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The significance of human-animal relationships as modulators of trauma effects in children: A developmental neurobiological perspective



Emotional stress and trauma impacts the neurobiology of children. They are especially vulnerable given the developmental plasticity of the brain. The neural synaptic circular processes between the anterior cingulated cortex, prefrontal cortex, amygdala and the hypothalamus are altered. Trauma results in the release of the peptide glucocortisoid, or cortisol leading to an ongoing over‐arousal of the anatomic nervous system. Kindling (sensitivity) of the brain, a result of stress, ironically makes the brain more receptive to attunement and enriched environments. Attunement with others as well as enriched environments is prophylactic, contributing to resilience and normal brain development. Animals are often attachment objects for children. Touch, proximity and mind–body interaction with animals have been found to contribute to stress reduction and trauma recovery. Future interdisciplinary exploration of the use of equine–human relationships as a preferred way of treating traumatised children should consider neural responses.
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The significance of human-animal relationships as modulators of trauma
effects in children: a developmental neurobiological perspective
Jan Yorke a
a College of Social Work, Veterinary Social Work, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA
First published on: 12 June 2008
To cite this Article Yorke, Jan(2010) 'The significance of human-animal relationships as modulators of trauma effects in
children: a developmental neurobiological perspective', Early Child Development and Care, 180: 5, 559 — 570, First
published on: 12 June 2008 (iFirst)
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/03004430802181189
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Early Child Development and Care
Vol. 180, No. 5, June 2010, 559–570
ISSN 0300-4430 print/ISSN 1476-8275 online
© 2010 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/03004430802181189
The significance of human–animal relationships as modulators
of trauma effects in children: a developmental
neurobiological perspective
Jan Yorke*
College of Social Work, Veterinary Social Work, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA
Taylor and Francis LtdGECD_A_318285.sgm
(Received 23 January 2008; final version received 29 April 2008)
10.1080/03004430802181189Early Child Development and Care0300-4430 (print)/1476-8275 (online)Original Article2008Taylor &
Emotional stress and trauma impacts the neurobiology of children. They are
especially vulnerable given the developmental plasticity of the brain. The neural
synaptic circular processes between the anterior cingulated cortex, prefrontal
cortex, amygdala and the hypothalamus are altered. Trauma results in the release
of the peptide glucocortisoid, or cortisol leading to an ongoing over-arousal of the
anatomic nervous system. Kindling (sensitivity) of the brain, a result of stress,
ironically makes the brain more receptive to attunement and enriched
environments. Attunement with others as well as enriched environments is
prophylactic, contributing to resilience and normal brain development. Animals
are often attachment objects for children. Touch, proximity and mind–body
interaction with animals have been found to contribute to stress reduction and
trauma recovery. Future interdisciplinary exploration of the use of equine–human
relationships as a preferred way of treating traumatised children should consider
neural responses.
Keywords: equine–human interaction; neural resonance; traumatised children;
attunement; human–animal relationships; developmental neurobiology
It is estimated that 70 million households in North America have a pet. Animals are
often constant companions for the elderly, children and the disabled. For children
especially, young animals offer an opportunity to forge a relationship that is interac-
tive, comforting and particularly non-verbal; in some ways not unlike the relationship
human adults have with their infants and young children. Human–animal relationships
appear to be rewarding on a number of levels. Trust, safety and structured interaction
are important in animal companionship. Animal research confirms that all of these
same ingredients are essential to normal and healthy development among all mammals
(Yehuda & LeDoux, 2007; Panksepp, 1998).
Do animals contribute to an enriched environment for children? Can attachment
and neural resonance in animal companionship impact on the brain in predictable and
useful ways? Can these relationships be contributors to personality development,
emotional and cognitive self-regulation and organisation? This critical review will
explore human–animal relationships as possible contributors to neuro-developmental
processes in children. It will discuss the role of these relationships in self-regulation
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560 J. Yorke
and organisation, mediating the release of particular neuro-chemicals through attach-
ment and interaction. It will discuss neural resonance as well as attachment. It will
speculate on how these relationships might contribute to resilience, stress reduction
and healing from the experience of trauma. Neuro-developmental processes related to
the experience of neglect, abuse, maltreatment or trauma in children will be used as
examples. Some reference to the use of animals as ‘mind–body techniques’ will be
Definition of terms
The concepts used in this article relating to human–animal interaction and develop-
mental neurobiology warrant defining given the context of the discussion. The term
animal refers to non-human animals typically domesticated and kept as companions.
This can include mammals (cats, dogs, rabbits, rodents, horses or other livestock), or
birds. Infants are newborns to two years of age and the term ‘children’ refers to those
who are two years of age up to adolescence. Emotion refers to ‘bodily responses’ or
‘mental states’ that occur as a consequence of bodily responses (LeDoux, 1996, p. 23).
Neuro-developmental processes refer to the growth of the human brain (physiologi-
cally) and mind (psychologically, emotionally and cognitively), in this case as it
relates particularly to children from birth through to adolescence (Schore, 2003).
