The Human-Animal Bond and Attachment in Animal-Assisted Interventions in Counseling
Mental health practitioners who incorporate animal-assisted interventions into clinical practice harness the human-animal bond for therapeutic benefit. According to the Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling Competencies, practitioners have a duty to understand the complex relational processes within animal-assisted interventions in counseling (AAI-C). These bonding processes may resemble that of an attachment bond in which the client desires to maintain closeness to the practitioner and therapy animal as a result of feeling safe and secure. Researchers studying attachment in the human-animal bond have stated that attachment processes may occur within other human-animal relationships, such as between a guardian and a companion animal. However, there is no empirical research on the attachment processes occurring between humans and therapy animals in AAI-C or how these processes affect the bond between the practitioner and client. A component of the working alliance, maintaining a quality bond can improve treatment outcomes in counseling. Therefore, the purpose of this quantitative study was to examine how attachment to a therapy animal impacts the attachment bond between a mental health practitioner and client. Participants completed an online survey with four measures to study the following: (a) client attachment to the therapy animal, (b) practitioner attachment to the therapy animal, (c) the bond between the practitioner and client, and (d) the impact of utilizing an animal in counseling sessions. Data analyses included a multiple regression to determine how practitioners' perceptions of the attachment processes within AAI-C best explain the bond with their clients. Descriptive analysis revealed that practitioners perceived high quality bonding within AAI-C, particularly in their own attachment to the therapy animal. Results of the multiple regression indicated practitioners' attachment to the therapy animal was a significant predictor of the working alliance and bond between the practitioner and client. Practitioners who perceived themselves as extremely skilled in working with the clients' presenting issue also had a statistically significant effect on the working alliance and bond when compared to practitioners who felt less skilled. Implications for practitioners and counselor educators are provided. Limitations and areas of future research are also discussed.