Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy for Youth in Residential Care: Preventing Suicide | HABRI

Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy for Youth in Residential Care: Preventing Suicide

Principal Investigator

Alexander Muela, PhD (University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU))


Adolescent suicide is a problem of public concern, and it is the second-most frequent cause of death in populations aged 15-29 around the world. Research has thoroughly identified the primary risk factors for suicides by young people, and it highlights the need to develop specific actions for youth in residential treatment. This research particularly indicates mental health care as a key factor, because this population shows high indexes of psychopathology indicators along with a confluence of other risk factors, which has a cumulative effect and makes them especially vulnerable. Our proposal is an innovative model of Animal-Assisted Psychotherapy (AAP) in which shelter dogs that have had traumatic experiences and need reeducation are integrated, thus providing a double rehabilitation function. This program provides unique opportunities in which young people in treatment have a bond with these animals, along with a public benefit, because dog abandonment and animal shelter overcrowding are also problems of public concern in many developed countries.


Objective 1: preventing suicide by adolescents in residential care by reducing risk factors associated with a higher risk of suicide, and by enhancing protective factors.

Objective 2: promoting the well-being and increasing the adoption possibilities for shelter dogs with behavioral and/or psychological problems.


Hypothesis 1: the participants will show lower rates of risk factors for suicide, increased protective factors and lower rates of attempted or committed suicide during the follow-up period.

Hypothesis 2: dog participants will experience greater possibilities of being adopted because of a reduction in behavioral and/or psychological problems.

Expected Results

Objective 1 and Hypothesis 1: a) lower rates of risk factors for suicide (clinical symptoms [depression, anxiety, somatization, impulsive behaviors, sensation seeking and/or self-harm], alcohol and/or drug misuse and suicidal ideation); b) increased protective factors (secure attachment style,
personal and social adjustment and social competence/skills); and c) lower rates of attempted or committed suicide in the follow-up period.

Objective 2 and Hypothesis 2: a) lower behavioral/psychological problems related to anxiety; b) lower excitability/impulsivity (less reactivity to
particular stimuli, increased tolerance for frustration and sufficient self-control); and c) lower fearfull/avoidant problems.

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