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Steffie van der Steen: how useful is animal therapy?

How useful is animal therapy?

Therapy with horses or dogs is becoming increasingly popular. These are targeted interventions provided by social care professionals, using the support of an animal. The therapy focuses on improving social skills, for instance. The client can practice these skills with the animal, such as communicating clearly, adopting a confident attitude, or interpreting the behaviour of others.

Steffie van der Steen
Photo: Eric Ward

Increasingly, animal assisted interventions are being used for children with Down’s syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder. In general, the impact on these target groups seems to be positive. However, it should be noted that the available research has methodological shortcomings. For example, the therapy is often not compared with an alternative, or no follow-up measurement is done to see if the effects are permanent. Little is also known about why animal assisted interventions would work. One of the hypotheses is that children are better able to adapt to an animal, because communication is simpler. The therapy therefore forms a training context for interpersonal synchrony in daily life. In the coming years we will investigate whether this hypothesis is correct by comparing therapy with a dog with therapy with a robot dog.

By measuring the movements of the child and interaction partner within and outside the therapy context, we will examine whether the synchrony with the dog is transferable to daily life. Because the robot dog is limited in its reactions, we expect that this will provide the children with a less good training form to learn to tune in to others.

dr. S. (Steffie) van der Steen, PhD
First name
associate professor
animal-assisted therapy and interventions, micro-developmental research, observational research, child-adult interactions, child-animal interactions, time-serial coding and analysis, dynamic systems theory, cross-recurrence quantification analysis, autism spectrum disorders, down syndrome, developmental disabilities.Currently working on Veni 2018 grant project: (How) Does animal assisted therapy work?  Animal-assisted therapy is gaining popularity, but there is no conclusive evidence for its effect. This study investigates the effect of dog-assisted therapy for children with Down Syndrome and Autism, and looks for a possible mechanism to explain this effect: Increased synchronization between the movements of child and therapy dog.
Last modified:30 March 2023 09.47 a.m.
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