Kindling is a process of sensitisation in the brain whereby a stressful event sensitises
the brain to future experiences of stress through the development of neural pathways
that fast track the response (Kramer, 1993).
Animal research and its relevance to humans
Theoretical determination of developmental neurobiology in humans relies on
decades of research with animals, specifically other mammals. Animal to animal
relationships provide a model that has facilitated the understanding of how ‘interac-
tive attunement mechanisms’ (Stern in Schore, 2003, p. 4) between mothers and
infants contribute to synaptic growth in the infant brain. Work with rats, mice and
monkeys appears to demonstrate that the infant–caregiver relationship defines the
early development of neural pathways enhancing or damaging both cognition and
function into adulthood (Francis & Meaney, 1999; Glaser, 2000; Kramer, 1993;
Panksepp, 1998). Meaney’s work is particularly compelling, demonstrating that early
experience of stressors has long-term implications for hippocampal synaptic devel-
opment and function (Liu et al., 1997). As well this research indicates that within a
given window of developmental opportunity in the brain, access to a more respon-
sive caregiver for rat pups, or the context of an enriched environment, can change
neural processes after the fact. Rat pups that are gently handled by humans for short
durations appear to be resilient in the face of further stress. In contrast, rat pups that
are separated from their mothers for longer periods appear to experience kindling,
have increased startle responses and a greater fear of novelty (Caldji, Diorio, &
Meaney, 2000; Kramer, 1993). Over all maternal care affects hippocampal glucocor-
ticoid receptors and hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) responses to stress, and
adversity in early life enhances sensitivity to later forms of enrichment (Bredy,
Humpartzoomian, Cain, & Meaney, 2003). Although this research does not necessar-
ily indicate that developmental processes are homologous across species of
mammals, the use of technology such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans
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Early Child Development and Care 561
and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has allowed contemporary
neurobiologists to view the complex interaction in the animal and human brain in
more detail. Research provides evidence that many of the processes are similar,
albeit that human cortical activity is more complex and many aspects of develop-
ment are still unknown (Panksepp, 1998). Johnson (2000) notes, ‘the general
neuroanatomy of the neocortex is remarkably similar across both regions (of the
cortex) and species’ (p. 76). These concepts are integral to a discussion of the impact
of attachment in human–animal relationships on child brain development. The role
of attachment in human–animal interaction is facilitated by a more in-depth discus-
sion of developmental neurobiology and the role of the environment.
Neurobiology of emotion
Environment directly contributes to neurodevelopment and caregivers are an impor-
tant aspect. Research in developmental biological processes in the brain supports the
notion that infants and caregivers are highly tuned to each other neurologically. The
process of touch (Francis & Meaney, 1999) and the use of ‘motherese’ (Schore, 2003)
by the caregiver contribute to infant development through stimulation of the sub-
cortical region of the brain ‘involved in processing socio-emotional information’
(p. 146). Specifically this would be the orbital frontal cortex (OFC) on the ventral
surface of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) (Lewis, 2005b; Rolls, 1999). Research indicates
that early experience plays a crucial role in social and emotional development specif-
ically (Elbert, Heim, & Rockstroh, 2001). Enriched environments can contribute to
resilience (prophylactic ability) or impact kindling (the amygdala’s synaptic system is
sensitive to stress) (Caldji et al., 2000; Curtis & Cicchetti, 2003; Kramer, 1993;
Putnam, 2005). This complex process promotes stability in the development of the
Chemical messages from limbic and brainstem centres described in the interaction
between infants and primary caregivers are mediated by the response from the cerebral
cortex. The infant’s right ventral hemisphere interfaces with and is open to the care-
giver’s nurturing response, engaging the sub-cortical and limbic areas of the brain,
specifically the amygdala, hippocampus and ventral anterior cingulated cortex (ACC).
This relationship invokes emotion and emotion as a process, plays a key role in cogni-
tion (Lewis, 1995, 2005a, 2005b; Nelson, 2000; Schore, 2003; Todd & Lewis, in press).
This cortical limbic interface is responsible for appraisal, perceptions, emotions,
memory and other processes that drive biological regulation in the rest of the brain and
body. Lewis (1995) describes how emotion is the context for self-organisation and
ontogenesis or self-regulation of the brain, summoning peptides and triggering envi-
ronmental attunement as part of synaptic development. The brain stem, along with the
hypothalamus, releases opiods, oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, serotonin and other
neuromodulators. This stimulates higher cortical systems like the ACC and OFC that
respond by regulating, modulating and organising responses accordingly. Brain devel-
opment is a matrix of these epicentres that dictate specialised change through experi-
ence-expectant (anticipated environmental processes) and experience-dependent
(environmentally triggered) processes. Tucker refers to this process of simultaneous
top-down and bottom-up reciprocal interaction as ‘vertical integration’ (Todd & Lewis,
in press). Underdeveloped systems (very young infants) rely on sub-cortical/limbic
responses and experience-expectant processes until cortical development can support
the process of modulation on its own (Greenough & Black, 1992).
