Human-Animal Interaction and Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is one of the most critical mental health challenges facing youth, particularly during adolescence. One promising technique for reducing social anxiety is the use of animal-assisted interventions (AAIs), which incorporate trained therapy animals to achieve specific treatment goals. Dr. Mueller’s lab is currently conducting a research study funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NIH/NICHD), to explore the specific processes by which interacting with a therapy dog may reduce anxiety, and to test whether such an interaction reduces anxiety in adolescents with varying levels of social anxiety.

Pet ownership is another way in which human-animal interaction can support the reduction of social anxiety through emotional and social support. Dr. Mueller’s team also investigates the role of pet relationships in supporting resilience during adolescence.

Canines for Autism Activity and Nutrition (CANN)

Over the last several decades, childhood obesity has become a national public health problem, and children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are particularly at risk for becoming overweight or obese. A multi-disciplinary research team across several Tufts campuses, along with a stakeholder panel, is investigating how a family’s dog could be integrated into their child’s current Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) treatment plan. This research study, funded by the Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute, seeks to answer questions about the feasibility of a pilot program that will be integrated into a child’s treatment plan.

Reducing obesity risk in this vulnerable and growing population of individuals with autism is needed to prevent the development of chronic disease in adulthood. This collaborative team, which spans a multitude of specialties, is at the front-lines of the battle against childhood obesity.

Human-Animal Interaction and Positive Youth Development

Human-animal interaction can provide the opportunity for responsibility, the development of social skills and empathy, and positive community relationships. Understanding how HAI may be part of a broader developmental context that promotes positive outcomes for diverse children and adolescence is a key area of scholarship for TIHAI.

Current and past research topics include:

* HAI and trajectories of adolescent development in the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development and the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (funded by the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute)

* Animal, horticulture, and nature-based interventions as an approach to supporting youth self-regulatory skills in special education environments (through a collaboration with the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver). For more information and to download the study’s comprehensive documentation report, click here.

* Pet ownership and positive development in military-connected youth.

Animal-Based Science and Engineering Education

TIHAI collaborators engage in ongoing outreach and research in animal-based science and engineering education through the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in collaboration with the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach.

Our programs use animal-based content to provide a unique opportunity to leverage students’ affinity for animals to introduce core science and engineering principles. Animal-based content provides an excellent context for integrating science and engineering principles, thereby allowing students to learn key tenets from both fields simultaneously. The cross-disciplinary nature of this type of student exploration prompts connections across science domains and provides exposure to diverse career options within science and engineering fields.

HAI and Veterinary Medicine

TIHAI researchers focus on HAI in the context of veterinary medicine in a number of different topic areas, including:

  • Human-horse interactions and decision-making about veterinary care
  • Stress in therapy animals
  • Caregiver burden
  • Quality of life
  • HAI and pet obesity
  • Access to affordable veterinary care for underserved populations
  • Service learning and civic engagement in veterinary medicine

See our Publications page for more information about our research on this topic.

Safety and Policies in Animal-Assisted Interventions

One of TIHAI’s core areas of scholarship is the assessment and development of policies that promote safety and effectiveness in animal-assisted interventions.

To view our how-to guide for facilities wishing to develop therapy animal programs, click here.