Animal therapy inspires professor

By Isabella Donnelly
Correspondent

Jean Kirnan, a professor at the College specializing in industrial and organizational psychology, addressed a small audience on Wednesday, Feb. 7 in the Social Sciences Building on animal-assisted interventions, and how they can help us understand occupational psychology.

Animal-assisted intervention is an umbrella term for animal-assisted therapy, animal-assisted education and animal-assisted activity. These interventions typically supplement existing therapy programs and range from individualized, goal-oriented interventions to informal, friendly visits.

Kirnan was searching for a community service project for her son to complete as a high school requirement when she stumbled upon the concept of animal-assisted interventions. After a friend explained that their dog had recently been certified as a therapy dog, Kirnan was inspired to certify her family’s dog as well.

As a psychologist, Kirnan employed B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning methods, a form of behavioral training, to train and certify her dog, Nelly.

Dogs like Bob create a less stressful atmosphere for children. (Grace Gottschling / Staff Photographer)

Kirnan began her work with Nelly more than 10 years ago. They began visiting a senior citizens facility in Pennington once a week. After Nelly passed away, Kirnan trained and certified two of Nelly’s puppies, Bailey and Bob. She brought Bob, an endearingly calm and droopy-eyed dog, to her lecture to demonstrate the role of a therapy dog, which differs from that of a service dog.

Service dogs typically undergo intensive training which prepares them to serve a particular individual. Conversely, therapy dogs are trained to work with a wide range of clients in different settings such as schools, senior centers, prisons and hospitals.

After Kirnan relocated to the shore, she began volunteering at West Belmar Elementary School where she and Bob took part in a program called “Tail-Waggin’ Tutors.” Once a week, Kirnan  and Bob visited a classroom where children read to Bob to practice their reading skills in a low-stress environment.

“I think they’re very anxious,” Kirnan said. “I do think the dog brings that down because they perceive him as a friend and he’s just completely non-threatening. It’s really beautiful to watch.”

While Kirnan has noted improvements in the students’ reading when Bob visits, she has encountered some obstacles while conducting research on animal-assisted education. Early research, in particular, is anecdotal and thus difficult to corroborate.

Since Kirnan is working with children, it is difficult to establish a control group because that would mean denying some children the opportunity to see Bob. There is also concern about the subjectivity of the measures used in her research, which are primarily observational.

Bob helps children cope with anxiety and other maladaptive symptoms. (Grace Gottschling / Staff Photographer)

Despite these difficulties, the interview data Kirnan has collected from the school faculty reveals improvements in reading, oral fluency expression, vocabulary and writing.

The most notable improvements occurred among kindergarteners who demonstrated statistically significant differences in their reading grades. These results led Kirnan to conclude that starting therapy earlier is more beneficial for students.

Amanda Rego, a senior early childhood education and psychology double major, expressed enthusiasm for Kirnan’s work, but acknowledged the need for more objective results.

“I think there just needs to be a better way to measure the actual outcomes,” Rego said. “There could be novelty or placebo effects, especially in places like senior centers because the seniors aren’t being exposed to that many exciting things –– is their blood pressure going down because of the dog or just because it’s exciting and new to them?”

Although the study of animal-assisted therapy has posed some obstacles for Kirnan as a scientist, raising therapy dogs has proved to be immensely rewarding for her, both as a dog owner and an active member of her community.

“You have an audience that doesn’t care if you stumble, doesn’t care if you stutter,” Kirnan said. “I do feel that physiologically they bring down stress.”