• Christina Delgado, M.Ed.

Pet Therapy Intervention Impact on Autism Spectrum Disorder

Written by: Christina Delgado, M.S.Ed

This blog post compares and contrasts different research studies in efforts to gain a 360-degree understanding of the effectiveness and validity of pet-therapy-based interventions when working with children who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The end of the blog post includes my personal opinion on the effects, benefits, and potential drawbacks of pet therapy based interventions.


How effective are pet therapy based interventions in relation to the emotional, social, behavioral, linguistic, and/or cognitive functioning of students with ASD?

What is Pet Therapy?

  • Pet therapy is a type of therapy, which incorporates animals as a type of treatment.

  • Pet therapy mainly utilizes dogs and horses to provide therapy as an effective intervention to students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) from birth until adulthood.

  • Other animals used for pet therapy include dolphins and cats.

Studies that Support Pet Therapy:

Study #1:

Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) Intervention:

A study from (Borgi et al., 2016), examined the effectiveness and impacts of equine-assisted therapy (EAT), also known as therapy that utilizes horses, on children who have ASD and an IQ of less than 70.

Areas measured for progress:

  1. Executive functioning skills

  2. Adaptive behavior

  3. Language

  4. Cognitive performance

This study compared the progress of 15 students who experienced EAT versus 13 students who did not receive EAT over a 6-month period. The intervention sessions included structured activities, which took place on the ground and while students were riding the horses.


o Baseline assessment

o Tower of London (TOL)

o Analysis of Variance (ANOVA)

o Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale (VABS)

o Observation

o Progress monitoring

TOL: a neuropsychological assessment used to measure executive function skills, mainly with those who have special needs.

ANOVA: utilizes an array of statistical models which are meant to analyze the differences amongst group members and their developments.

VABS: used in psychology and psychiatry for those who have be diagnosed with developmental delays, developmental disorders, and intellectual disabilities.

Equine Assisted Therapy Results:

By the end of the Equine Assisted Therapy program, participating students experienced the following:

  • Adaptive functioning skills: Social functioning (frequency of social interactions) and motor skills and abilities

  • Executive functioning skills: Mental control, self-regulation, and reduced time to begin problem solving tasks

Study #2:

Therapy: Dogs Assisted Interventions:

Study by Stevenson, Jarred, Hinchcliffe, & Roberts (2015):

  • Three students with ASD ages 16 and up.

  • Students were provided five instructional sessions in their special education classrooms along with the same therapy dog and their teacher.

  • Teachers made qualitative observations, which recorded social behaviors and any social, linguistic, cognitive, emotional, or behavioral developments that may have occurred.

  • To become certified as a therapy dog, the dog must undergo training and pass the therapy dog certification test. During training, potential therapy dogs are taught manners, obedience, and social skills while being assessed for any tendencies for aggression and other undesired behaviors.


  • Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2)

  • Teacher questionnaires

  • Formal observations

ADOS-2: Assessment associated with those who have ASD. Designed to gain information regarding social skills, repetitive behaviors, and communication through play-based activities.

Results of Dog-Assisted Interventions:


  • Solidarity

  • Anxiety

  • Phobias

  • Repetitive behaviors

  • Challenging behavior

Increased/ Improved:

  • Intrinsic motivation to have meaningful social interactions and engagement with the dog and the teacher.

  • Generalization effects in particular areas (Improved memory and retrieval of prior content)

Overall, the researchers found that it can be gravely beneficial for the student in a variety of ways to incorporate therapy dogs in programs and classrooms that educate students with ASD.

Study #3:

Therapeutic Horseback Riding Interventions Effects on Emotion Towards Pets:

Researchers Petty, Pan, Dechant, and Gabriels (2017) conducted a study, which provided 31 students with ASD who also had at least one family pet with 10 weeks of therapeutic horseback riding (THR) interventions. In contrast, this study included 36 students with ASD who also have at least one family pet, but did not experience the THR interventions.

After continuous observation from caregivers and several questionnaires, caregivers of the THR intervention group reported massive improvements in the students’ caring demeanor and treatment towards their pet(s). The THR intervention students had improved their levels of sympathy, caring, empathy, and gained a larger and deeper emotional capacity for their pets.

Studies that Negate Pet Therapy:

Study #1:

Therapeutic Horseback Riding:

  • Researchers conducted a study in efforts to identify the benefits of therapeutic riding (TR) on sensory processing skills and social communication.

  • 21 elementary school students with ASD attended this therapy as a group.

  • Treatment was purposefully not provided for two 6-week periods in efforts to identify if the results were permanent or temporary.

Results of Therapeutic Horseback Riding:

  • Significant increase in the frequency of social interactions.

  • Enhanced sensory processing skills.

  • Reduced stress

  • Decrease in the severity of symptoms associated with ASD.

However, student gains were not maintained during the two 6-week breaks. Therefore, students receiving TR need to be continuously participating in this type of therapy to continue making progress. Once students stopped the treatment, then the progress that was made disappeared and students returned back to their original state.

