Clearing ‘fuzziness’ around health benefits of animals using sound quantifiable research methods

Major roles for animals in human society gradually shifted from work-related (farm, transport, hunt, herd and guard) to companionship during 19th and 20th centuries, with rise in automation, urbanization and income levels. Over time animals assumed new roles as service and therapy animals. Today, with ~60 percent of American households sharing their homes with pets and pet related expenses reaching above $70 billion annually in the U.S. alone (American Pet Products Association and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Pet Ownership and Demographics source book, 2017-18 edition), there is no doubt that animals have a profound effect on our lives and emotions.

The term ‘human-animal bond’ may bring to one’s mind beloved story books or tear-inducing movies that showcase the touching relationship between animals and people. While the notion that human-animal interaction offers health and comfort to people has been around for many decades, these benefits were still debated due to lack of substantial evidence. In recent years, an expansion of human-animal interaction research has added a body of evidence documenting the value of the human-animal bond, proving that the physical and emotional benefits of these bonds are more than just a matter of opinion.

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Dr. Ohaire featured on Purdue Today

Dr. Marguerite E. O’Haire, Associate Professor in the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine (PVM), has devoted her career to studying human-animal interaction. She has taken the task of providing empirical evidence to validate the emotional and therapeutic benefits of animal interaction using scientific methods that generate concrete, measurable results. Dr. O’Haire completed her Ph.D. in Psychology, from the University of Queensland in Australia as a Fulbright scholar with a research focus on measuring the effects that animal interactions have on children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). “Center for Human-Animal Bond at PVM brought me to West Lafayette” said Dr. O’Haire. As a faculty at PVM, she leads research on the outcomes of human-animal interaction and animal-assisted intervention for disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and ASD.

Animals are known to provide companionship and increase social interaction among humans by acting as ‘social lubricants’. We are familiar with service dogs assisting blind and physically disabled people and a plethora of evidence now proves the physical health benefits of pet ownership. However, Dr. O’Haire would like to understand better, the effect of animals on social behaviors in children, particularly those affected with autism or ASD.

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Autism is a developmental disability that results in social and communication deficits and associated behavior challenges. The symptoms appear in early childhood and continue through- out adulthood. A steady rise in autism diagnoses with 1 in 59 children in the U.S. identified with ASD in 2018 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) emphasizes the need for effective treatments to address this important public concern. “While empirically-based behavior and medication treatments are adapted well, about 3 out of 4 families also add alternative and complementary treatments to their child’s therapy regimen” says Dr. O’Haire. “Animal-Assisted Intervention (AAI) is one of the widely used complementary treatments. Better understanding of its efficacy can help tailor AAI therapy with other treatments to achieve improved outcomes and functioning in children with ASD.”

When Dr. O’Haire started her AAI research for ASD in 2011, she realized a need for a comprehensive behavior coding system in HAI research. Earlier studies in the field mostly concentrated on using questionnaires to generate data. However, these methods were subjected to individual biases as they rely on perceptions or opinions of study participants at a particular period and therefore are not always reproducible with same results. On the contrary, behavior observations by a trained observer, combined with physiological data that measures chemical or physical changes in the body (e.g. stress associated hormones and heartbeat) can provide quantifiable, objective measures that are comparable across multiple research studies. The behavior of children in the presence of animals can be assessed by a trained observer directly or a through a pre-recorded video using precise behavior definitions. Using these behavior definitions along with scientific sampling and scoring systems, Dr. O’Haire developed a behavior coding tool called the Observation of Human Animal Interaction for Research, or the ‘OHAIRE’ in short.

“The OHAIRE coding tool is designed to capture interactions between humans, animals, and social partners in natural situations where participants are free to interact with other individuals and animals without any assigned tasks or agenda. “These situations help us capture natural changes in social interactions of participants under different conditions, resulting from their personal preferences rather than from directions of specified tasks” says Dr. O’Haire. “The behavior coding criteria used for this tool are based on popular theories, common research questions and commonly evaluated outcomes of HAI research.” OHAIRE captures social interactions and enables comparison of these interactions in the presence and absence of animals and also in the presence of inanimate control objects like toys. In addition to positive social behaviors, facial and verbal emotional displays and negative or interfering behaviors are captured.

The OHAIRE has been used in various studies since its inception in 2013.  These studies spanned animal-assisted activities in various settings including school classrooms, psychiatric hospitals, therapy sessions and at home. So far, studies using the OHAIRE have incorporated guinea pigs, horses, and dogs. These studies have also included popular standardized questionnaires used in social behavior studies to validate that the OHAIRE is correlated with other tests designed to measure theoretically similar concepts. Results from these studies showed that when children with ASD are in the presence of animals, they exhibit more social and communication behaviors and reduced negative behaviors.

The OHAIRE has underwent several modifications to increase its accuracy. By refining behavior and coding definitions, the tool has improved its inter-rater reliability, or the ability of the tool to yield similar and consistent results when used by multiple coders or observers. The tool has also improved its intra-rater reliability, which shows the effectiveness of training for coders, as well as re-training requirements based on the drift in coders’ ratings over time.

The current version - OHAIRE-V3 - uses an online data entry system to reduce the time and error associated with paper-based entry. It has excellent inter-rater and intra-rater reliability and is the first standardized behavior coding tool specifically tailored to study HAI research with potential to broaden applications in the field of HAI across multiple settings and age groups. Training is provided for coders to use the OHAIRE through the online course platform OpenLearning (www.ohairecoding.com; contact: Katelynn Burgess at ohairecoding@gmail.com).  

With her bright, dedicated and passionate crew of researchers, Dr. O’Haire is working on new research studies to precisely quantify the benefits of animals in children with ASD and their families. Findings from these studies are hoped to help further the field of animal-assisted interventions for children with ASD by understanding how animal interactions affect the health and wellbeing of not only children with ASD, but their families as well. To learn more about Dr. O’Haire’s research, visit her website www.humananimalinteraction.org 

 

Writer: Aparna Desai Nemali, adesaine@purdue.edu;

Source: Kerri Rodriguez, rodri403@purdue.edu

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