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562 J. Yorke
Self-regulation perpetuates coordination through the development of epicentres
such as the ACC and OFC described as above (Todd & Lewis, in press). Highly acti-
vated systems recruit other systems, self-regulating the brain. Lewis (2005b) contends
that these epicentres in the brain and the feedback systems between them contribute
to rapid change, regulating towards stability. So it follows that experience provokes
processes that result in emotion, which facilitates cognition and collectively with
genetic predisposition, these processes simultaneously and reciprocally drive brain
development, moment by moment, ‘laying down structure’ (Lewis, 2005b). These
structural pathways develop through an integration of both open and closed systems
in the brain, and they work to maintain the balance and order required to function,
resulting in self-organisation. Lewis (2005b) notes that ‘limbic and higher structures
(cerebral cortex) may be considered “open” in that they change with development on
the basis of experience, whereas lower structures are considered “closed” because they
change little or not at all (Panksepp, 1998)’ (p. 258). The process of self-organisation
involves the development of a ‘dynamic system’ that relies on neural pathways, forged
by experiences and pruned if underutilised, that are unique to the individual (Howe &
Lewis, 2005; Johnson, 1998; Lewis, 2005a; Nelson, 2000). Self-organisation and
regulation are impacted by attachment between the developing infant or child, the
primary caregiver(s) and the environment.
Neurobiology of attachment
Glaser (2000) describes attachment as ‘…proximity-seeking behavior by a depen-
dent organism (infant or child) when he or she experiences discomfort of any sort…
it is a biological instinct (Bowlby, 1969)’ (p. 102). Attachment networks in the
brain dictate how these behaviours are organised, and are a consequence of nurtur-
ing or lack thereof, by an attachment figure (Schore, 2003). They are facilitated by
the release of neuropeptides such as oxytocin, endorphins (opiods) and prolactin
from the hypothalamus (Panksepp, 1998). Bonding chemistries appear to be similar
across species, within varying windows of time, ascribed to forge an attachment.
Secure attachment can provide children with a buffer that modulates the effect of
adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) on the HPA axis when stress is experienced
(Glaser, 2000). Panksepp (1998) indicates that neuropeptides may create a feeling of
security in children and ultimately contribute to ‘… these subtle feelings we humans
call acceptance, nurturance and love – the feelings of social solidarity and warmth’
(p. 248).
Attachment is different from neural resonance. Schore (2003) likens resonance in
infant caregiver relationships to affective attunement, a kind of emotional current that
quickly spreads from one to the other. Schore’s notion of ‘sympathetic vibration’
(p. 76) contends that the laws of physics demonstrate attunement in relationships and
lead to resonance between emotional states, resulting in feedback loops that connect
the two individuals. Neural resonance can occur between individuals who have an
affiliation or within the context of an attachment. There is little physiological evidence
for this but some promising work has emerged looking at mirror neurons.
Recent research in the mirror neuron system in primates and humans would
suggest that the firing of neurons in children may occur while observing the attach-
ment figure the same way that they would fire when the child is performing the action,
or a complementary action, themselves. ‘[M]irror neurons are not simply concerned
with mirroring others, but they rather facilitate social interactions in which individuals
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Early Child Development and Care 563
often perform complementary actions to achieve a common goal’ (Iacoboni &
Mazziota, 2007, p. 214).
Turella, Pierno, Tubaldi, and Casteillo (in press) caution that research to date on
mirror neurons in humans is sparse with little support for a neural map of responsive-
ness in humans like the one discovered in monkeys (Di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi,
Gallese, & Rizzolatti, 1992). Much of the research in human mirror neuron systems,
they reviewed to date, has not sufficiently replicated the original primate research;
however, in humans ‘reasonable propositions have suggested that they (mirror
neurons) mediate action observation and understanding’ (Turella et al., in press).
Research measuring mirror neural responses in autistic children concluded that
responses only registered in EEG testing when the stimuli (observed actor) presented
were familiar and socially relevant (Oberman, Ramachandran, & Pineda, in press).
Stimuli in this case would be a person who is familiar. Other mirror neuron studies
that have not produced support for this phenomenon in humans have studied the inter-
action using strangers instead of familiar individuals. The process of neural mirroring
is different from the process of attachment but it could play a role in the complex
neurobiology of attunement and affiliative behaviour.
The literature indicates that attachment requires a complex interactive process that
relies on the development of schemas organised by the OFC (Schore, 2003). The
primary caregiver and infant may share ‘reciprocal activation of their opiate systems’
(Schore, 2003, p. 81) which influences the development of the child’s parasympa-
thetic nervous system. Levitt (2005) calls this co-action, versus interaction.
