donkey assisted therapy

Between the worlds of lost and found: the reciprocal relationship between excluded individuals and excluded animals

Roger Cutting
Presentation date

The Donkey Sanctuary is one of the world’s largest animal welfare charities and although its primary work is focussed on animals in Low Income Countries, the organisation does run significant animal assisted therapy programmes at its six farm centres in the UK. The ethological characteristics of the donkey make it an excellent facilitator in this process, reacting positively to human contact and actively seeking out interaction. Initially, at least, these programmes focused on children with additional needs but over the past four decades the demand for a programme that could help adults and children with a wide range of emotional, psychological and cognitive needs became increasingly apparent. The programme now also focusses on key life skills such as self-esteem, managing emotions and empathy. Furthermore, the wider client group now encompasses a more diverse set of emotional, psychological or physical needs, such as veterans, young people at risk, recovering addicts or those suffering the legacy of abuse. Engagement with animals in outdoor settings is an effective technique for establishing a position where affective behaviours may be explored and eventually expedited.

However, this paper presents two complimentary accounts. Initially it will discuss, through anonymised case-studies, the approaches that are adopted within this programme and will critically evaluate the difficulties of evaluating outcomes. It will then explore, within the context of the growing interest in animal therapies, the apparent enigma that while the outdoors is often cited as a medium in which therapies of varying types may take place, animals appear largely excluded from these narratives and therefore from published research. It concludes by exploring the paradoxical proposition that donkey assisted therapies involve one of the most derided and low status of animals, in strategies to promote the inclusion of those excluded from wider human society.

Not published as conference proceedings

Reframing benefits of equid assisted activities: an analysis of engagement between autistic children and donkeys

This thesis explores engagement between autistic children and donkeys during Equid Assisted Activity (EAA) sessions. I present the blurred position of EAA in Human-Animal Research that results in unreliable methodology and understanding about the equids’ perceived abilities. I argue that ‘benefits of EAA’ explored in other research is a problematic concept, because of the heterogeneous nature of autism and the individual character differences between donkeys. Using narrative analysis and narrative ethology showed that autistic children and their donkey partners demonstrate diverse and complex engagement behaviours that cannot be reduced to an entity of benefits that applies to all individuals. Qualitative stories about autistic children and donkey interactions offered a broader understanding of who each participant was, resulting in their caretakers forming new accountabilities and making informed decisions about their participants’ wellbeing.

I questioned the quality of engagement in 15 reported studies on EAA and the methodological preference of only measuring and reporting human responses. In order to measure the quality of engagement between autistic children and donkeys I designed and tested a Quality of Engagement Tool (QET) that was reliable enough to be used in a number of research designs.

The QET identified that engagement behaviour of one partner was correlated with that of the other partner in the same session. Individuals (children or donkeys) engaged differently when interacting with a conspecific as opposed to a heterospecific. The stories presented through narrative analysis and narrative ethology, coupled with the findings from the QET are important for future research. Measuring outcomes for children would be highly dependent on their 3relationship with their equid partner or indeed if they had the same partner for the duration of the research therefore; equids and humans should be considered as equal participants. The thesis concludes with a summary of findings from this project and signposts future research directions.

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