Assisted canine therapy for youth to be investigated under new IHAC grant


In the morning, Kevin Morris and his wife walk their four dogs. This mile loop around their neighborhood allows them to connect at the start of the day.

From molecular links to humans and animals, Morris, director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC), knows a thing or two about connections.

A molecular biologist by training, Morris works to heal people. With 20 years of experience in drug development and 15 years of studies of human-animal relationships, his past and present work converges.

“If you look at the research we do, it often looks like a clinical drug trial,” he says.

And research at IHAC, which is part of the Graduate School of Social Work, has just received a boost.

Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. has awarded a $ 30,000 grant to IHAC to study the effects of canine therapy on young people with mental and emotional problems.

The study, which begins this quarter, is the culmination of the Institute’s work over the past several years, said Erin Flynn, a research associate who wrote the grant and helped design the project.

Flynn, a former environmentalist, has always been interested in the inner workings of people, animals and the environment. When she turned to the social sciences, her clinical work focused on supporting young people.

It was then that she first encountered dog-assisted trauma therapy.

“I was so amazed at how much the dynamics in the therapy room changed when the dogs were around,” she says. “People felt a lot more secure and were willing to be more vulnerable, which is really powerful when trying to deal with past trauma. “

Research shows a correlation between such clinical engagement and better outcomes.

“When people are more engaged, closer to their clinician, or just show up more regularly for their appointments, ‘it’s kind of taken for granted that you’ll improve outcomes,” Morris says. “So it’s kind of our interest to dig deeper into that as a mechanism of action.”

It’s the versatility that amazes the former drug developer.

“I don’t know of any other medical intervention that is as widely applicable as this approach to the human-animal bond,” Morris said. “I’m not saying it’s a cure-all, but in many cases we are seeing improved health outcomes.”

The study’s use of multiple sites differs from other canine therapy studies.

Researchers will measure engagement in a wide variety of settings, recruiting 20 to 30 clinicians, including many DU alumni, who work with adolescents.

The data will be collected through their computers but linked to the Red Cap system, a HIPAA data collection service at DU. Flynn and other graduate students will oversee it.

“This gives us the opportunity to come back to our network and the larger community of practitioners who do human-animal interactions and involve them in the implementation of this project,” said Flynn. “Through this process, [we’re] to really re-anchor our thinking and our work in the practical experiences of people nationwide. “

In the process, IHAC aims to build a network of alumni interested in doing research together.

“They train here, but they go home. We have people all over the United States, ”Morris says.

With more than 1,000 alumni in the field, the researchers hope to use this model to test other mechanisms they believe are fundamental.

“I think the IHAC is really a gem within DU’s crown,” he says.

Towards the end of each day Morris and his wife walk the dogs again. It’s 20 legs walking in tandem – the human-animal connection at work.

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