Mirror neuron system sites appear to be most activated when humans imitate the
facial expressions of others, suggesting that this may allow for empathy with another
person’s emotions (Iacoboni & Mazziota, 2007; Kaplan & Iacoboni, 2006). The body
of research on mirror neurons, neural resonance and the contribution they make to
attachment is sparse and new. Looking collectively at the developmental neurobiolog-
ical literature it is important to understand the relevance it has to the social context that
surrounds the child as they grow. Carter (1998) found that the neuropeptides, oxytocin
and vasopressin were implicated in social bonding, lowering HPA activity, ‘…
perhaps accounting for the health benefits that are attributed to loving relationships’
(p. 779). This process also relies on the social networks that are formed around an
infant. Infants and caregivers do not interact in a vacuum.
The Convoy Model of social networking describes the collective of individuals
that surround an infant–caregiver relationship, creating a protective shell that contex-
tualises life experiences (Antonucci & Akiyama, 1994). Social networks can serve to
protect or create vulnerability and can augment or limit development. These networks
are unique to each individual enhancing their feelings of competency, self-worth and
self-efficacy. Social networks can buffer individuals from adversity and contribute to
resilience, and attachment could very well play a part in that. Understanding the rela-
tionship between attachment networks, social networks and brain development helps
to reinforce the importance of social interaction, love and connectedness to healthy
neural development.
Animals are part of children’s social network/enriched environment and long-
term animal companionship may facilitate development by virtue of the proximity
of the animal and the child’s developmental plasticity. An introduction to the
research into human–animal relationships is useful to understand the role they could
play in buffering trauma as well as the contribution they might make to enriched
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564 J. Yorke
Human–animal relationships
Research with companion animals is attempting to demonstrate that these relationships
share some aspects of traditional attachment theory in human-to-human relationships
(Crawford, Worsham, & Swinehart, 2006; Prato-Previde, Custance, Spiezio, &
Sabatini, 2003). Clinical research indicates that animals respond similarly to children
when exposed to Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Test (Ainsworth, 1970). Animals
mobilise the attention of children, calm agitated behavior and ameliorate emotional
crises (Hart, 2000; Katcher & Wilkins, 1997; Strand, 2004). Kaiser, Spence, Lavergne,
and Vanden Bosch (2006), using a pre-post design with a number of reliable and stan-
dardised clinical tests, found that a week of riding horses for young boys reduced
anger. Reichert (1998) notes, in her work with childhood sexual abuse, ‘a child often
finds it easier to express herself through physical interaction with the animal rather
than verbal communication’ (p. 180). The psycho-physiological evidence indicates
that companion animals impact humans in helpful ways, lowering blood pressure,
quieting the autonomic nervous system, cardiovascular activity and promoting physi-
ological relaxation (Friedmann, Katcher, Thomas, Lynch, & Messent, 1983; Odendaal,
1999, 2000; Shiloh, Sorek, & Terkel, 2003; Virues-Ortega & Bruela-Casal, 2006;
Wilson, 1991).
Recent research that has measured cortisol levels and plasma levels of neuropep-
tides and neuromodulators, specifically endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin, phenylethy-
lamine and dopamine in dogs and humans interacting suggests that human–animal
relationships can mitigate stress responses (Odendaal, 1999, 2000; Odendaal &
Meintjes, 2003). Affiliation in highly social beings like humans and other mammals
demonstrates neuron-physiological responses that ‘… are in accordance with social
bonding neuro-chemical changes’ (Odendaal, 2000, p. 279). Human–animal relation-
ships appear to have some impact on neuro-chemical processes in the brain, through
attachment and affiliation. Do they have the capacity to contribute to resilience in the
face of stress? A discussion of the impact of stress and the speculative role of human–
animal relationships for children in the face of stress is warranted.
Animals as affective strategies with traumatised children
There are a number of events that can mitigate the healthy process of development in
children, interfering with self-regulatory processes. Stress is particularly offensive to
developing brain systems, causing long-term changes to the HPA circuit, in a number
of ways (Bredy et al., 2003; Glaser, 2000; Kramer, 1993; Lewis, 2005b; Nelson, 2000;
Putnam, 2005). Research has revealed the critical nature of the mind-body link in
childhood development and how trauma interrupts it (Curtis & Cicchetti, 2003; Perry,
2006; Van der Kolk, 2003). Trauma is a result of extreme and chronic experiences of
stress that can be both active (abuse) and passive (neglect). In children, stress impacts
on neural developmental windows of opportunity, impairing the brain’s ability to self-
regulate and self-organise effectively. The developmental neurobiological research
indicates that this results in sensitivity in the HPA axis, to subsequent experiences of
stress, affecting neuron-chemical processes and ultimately impacting the development
of epicentres in the brain (Kramer, 1993; Lewis, 2005b; Nelson, 2000; Putnam, 2005).
The role of the OFC in all of this is pivotal – it is on alert (hypervigilant) focusing the
individual’s attention on the potential for harm. This results in a ‘consolidation of
habits’ or ‘emotional interpretation’ identified by Lewis and Todd (2007) that creates
a propensity for anxiety.
