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Advancing Methods in Animal-Assisted Intervention: Demonstration of Starting Points in Clinical Practice for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Therapy animals have been frequently included in interventions for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD); however, direct and systematic procedures such as assessing preference for and reinforcing efficacy of the animals are rarely conducted. Assessing preference for stimuli is valuable when determining how to make interventions for children with ASD most effective. We conducted paired-stimulus preference assessments and follow-up reinforcer assessments to determine if a therapy dog might be an effective reinforcer. We found one third of participants preferred the dog the least, one third of participants moderately preferred the dog, and one third of participants highly preferred the dog relative to other stimuli. Furthermore, we found preference predicted reinforcing efficacy for five of six participants. We suggest clinicians systematically conduct assessments to clearly identify the role of the therapy animal, to improve quality of, and demonstrate efficacy of interventions including animals for clinical populations.

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Availability of Data and Material

The data that support the findings of this study are stored at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental disorders in Columbia, Missouri, and are not publicly available due to privacy restrictions (e.g., data contain information that could compromise research participant privacy/consent).

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Correspondence to Casey J. Clay.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of University of Missouri-Columbia.

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Informed consent to participate was gained from the parents.

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Consent for publication for de-identified data was obtained from parents.

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• This work provides a brief background and limitations of animal-assisted interventions (AAI) related to research and clinical utility for behavior analysts.

• To improve quality of AAI in practice and research, consistent procedures with high internal validity and reliability, such as preference and reinforcer assessments, are employed.

• Demonstration of acceptable and ethical involvement of therapy animals in assessment and intervention with children with ASD is presented.

• Findings of preference and reinforcer assessments provide evidence of effectiveness in including therapy animals via specific arrangements to increase desirable behavior.

• Few demonstrations of preference and reinforcer assessments involving a therapy animal for behavior analysts to draw upon exist in the literature. This article builds upon this need.

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Clay, C.J., Schmitz, B.A., Hogg, A.D. et al. Advancing Methods in Animal-Assisted Intervention: Demonstration of Starting Points in Clinical Practice for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Behav Analysis Practice 16, 145–155 (2023).

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