on the development and dissemination of effective interventions for adolescents with behavioral and mental health problems.

Public Health Relevance

The public and social cost of adolescent adjudication is extremely high. Many adjudicated adolescents lack prosocial skills, such as empathy, that might aid in their rehabilitation. Although animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) are promising methods to improve empathy in this population, existing research studies have not tested these interventions in a controlled manner. To address this problem, we propose to conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of an existing AAI that teaches adjudicated adolescents to train animal shelter dogs to improve empathy. This project will form the basis of a long-term research program aimed at testing and disseminating effective treatments for adolescents with mental health and behavioral problems.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Small Research Grants (R03)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZHD1-DSR-H (50))
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Esposito, Layla E
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Wayne State University
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
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