Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name



Human Communications

First Advisor

Erin Willer, Ph.D.


Affection exchange, Animal assisted intervention, Social support, Therapy dog


Animal-assisted interventions (AAIs) are a treatment modality that incorporates a trained animal into a person's healing and learning process in order to benefit the person physically, emotionally and/or socially (Delta Society, 1996). From an interactional perspective, two mechanisms that may contribute to these health benefits are social support and affection exchange. Although there is growing evidence of the health and well-being benefits of AAIs, there remains a need for scientific research to understand more precisely the communicative and behavioral components that constitute a therapeutic intervention involving an animal (Kazdin, 2010). Additionally, there is a need to develop a means of systematic evaluation of the interaction in order to determine the extent of support that various messages from the handler and therapy dog can offer.

As such, the present study explored the interactions that occurred during AAIs by applying the theoretical frameworks of social support and affectionate communication. Two methods of data collection - interviews and observations - were employed to uncover the supportive and affectionate behaviors that occur in AAIs from a handler's perspective. Participants were primarily female, middle-aged, Caucasian therapy dog handlers who visit in a variety of facility types (e.g., hospitals, schools, nursing homes), representing a diverse range of clients and settings.

Results include a typology of supportive messages. The findings of the present study indicate that handlers and therapy dogs enact six categories of supportive behaviors during AAIs - Responsiveness, Attention, Encouragement, Facilitation, Dog Interest, and Dog Affection. In addition, a rating scale based on this typology was developed. Analyses indicated that the measurement tool can be used to reliably assess the level or degree of supportive communication that a handler/dog provides during an AAI.

The present study extends social support and affectionate communication theoretical frameworks to a unique interpersonal context by examining interactive supportive processes during AAIs. Although the observations in this study were conducted in only three local facilities, when combined with nationwide interview findings, this study provides scaffolding for future research to determine how particular supportive behaviors may correlate to human health and well-being outcomes. This study takes the first step in this direction by identifying and assessing supportive and affectionate behaviors that occur during AAIs so that they can next be examined and improved in order to making human-animal interventions even more effective.

Publication Statement

Copyright is held by the author. User is responsible for all copyright compliance.


Received from ProQuest

Rights holder

Amy McCullough

File size

175 p.

File format