Study #2:

Equine-Assisted Interventions:

McDaniel, Peters, and Wood (2017) collected 33 peer-reviewed research studies pertaining to equine-assisted interventions (EAI) in efforts to determine if EAI is truly effective amongst students with ASD. Of the 33 research articles, McDaniel et al. (2017) identified 25 studies, which utilized the same five EAI activities with students who have ASD.

• 25 studies concluded that EAI improved: Communication, behavior, and social interaction

• The other eight studies reported that EAI improved: Motor control and self-care

Negating Equine-Assisted Interventions:

McDaniel et al. (2017) claimed that this collected research demonstrated proof that EAI can assist children and young adults with ASD.


McDaniel et al. (2017) acknowledged that EAI research is yet to be considered scientifically proven, fully developed, and entirely valid. Therefore, these research studies do not contain reliability nor validity.

Study #3:

Dolphin-Assisted Therapy:

  • Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) allows youth with ASD to swim and interact with trained dolphins.

  • Commonly reported: Most parents believe that DAT increased communication and allowed children with ASD to feel more comfortable during conversation.

  • Researchers Marina and Lilienfeld (2007), examined the methodological status of DAT by examining five recently conducted, peer-reviewed DAT studies.

Researchers concluded:

  • DAT interventions have no credible scientific evidence proving that it effectively impacts children with ASD.

  • DAT improves the child’s mood, but does not improve their communication.

  • Each of the five studies used to prove the effectiveness of DAT were: Methodologically flawed and contained multiple threats to both regarding construct and internal validity.

Overall Advantages & Disadvantages of Pet Therapy Interventions:


  • solidarity

  • anxiety

  • stress levels

  • phobias

  • problematic behaviors

  • severity of autism symptoms

  • repetitive behaviors


  • communication

  • social interactions

  • independence

  • sensory processing skills

The Downside:

  • There is limited peer-reviewed research on this topic.

  • The effects and impacts of pet therapy and pet-therapy interventions are still being defined and gaining credibility.

  • This research contains a multitude of deficiencies.

Research Deficiencies:

  • Limited peer-reviewed research available on the topic.

  • Many studies are limited by methodological weaknesses.

o Findings cannot be trusted.

o Lack of long term follow up studies

o Limited non-treatment control group

o Limited number of subjects

  • Several studies suggest that results from the treatment cannot be maintained independently from the treatment.


From a researcher perspective:

It seems that research has shown that for individuals with ASD, pet therapy has a positive and effective impact on interventions. However, there currently is not enough research to support the benefits of pet therapy. Currently, literature on pet therapy is still gaining credibility and being defined within the world of research. Due to the lack of research on this topic, many studies are limited and/or flawed in a methodological sense. Therefore, the validity and reliability of these findings cannot be trusted. Also, due to the lack of research, researchers have not conducted enough peer-reviewed studies to identify the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, linguistics, and/or social long-term results of pet therapy-based interventions. It seems that much more rigorous scientifically-based research needs to be conducted to solidify whether pet therapy are effective interventions for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

From my personal perspective:

I have worked with children of all ages with varying disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder. Now, if you have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, you know that know two kids with autism are the same. We can generalize and say that certain techqinicues/ strategies works for all kids with autism, but the reality is, ever kid is different. From what I have seen, I do believe that pet therapy does have a rather high success rate. I do believe that pet therapy does help kids with varying disabilities (i.e. Autism Spectrum Disorder) with various skills, such as: reducing loneliness, anxiety, stress levels, phobias, problematic behaviors, and reducing undesired repetitive behaviors, while increasing social skills, independence, sensory processing skills, improve language, communication, empathy, social skills, and more. However, I have read other studies, which have concluded that pet therapy does have positive effects on individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in a short-term time frame, but not in the long-term.

Now let’s talk finanicials, so pet therapy can be costly.

Option 1:

Not only do you need to pay for the therapy/interventions with the animal, but also the gas to drive to where the animal is located, continues sessions, and any additional materials/maintance needed to partake in the pet therapy sessions.

Option 2:

Now, another option is to adopt a dog that can be trained to offer your child pet therapy. Many kids do well with this route as well. The drawback with this is the work and costs that come with having a dog (i.e. Food, vet, pet supplies) and training the dog. Also, sometimes the child grows so close to the dog that if your child is in an academic setting where they are allows to bring the dog, that the child has no desire to befriend other children, because they feel more comfortable spending time with the dog. However, sometimes, the dog can also be used as a social tool to have your child interact with other children.

Overall, my answer is this:

If you can afford pet therapy, do pet therapy. Depending on your child’s needs, interests, and accessibility to various forms of pet therapy, do some research on which form of pet therapy would be best for your child (i.e. dog, dolphin, horse, etc). If you cannot afford pet therapy, then consider getting a dog and getting it properly trained. You should also get trained on how to conduct pet therapy, so that you can get the most out of each intervention. Initially, this will be more expensive, but this option will be less expensive in the long-run. If having a dog does not fit your lifestyle and pet therapy is too expensive, then do some research about how you can help conduct pet therapy with your child. Reach out to centers and organizations in your community that have any pet therapy type services, and see if they offer any programs at a low rate, covered by your insurance, offer scholarship programs, grants, or complementary pet therapy services.


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