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Early Child Development and Care 565
Exposure to trauma at various stages in childhood can skew, inhibit or alter
processes of development that have a lifetime of consequences. Perry (2002) notes,
‘… the longer the child was in the adverse environment – the earlier and more perva-
sive the neglect – the more indelible and pervasive the deficits’ (p. 92). He states that
recovery is possible and echoes the sentiments of Van der Kolk (2003) regarding the
use of touch, nurturing and social interaction as useful intervention techniques.
Attachment plays an important role in this regard. Helping children reach a ‘physio-
logic state’ in which they can consider new possibilities is important – soothing,
holding rocking, creating safety are examples of behaviours that move children to this
place (Perry, 2002, 2006; Van der Kolk, 2003).
The use of animals with children is becoming increasingly popular in this regard.
The extent to which neurobiological development is enhanced by a supportive and
enriched environment, and what windows of vulnerability afford an opportunity for
intervention is becoming clearer (Lewis & Todd, 2007; Putnam, 2005; Van der Kolk,
2003). Enriched and challenging environments impact aspects of development in
infants and young animals as well; exposure to stimulating contexts appears to be
prophylactic (Johnson, 2000; Nelson, 2000). Children might naturally seek affiliative
relationships that are rewarding in this way. Phillips (2003) talks about the role of
oxytocin and vasopressin in the brain systems focused on liking, and dopamine in the
brain system focused on wanting, and there inevitable connection to pleasure. Seeking
behaviour would be indicative of the need humans and animals have for a tactile inter-
action with each other that appears to be related to pleasure. This relationship has the
strong potential to contribute to positive neurological development as a consequence.
One of the most significant ways that animals have been used to assist children is
through animal assisted interventions. Equine-assisted interventions (EAIs) offer a
unique approach in that they provide body to body contact, mastery in the handling of
a large animal as well as a challenging interaction in an enriched rural environment.
For instance therapeutic riding programmes have demonstrated effectiveness increas-
ing children’s self-esteem and self-confidence (R. Cawley, D. Cawley, & Retter,
1994; Taylor, 2001), reducing acting out behaviour in adolescents (Ewing,
MacDonald, Taylor, & Bowers, 2007; Mallon, 1992; Trotter, 2006) and anger in boys
(Kaiser et al., 2006), providing an alternative for trauma recovery for a rider (Yorke,
2003; Yorke, Adams, & Coady, 2008) and serving as a conduit for other therapies
(Brooks, 2006; Taylor, 2001; Trotter, 2006; Tyler, 1994).
It may be that the equine–human relationship is an essential part of why equine-
assisted therapy is effective. EAIs may offer ways to provide the key ingredients that
alter neuro-physiological responses and establish new neuronal pathways that can
contribute to sustained healing, healthy attachment in relationships and general well-
being (Curtis & Cicchetti, 2003; Odendaal, 1999, 2000; Perry, 2006; Yasko, 1985).
Such interventions may be especially useful for traumatised children who are neuro-
physiologically dysregulated, providing an attunement with another being that soothes
through touch, proximity and the development of trust (Yorke et al., 2008).
The neurological impact of human–animal relationships for trauma in children
Neurobiological techniques like human–animal interaction have the potential to stim-
ulate, pushing activation around the brain in a sophisticated manner, similar to what
happens in early interactive experiences between infants and caregivers (Amini et al.,
1996; Carter, 1998; Corter & Fleming, 1995; Fleming, O’Day, & Kraemer, 1999;
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566 J. Yorke
Johnson, 2000; Odendaal, 1999; Shiloh et al., 2003). The consequence of this interac-
tion may also mimic the impact of anti-depressant medication without the risks and
side effects that might occur with children who have experienced trauma (Perry, 2002;
Van der Kolk, 2003). As experience-dependent responses, children’s regulatory
limbic circuits may react rapidly to animal interactions responding to proximity,
touch, warmth and responsiveness. The ventral system (v-PFC) becomes activated,
along with the hippocampus and amygdala in response to these novel experiences
(interaction with an animal) in the environment. The OFC and the ACC are activated
(seeking systems) and the dorsal lateral PFC responds. They may address simulta-
neously the kindled response of anxiety or fear systems which produce cortisol but
modulate or regulate that response by activating the synaptic paths in the ACC and
hypothalamus. This activates the production of opiods that are calming, responding to
the warmth, touch and proximity of another being (Figure 1). This process may medi-
ate event-related potentials from the ACC and could impact personality changes that
have developed through differences in emotional regulation, circumventing the poten-
tial for increased anxiety particularly if human–animal interaction is available to
buffer stressful events (Odendaal & Meintjes, 2003; Perry, 2002; Todd & Lewis, in
press; Van der Kolk, 2003).
Figure 1. Please provide the caption
Emotion is said to be regulated by touch and emotion regulates stress responses
through the OFC, mediated by the ventral system (v-PFC). The OFC is an important
epicentre for human–animal relationships because of the role it plays in both emotion
and reward. Todd and Lewis (in press) notes that the OFC focuses on the rewards
gleaned from the environment, building on processes associated with the cortical
limbic interface, and in particular, the role of the OFC in synaptic development and
pruning. ‘Such rewards include those related to attachment and social bonding’
Figure 1. Synergistic effect of animal–child interaction.
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Early Child Development and Care 567
(Tucker, Luu, & Derryberry, 2005 in Todd & Lewis, in press). Synaptic development
and change in developmental processes relies on these kinds of interactions. Johnson
(2000) notes that cortical specialisation can result from ‘… a wide variety of visual
stimuli …’ (p. 77). Neurobiological research indicates that emotion facilitates
cognition and human animal interaction appears to provide the kind of emotional
stimulation that contributes to synaptic shaping during periods of neuro-plasticity.
Animals may provide a warm and secure interaction that may be more predictable
than other relationships, particularly in stressful or chaotic environments where abuse
or neglect is likely to occur.
If human–animal relationships are to be considered affective tools for intervening in
stress or trauma responses in children, the role they play in activating pleasure and
reward centres in the developing brain is the key to understanding how. The role that
attachment plays in infant and consequently childhood cortical development is clear
from the research discussed here. The research indicates that the role that human–
animal attachment can play in cortical development relies on the length and intensity
of the relationship as well as the capacity of the animal to be responsive. Children who
swim with dolphins from a very early age may form different relationships from those
who are interacting with the large friendly family dog from birth. Some research
suggests that attachment to animals plays an important role in the development of
empathy later in life (Daly & Morton, 2006; Melson, Peet, & Sparks, 1992). Melson
(2003) contends that ‘children may cast their pets as functional younger siblings, as
peer playmates, as their own “children” or even as a security-providing attachment
figure’ (p. 37). If human–animal relationships provide infants and children with
highly interactive and responsive interactions that are consistent, non-judgmental and
hence rewarding, it is worthwhile exploring the clinical potential they have for
augmenting cognitive behaviour approaches to neural development at important junc-
tures in neuro-plasticity. Research needs to focus on the role of the ACC, the OFC as
well as the PFC and the relationship human–animal interaction has with these aspects
of developmental neurobiology.
The author would like to thank Dr Marc Lewis, Dr Terri Combs-Orme, Dr Chris Frank and
Dr Rebecca Bolen for their help in the preparation of this article. The author would also like to
thank Gail Hussey for her library assistance.
1. The author acknowledges that interspecies interaction is a burgeoning field in neurobiol-
ogy. This article has reviewed both animal and human developmental neurobiology, as
well as the scant literature in interspecies neurobiology. Inferences are based on the
evidence amassed in developmental neurobiology across all mammals.
Notes on contributor
Jan Yorke is a Professor in Community Studies at the University Partnership Centre, Georgian
College, Orillia, Canada. She is also a PhD Fellow at School of Social Work, University of
Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee.
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568 J. Yorke
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... Following this logic, owning a pet might indirectly confer protection against age-related declines in cognition through the aforementioned mechanisms. Researchers have also hypothesized that pet ownership might directly benefit cognition by enriching one's environment and enhancing brain plasticity (Yorke, 2010). To take care of an animal, one needs to remember to feed, walk, and groom them. ...
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Human-animal interactions that stem from pet ownership have a wide range of benefits for social, emotional, and physical health. These factors also tend to improve cognition. Following this logic, owning a pet could indirectly enhance cognitive and brain health through mechanisms like improvements in well-being, socialization, and decreased stress. In the present study, cross-sectional data were drawn from the Alabama Brain Study on Risk for Dementia in which 95 participants aged 20–74 were recruited. Specifically, 56 adults were pet-owners and 39 adults were not pet-owners. Multivariate analyses revealed that pet ownership was related to higher levels of cognition and larger brain structures, and these effects were largest in dog owners. The most consistent cognitive relationships were found with better processing speed, attentional orienting, and episodic memory for stories, and with dorsal attention, limbic, and default mode networks. Moreover, we show that owning a pet can reduce one’s brain age by up to 15 years. Pet ownership was not related to indirect factors including social, emotional, and physical health. We found also that older adults’ brain health benefited from owning more than one pet versus owning one or fewer pets. These findings indicate that pet ownership, especially dog ownership, may play a role in enhancing cognitive performance across the adult lifespan, which could in turn influence protection against age-related cognitive decline.
... It is also imperative that the impact of separating children from their animals is considered. Children form strong emotional bonds to their animals and research has found that this bond can buffer against the negative impacts of adversity (Hawkins et al., 2019;Yorke, 2010). Finally, there continues to be a need for evidence-based guidance that addresses the complex needs of victims living within multi-species families (Hageman et al., 2018). ...
Full-text available
Companion animals can both protect against, and increase risk for, coercive control and abuse, yet have not been considered in existing UK COVID-19 reports of domestic abuse (DA). This study aimed to explore the nature and frequency of animal-related calls received by UK domestic abuse helpline (DAH) staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, examine any lockdown-related changes, identify potential commonalities across helpline organisations, and explore perspectives about ongoing animal-related issues in the context of DA. Semi-structured virtual interviews were conducted with 11 DAH staff workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data were subjected to thematic analysis. The analysis revealed four overarching themes. Theme (1) lockdown-related changes in the frequency and nature of animal-related calls received. Theme (2) animals as tools for abuse during lockdown, with subthemes (a) manipulating the family-animal bond, and (b) fears over animal safety. Theme (3) animals as barriers to refuge during lockdown, with subthemes, (a) lack of animal-friendly accommodation, (b) lack of social support systems, and (c) animals as coping mechanisms. Theme (4) helpline staffs’ awareness of and links to animal-friendly accommodation and fostering services. The findings can inform decision making regarding appropriate long-term support needs for multi-species families with complex needs, both during and post-pandemic.
... Within the current intervention, a dog was considered as particularly functional to the children, as children tend to develop trustful relationships with companion animals [34][35][36], turning to them for social support in emotionally stressful situations [28], and gaining various benefits from interactions with them in terms of wellbeing, health, resilience, and EC [11,[37][38][39]. ...
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Emotion comprehension (EC) is a crucial competence for children, as it determines the quality of peer interactions. This study assessed the efficacy of an animal-assisted education (AAE) intervention with dogs based on the Federico II Model of Healthcare Zooanthropology (FMHZ) to promote EC in a group of primary school children. One hundred and four children (48 females) aged 6–7 years took part in the study, of whom 63 participated in the AAE intervention (i.e., experimental group) and 41 did not (i.e., control group). The intervention was deployed in a school setting through a group format and consisted of five bimonthly sessions. EC was assessed pre- and post-intervention, and at a 3-month follow-up. Student’s t-test and mixed-model ANOVA were performed to analyze the effect of the intervention on EC. EC significantly improved in children of the experimental group compared to the control group. Significant time effects from pre- to post-intervention, post-intervention to follow-up, and pre-intervention to follow-up assessment were found in the experimental group only. AAE based on FMHZ was effective in improving EC in children.
... With the growth of research in this field, new frameworks continue to emerge to study the relationships between humans and companion animals such as the dyadic approach (88), trans-species methodology (91) and the biopsychosocial model (Gee et al., under review). Inspiration from other fields, such as social psychology (92) developmental psychology (93,94) and social neuroscience (95), will also continue to inform the theoretical underpinnings of human-animal interactions. The field will continue to benefit from an accumulation of rigorous science while building viable and testable theories. ...
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The field of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) is plagued with mixed results. Some findings appear to indicate that interacting with a companion animal is beneficial for some aspect of human health and well-being, while other research outcomes are inconclusive or even indicate the opposite. The purpose of this paper is to take a closer look at this variability in research outcomes and to provide plausible explanations and potential remedies. Some of the reasons for mixed results are likely due to the wide variety of methodologies implemented, intermittent use of standardized measures and manualized protocols, variability in human and animal participants, and limited quantification of human-animal interactions or definitions of pet ownership. Variability in research outcomes is not unique to HAI and is, in fact, not uncommon in many more established fields such as psychology and medicine. However, the potential reasons for the variability may be linked to the unique nature of HAI in that, in its' simplest form, it involves two complex organisms, a human and an animal, interacting in dynamic ways. We argue that this complexity makes research in this field particularly challenging and requires a broad spectrum of theoretical and methodological considerations to improve rigor while ensuring the validity and reliability of conclusions drawn from study results.
... Paralleling the development in recent years of a greater understanding of the neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology of psychotherapy (Cozolino, 2017;Geller & Porges, 2014;Perry, 2013;Porges & Dana, 2018;Siegel, 2003Siegel, , 2010, there has been a sudden rise in discussion of the implications of the neurobiology of human-animal interactions in general (Freund, McCune, Esposito, Gee, & McCardle, 2016) and, specifically, for AAP (Bona & Courtnage, 2014;Parish-Plass & Pfeiffer, 2019;Perry, 2013;Schlote, 2019;Trotter & Baggerly, 2019b;Yorke, 2010). The increasing knowledge of the neurobiological implications of human-animal interactions adds to our understanding of the mechanisms behind AAP and how to take advantage of them in the therapy setting. ...
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The therapeutic value of animals, whether as pets in the family or as visitors in nursing homes, has been recognized for many decades and even centuries. However, only in the last 40 years has the field of animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP) begun to develop and receive recognition. There is a great amount of confusion surrounding the field, even among those practicing it, as to the goals, approaches, and techniques of AAP. Yet, there is general agreement that AAP is a viable and meaningful therapy approach that can reach the inner emotional world of the client in unique and advantageous ways. This chapter covers the history and general background leading to the inclusion of animals in the psychotherapy setting. In order to understand more clearly the field of AAP and how it has a solid foundation as a subfield of psychotherapy, a general description of psychotherapy is provided, including theory and mechanisms that are especially relevant to the practice of AAP. AAP is then discussed in the context of the general field of psychotherapy, including a discussion of various mechanisms that are unique to AAP. Throughout the chapter, a special emphasis is placed on the relevance to psychotherapy in general, and specifically to AAP, of attachment theory and of the understanding of interpersonal neurobiology. Finally, four examples of psychotherapy modalities employing the integration of animals will be briefly described. Parish-Plass, N. & Bachi, K. (2020). Psychodynamic animal-assisted psychotherapy: Processing and healing through relationships. In C. Driscoll (Ed.), Animal-assisted interventions for health and human service professionals (pp. 361-405). New York: Nova Science Publishers.
... Indeed, human-animal interactions mimic other significant relationships in humans' lives, combined enrichment environments, and affiliative channels characterizing non-verbal communication. Regarding the current scientific scene, except for few preliminary data investigating physiological synchronized activities towards specific targets (i.e., post-traumatic stress syndrome, [160]; at-risk youth, [161]; intellectual disability, [162]), human-horse emotional transfer remains a path worthy of exploring not only for its immediate applications but also for the potential role in the reconsideration of animals involved in AAIs. ...
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Equine assisted interventions (EAIs) include all therapeutic interventions aimed at improving human wellbeing through the involvement of horses. Due to the prominent emotional involvement traditionally characterizing their relation with humans, horses developed sophisticated communicative skills, which fostered their ability to respond to human emotional states. In this review, we hypothesize that the proximate causation of successful interventions could be human–animal mutual coordination, through which the subjects bodily and, most importantly, emotionally come into contact. We propose that detecting emotions of other individuals and developing the capacity to fine-tune one’s own emotional states accordingly (emotional transfer mechanism), could represent the key engine triggering the positive effects of EAIs. We provide a comprehensive analysis of horses’ socio-emotional competences according to recent literature and we propose a multidisciplinary approach to investigate this inter-specific match. By considering human and horse as a unique coupling system during the interaction, it would be possible to objectively measure the degree of coordination through the analysis of physiological variables of both human and animal. Merging the state of art on human–horse relationship with the application of novel methodologies, could help to improve standardized protocols for animal assisted interventions, with particular regard to the emotional states of subjects involved.
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Companion animals can both protect against, and increase risk for, coercive control and abuse, yet have not been considered in existing UK COVID-19 reports of domestic abuse. This study aimed to explore the nature and frequency of animal-related calls received by UK domestic abuse helpline staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, examine any lockdown-related changes, identify potential commonalities across helpline organisations, and explore perspectives about ongoing animal-related issues in the context of domestic abuse. Semi-structured virtual interviews were conducted with 11 domestic abuse helpline staff workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data were subjected to thematic analysis. The analysis revealed four overarching themes. Theme 1) Lockdown-related changes in the frequency and nature of animal-related calls received. Theme 2) Animals as tools for abuse during lockdown, with subthemes a) Manipulating the family-animal bond, and b) Fears over animal safety. Theme 3) Animals as barriers to refuge during lockdown, with subthemes, a) Lack of animal-friendly accommodation, b) Lack of social support systems, and c) Animals as coping mechanisms. Theme 4) Helpline staffs’ awareness of and links to animal friendly accommodation and fostering services. The findings can inform decision making regarding appropriate long-term support needs for multi-species families with complex needs, both during and post-pandemic.
There has been a growing interest in the field that has come to be known as the Interpersonal Neurobiology of Trauma. People who have experienced chronic maltreatment in early childhood are likely to suffer from developmental trauma disorder (DTD), characterized by deleterious psychological, physical and neurobiological consequences. Although psychotherapy has been shown to have healing effects both psychologically and neurobiologically, the symptoms of DTD form barriers to some of the very principles of psychotherapy that are meant to treat those suffering from the disorder. These barriers include difficulty in the establishment of the therapeutic alliance, the collapse of potential space, a deficit in the ability to symbolize, a feeling of shame, tendency to present false self to others, loss of touch with real self, and lack of ability to self-regulate. It is the experience of experts in interpersonal trauma that therapy for those with DTD must take place in the context of relationships. Animal-assisted psychotherapy (AAP) is a therapy approach that integrates animals into the process of psychotherapy, resulting in the existence of many relationships in the therapy setting. Based upon fields such as Attachment Theory, Polyvagal Theory, the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics and other research in the area of neurobiology, this chapter presents both theory and research that point to AAP as a psychotherapy approach that may lower the barriers to the psychotherapy process that were formed due to chronic interpersonal trauma and have positive impact on neurological processes that will further facilitate healing from the neurological effects of trauma. The authors would like to thank Stephen Porges, Louis Cozolino, Bruce Perry and Dan Siegel for their support and comments during the development of this chapter.